Recycling is second nature to most of us. Each week we dutifully deposit our used bottles, cans and paper in curbside bins for repurposing and a second life. It’s a good feeling, but, sadly, not all trash is recyclable. Most municipalities and recycling companies have a long list of things they don’t take.
But just because something’s on the no-no list, doesn’t mean it can’t be recycled — somewhere. You might have to forgo the convenience of weekly pickup, but plenty of companies and organizations are devising new ways to keep more “unrecyclables,” like the seven below, out of landfills and in circulation for use in new products.
The following recycling innovations should help you sustainably tackle more of life’s throwaways. (Check out Earth911.com for additional recycling options.) What better way to chip away at the 230 million tons of junk Americans discard each year and ensure that fewer virgin raw materials are consumed?
1. Plastic grocery bags and product packaging
Plastic shopping bags, food wrappers and dry cleaning bags is recyclable. Look for a drop-off recycling receptacle at your supermarket sponsored by the Wrap Recycling Action Program. (Photo: Belen Strehl/Shutterstock)
Problem: Seems like every time you turn around you’ve accumulated another pile of plastic shopping bags, food wrappers and dry cleaning bags. Sadly, not many municipalities recycle this type of plastic because it’s not usually clean and dry enough after sitting outside in your curbside bin, and also because plastic bags and films tend to get caught in recycling equipment. The result? Most of the 500 billion plastic bags and mountains of product wrapping used around the world every year end up in landfills or oceans where they can spend 300 years breaking down into toxic particles that contaminate the environment.
Solution: Fortunately, this kind of plastic is recyclable and can be transformed into many products, including composite lumber, pipes and even new bags. To make sure your plastic wrap and bags get reborn, look for a drop-off recycling receptacle at your supermarket sponsored by the Wrap Recycling Action Program (WRAP). In addition to plastic grocery bags, you can also deposit your clean bread bags, paper towel and toilet paper wrapping, sandwich storage bags, plastic shipping envelopes, furniture and electronic wrap, and other plastic films.
2. Wine corks
Problem: Sure, you recycle your wine bottles, but what about the corks? Chances are you toss them. It may not seem like a big deal, but cork is actually an important renewable resource that can be easily repurposed. In fact, using and recycling natural cork helps keep ecologically-harvested cork forests productive and thriving. These environmental treasures, located mostly in Europe, are tremendous biodiversity centers (sheltering endangered animals like the Iberian lynx). Plus, they absorb millions of tons of CO2 and provide thousands of families with a sustainable source of income.
Solution: There are a couple of ways to make sure your corks remain in use. One is to bring them to a Recork.org drop-off location or ship them to the organization for recycling. Recork began collecting corks from restaurants, wineries and individuals in 2007 to be remade into new products such as shoes, flooring and yoga blocks. The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance runs a similar program called CorkReharvest. Look for drop-off boxes in grocery stores such as Whole Foods, wine shops, winery tasting rooms, restaurants, hotels and performing arts centers
3. Clothing and textiles
Some clothing retailers allow consumers to drop off unwanted clothes at their stores — whatever the brand or condition — for recycling. Clothing that still can be worn is usually sold in second-hand stores. (Photo: Olaf Speier/Shutterstock)
Problem: According to the Council for Textile Recycling, the average American tosses about 70 pounds of clothing and household textiles into landfills each year. That amounts to something like 150 T-shirts per person, which collectively adds up to 21 billion pounds of waste annually (more than 5 percent of landfill trash).
Solution: While it’s difficult to turn used fabric into new fabric, there are more and more ways (besides donating worn clothing to charities) to keep old outfits out of the trash heap and extend their useful life. For instance, many clothing retailers, like Levi’s and H&M, allow consumers to drop off unwanted clothes at their stores — whatever the brand or condition — for recycling. Clothing that still can be worn is usually sold in second-hand stores. Unwearable pieces are repurposed into insulation and cushioning products, or the fibers are upcycled for use in new clothing. Your municipality may also offer curbside clothing recycling similar to programs already running in Southfield, Michigan, New York City and this one just started in Austin, Texas.
4. Cardboard pizza boxes
Problem: Sure, you love the ease of picking up a quick pizza when you don’t have time to cook, but disposing of the cardboard box isn’t nearly so simple. That’s because once grease or food particles soak into the cardboard, they can’t be separated from the paper fibers during the recycling process. As a result, millions of pizza boxes end up getting chucked.
Solution: North Carolina State University has developed an eco-friendly way to deal with this problem: a pizza box composting program. Launched in 2014, the university has since collected thousands of boxes a year in specially marked dumpsters located around campus and turned them into nutrient-rich fertilizer. Students can also compost their paper plates, napkins and leftover pizza slices and crusts. If you don’t happen to live on NCSU’s campus, try composting pizza boxes and other paper products at home by ripping them into small pieces, including greasy sections, and tossing them in the compost bin.
5. Yogurt containers, margarine tubs and other #5 plastic products
Plastic products carry a recycling symbol with a number from 1 to 7 inside indicating the type of resin used. The ones marked #5 have been difficult to recycle in the past. (Photo: Kent Sievers/Shutterstock)
Problem: Although many plastics are readily accepted for recycling — such as #1 (PETE), which includes plastic soda bottles, and #2 (HDPE), used in milk and bleach containers — it’s harder to find recyclers that take #5 plastics (a.k.a., polypropylene). Plastic products carry a recycling symbol with a number from 1 to 7 inside indicating the type of resin used. On the list of tough-to-recycle #5 plastics: hummus tubs, food storage containers and plastic utensils. Most end up landfill-bound where they may take centuries to break down.
Solution: One way to recycle your #5s is through Preserve Products’ Gimme 5 program. Either drop off your clean containers in Gimme 5 bins at a participating retail location (mostly Whole Foods Markets and other grocery stores) or mail them to Preserve using a printable shipping label. The company turns old containers into new products, including toothbrushes and razors that can be returned after use for recycling.
6. Porcelain tiles
Problem: Retiling your floors may revitalize and brighten bathrooms, kitchens and other rooms, but it can be tough to find new uses for old porcelain tiles ripped up during renovations. That’s because the firing process makes it difficult to crush tiles back down into ceramic powder for use in new porcelain products. As a result, mountains of previously installed tiles, as well as never-used tiles that are damaged or unusable, pile up in landfills each year.
Solution: Crossville Inc., a Tennessee tile manufacturer, has created a way to turn fired porcelain tile back into raw material for creating new tiles. In 2009, it launched its Tile Take-Back Program, which has diverted tens of millions of pounds of fired waste tile from landfills and diminished the company’s own demand for raw materials. Crossville accepts its own previously installed and unused tiles, as well used tiles from other manufacturers as long as they’re replaced with Crossville brand tiles. There’s no charge to participate, but you pay for shipping costs.
7. Wire hangers
Problem: If you’re like most Americans, your closet harbors a sizable stash of unused wire hangers. Most are leftovers from the dry cleaner. Collectively, US dry cleaners use more than 3 billion metal hangers annually, enough steel to make an estimated 60,000 cars. Most municipalities don’t accept wire hangers for curbside recycling because the curved ends can jam recycling equipment. As a result, the majority of metal hangers eventually find their way into the trash.
Solution: Try returning hangers where you got them: at your local dry cleaner. More and more establishments either reuse them or send them to a scrap metal dealer. If your dry cleaner doesn’t accept old hangers, find one in your area that will through the Drycleaning & Laundry Institute’s hanger recycling program.