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The current state of recycling is a disaster — this is how we can do it right

It's worth cutting through the confusion!

It's worth cutting through the confusion!

Photo Credit: iStock

Recycling seems like it could be a great answer to a lot of the world's pollution and waste problems. In practice, though, it can be hard to navigate. 

Many people don't have access to convenient recycling programs or don't know where to find them. Those who do are often confused by complicated rules about what can and can't be recycled. 

Putting anything that might be recyclable in the bin doesn't work, either; "wishcycling" can contaminate whole shipments of recyclables and make them unusable.

But it's worth cutting through the confusion! In 10 states, you can actually be paid for recyclable materials like cans and bottles. Meanwhile, everything you recycle reduces the waste that ends up in landfills, on the street, or in the ocean — and there's more than enough there already.

Thankfully, there are tools to help you sort out what to recycle and how to do it.

General rules for recycling

  • First, there are some basic principles to keep in mind that will apply in almost all recycling situations. Everything you send away for recycling should be empty, clean, and dry to avoid contaminating a batch. 
  • Identify all materials and confirm that they're recyclable for the same reason, and don't include any loose item smaller than a credit card, because the recycling machinery isn't designed to handle it. If you have doubts, throwing the item away rather than risking the rest of your materials is better.
  • Next, prepare your items for recycling. Flexible containers like plastic and cardboard should be folded flat or crushed to minimize the space they take up. For metal and plastic containers with labels, like cans and bottles, it's best to remove the label and adhesive when you can — Goo Gone can help get rid of residues.

Four recycling tools

  1. The Earth911 app: Many everyday items aren't made of a single material with easy recycling instructions. That doesn't mean they can't be recycled. There are organizations across the country that specialize in reusing specific, hard-to-recycle items. 

    To help you find them all, try the Earth911 app, which boasts a comprehensive database of recycling options and instructions for using them. Learn how to use the app here.
  1. How2Recycle labels: Plastic items commonly used in the U.S. have recycling information stamped or printed on them in the form of the triangular recycling logo. The number inside identifies the type of plastic the item is made from, which may help you figure out which recycling facilities can accept it and how to prepare it correctly. This article explains what each of the numbers inside the triangle represents.

    Some items have detailed How2Recycle labels; you can learn more about how to read them here or use the label explorer tool to interpret the information on specific labels.
  1. The Recycle Check database: This is a database that has partnered with major brands to get the inside scoop on how to recycle packaging from your favorite products. Not every recycling facility can handle every material, even common ones with the recycling logo. 

    Companies like General Mills and Horizon Organic have shared the materials used in their packaging, and Recycle Check uses that transparency to help you find out what can be recycled in your area. 
  1. The TerraCycle service: This service works with both individuals and organizations to help recycle as many materials as possible with its recycling solutions tool. The tool is a compilation of 365 different programs that accept a wide range of hard-to-recycle goods. Almost half of the programs are free to use.

    For the free programs, TerraCycle will provide you with prepaid shipping labels so that sending off your recyclables is as painless as possible. TerraCycle then sells raw, recycled materials for use in new products, including reusable items.

    TerraCycle also has a Loop initiative that helps consumers find reusable products and return empty containers. 

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