Q: For years, I’ve been recycling every plastic item in my house – water bottles, hummus containers, orange juice containers, the plastic packaging from my Bluetooth headset, but when I went to drop everything off at the recycling center last week, an attendant at the center told me I shouldn’t be recycling all those things. I don’t get it. Which kinds of plastic are OK to recycle and which ones aren’t? And what do I do with the ones I can’t recycle?

A: First of all, my dear, never say the word can’t when it comes to recycling. Everything can be recycled, it’s just a matter of figuring out how. I once recycled an old pair of shoes as a muffler on my car — Scout's honor, I did.

That recycling attendant was absolutely right, though. Better to NOT bring your plastics that aren’t accepted to the recycling center, because all you’re doing is causing them to do even more work sorting out the non-recyclables from the recyclables, or worse, throwing out your whole load of stuff because it’s contaminated. Anything with a #1 or #2 in the recycling symbol on the packaging, THAT can be recycled. If it has a 5, like that hummus container you mentioned, usually it cannot. So why does all that plastic packaging have that little recycling symbol on it at all? You got me.

 

So what can you do with those plastic items you can’t recycle, you ask? Did you hear about the fellow who made a boat out of plastic bottles and tried to sail across the Pacific? (Infuriating when I answer a question with a question, isn’t it? I had a piano teacher who always did that and it drove me nuts. “Did I get that bar right?” “I don’t know, do you think you got it right?” Needless to say, I never turned into a concert pianist … but I digress.) Check out the boat here. Granted, you need to save A LOT of plastic bottles for this baby, but hey, go big or go home, right? (At least that’s what I kept telling myself when I blew 500 smackers at the casino on vacation in Atlantic City. Turns out roulette is very easy to play … too easy …)

You can also see if your local nursery school will take them for craft projects. A lot of the mommies out there know that saving plastic bottles and jars becomes second nature once little Tommy hits school age. Teachers are extremely creative. Give your child’s teacher a bag of yogurt containers and see what he brings home! (Besides a note from the teacher asking you not to send in your garbage anymore …) 

A lot of plastic to-go containers are not accepted at recycling centers either. You can use those to organize your sewing materials, or your husband’s tools, or — and here’s a creative one — for last night’s leftovers! (And the fine folks at Earth911.com can help you find local recycling centers in your area.)

My favorite plastic reuse idea came from my baby, who was playing in the den the other day and came across an empty water bottle in the recycling bin. It fell on the floor in front of him, and as he tried to move forward to crawl it over it, it got lodged under his stomach. Squeals of delight emitted from his drool-covered mouth as he rolled back and forth over the bottle. Plastic bottle = baby ab roller = hours of contented preoccupation! That’s a winner in my book.

Got a question? Submit a question to Mother Nature and one of our many experts will track down the answer. Plus: Visit our advice archives to see if your question has already been tackled.

Photo: Pcanzo/iStockphoto