Recycling is one of the easiest, most effective ways you can help the environment.
Yet according to the EPA, we recycle a stagnant 34 percent of all the waste we create. In the United States, only 9 percent of plastic is recovered for recycling, and of the more than 300 million tons of new, virgin plastic produced globally per year, it is estimated that up to 129 million tons (43 percent) of the plastic used is disposed of in landfills.
Approximately 10 to 20 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans each year. These include those dreaded microplastics, which result in an estimated $13 billion a year in losses from damage to marine ecosystems. If things don't change, we could see more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.
The simple act of recycling diverts these materials from landfills and keeps them from spreading to our oceans and natural ecosystems.
How to recycle effectively (Hint: All it takes is a little research.)
Recycling all the time may seem like a tall order if you're not used to it, but participating in this regenerative, green activity is as easy as you make it.
Getting acquainted with your town or city's recycling system is a good place to start. First, look into whether your municipality uses a single or multistream recycling system. Basically, this dictates whether you can put all of your recyclables (i.e., paper, glass, plastics) in one bin, or if you need to separate them. Material recovery facilities (MRFs) like to keep sorting of nonrecyclable materials and garbage to a minimum in order to prevent contamination, and every MRF is a little different.
It is also important to read up on what exactly is recyclable in your area, as it varies city by city. For example, in some cities you can recycle HDPE (#2) plastic, and in others you can't. The same goes for PP (#5) plastic and juice cartons. Earth 911 is a fantastic resource for looking into what is recyclable and what isn't in your local community. You can also call your local recycling center to ask them directly.
Here's what New York City's multistream system looks like, for example:
Some communities have centralized bins that act as public drop-off locations for recyclable materials. Monitored for cleanliness and safety, the containers are emptied on a regular basis and are available for residents to use at any time. If your community has this sort of public space recycling, take advantage of it! Join forces with your neighbors to consolidate your waste and get it out of your space between weekly pickups.
It's a common misconception that the items that are not accepted curbside or through a public system are not recyclable. While most municipal curbside recycling programs do not accept plastic bags of any type, certain states mandate that supermarkets, grocers, and retail locations offer in-store "take back" programs for plastic bags and must provide on-site collection boxes for customers.
Supermarket retailers like Whole Foods and Mom's Organic Market accept a variety of waste streams for recycling in-store. In addition to plastic bags, you can bring your batteries, corks, water filters and PP (#5) plastic (yogurt tubs, drink and food pouches and take out containers) year-round. Plus, items like denim, electronics, and holiday lights are accepted at special annual drives. Specialty stores like Staples and Best Buy also host national take-back programs for e-waste, a growing waste stream in today's world of constant upgrades and new models.
Spread the word
Be aware of all the resources available to you. My company TerraCycle's free, brand-sponsored recycling programs provide an easily accessible option for difficult-to-recycle items like energy bar wrappers, performance nutrition packaging, post-consumer oral care products, and even old toys. We have found that economics, not science, prevent most waste streams on the planet from being recycled, and circumventing those economic limitations through knowledge is key to recycling more and recycling right.
Educating your family members, neighbors, and people in your community about the do's and don'ts of recycling will scale up your individual efforts for maximum impact. Encourage those around you to think before they toss and consider their other options before tracking an item for landfill. If you have children, get them involved too!
Anything you can do to spread the word and motivate others brings us one step closer to a less wasteful way of life and a more sustainable planet for future generations.
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