The Snackable Guide to Proper and Effective Recycling

From Chad Hunter, Aspiration's Head of Sustainability.

Hello Aspiration community!

Welcome back to the next chapter in my ongoing series on sustainable living. Today, let's dive into one of the most common tactics to live sustainably and (hopefully 🫣) something you are already doing: recycling!

In this article, we will explore the impact of recycling, how to recycle, bust some common myths, as well as look ahead to the future of reducing our need to recycle (remember: reduce, reuse, THEN recycle!). Let’s go! 🏃


💡 Key Takeaways:

  1. Recycling Reduces Waste and Saves Energy: By recycling materials like paper, aluminum cans, and plastic bottles, we can conserve energy equivalent to hundreds of gallons of gasoline. Recycling isn't just about saving the planet; it's about preserving resources for future generations! 🌍
  2. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - in That Order!: Remember, recycling should be the last resort. Before tossing items into the recycling bin, consider reducing your consumption, reusing items, and opting for products with less packaging. It's all about minimizing waste from the start!
  3. Recycling Makes a Big Difference: Despite common skepticism, recycling truly does make an impact. According to the US EPA, even small actions like recycling 10 plastic bottles can save enough energy to power your laptop for over 25 hours. So go ahead, toss that soda can in the recycling bin - every little bit counts! 💻

🙌  How to take action today:

  1. Educate Yourself and Check Local Guidelines: Familiarize yourself with what can and cannot be recycled in your area. Contact your local county or municipality to understand the specific recycling options available to you.
  2. Reduce Packaging Waste: When shopping, opt for products with minimal packaging or choose items packaged in materials that are easily recyclable. By reducing packaging waste from the outset, you'll have less material to recycle, making your recycling efforts more efficient and effective.

 

What is recycling?

Recycling is simply the process of changing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash into new products. This helps us reduce the need for materials to make those products out of, which is usually better for the world. 🌍

Remember, recycling is the last step. If possible, try to reduce the materials that may be headed toward the trash by reducing buying things that you may not use, opting for products with less packaging, buying second hand products, and reusing things as much as possible! It’s not always possible, but those are the first steps before recycling. ✅

 

Why is recycling important?

Put simply, recycling is important because it saves energy and natural resources, while also decreasing pollution. When done properly, recycling is a powerful tool in helping the environment and in our fight against climate change.

 

But...does recycling really work?

A common question I get is: does recycling really make a difference? My answer: Yes!

The US EPA is a great resource for answering this question as they’ve done extensive research on the topic. For example, their studies have shown recycling one ton of paper can save energy equivalent to 322 gallons of gasoline! And recycling only 10 plastic bottles saves enough energy to run your laptop for 25 hours. 💻

Just for fun and because I like data 🤓, I used the EPA’s model for estimating the energy that I saved last month based on my recycling behavior. Turns out, just by putting my household’s recyclables from last month in the recycling bin rather than the trash, I saved enough energy to run my laptop for over 100 hours! ⏱️

Remember, making products requires a lot of materials and energy, so if we can recycle materials and turn them back into useful products for everyone to use, that helps us meet the needs of our community while reducing our impact on the planet. That’s why at Aspiration, all of our physical debit cards are partially made of recycled materials. The core of our standard cards are made with 90% pre-consumer recycled content and our Aspiration Plus cards are partially made with upcycled ocean-bound plastic.


Still not convinced? Then here are 5 concrete benefits of recycling

  1. Recycling cuts the demand for resources such as timber, water, and minerals for new products.
  2. Recycling cuts down on carbon emissions. The EPA claims that in 2018, "the recycling and composting of municipal solid waste (MSW or trash) saved over 193 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent."
  3. Recycling reduces energy usage. See my example above about laptop usage!
  4. Recycling keeps harmful materials out of landfills and incinerators. This cuts down on pollution.
  5. Recycling is good for the economy! In 2020, nearly 700k jobs in the U.S. existed because of recycling programs.

 

How can you recycle your waste? What are your options?

It's always best to contact your local county or municipality to determine your local recycling options. But in general, there are 3 basic guidelines for recycling.

  1. Recycle bottles, cans, papers, and cardboard
  2. Keep food and liquid out of your recycling
  3. Don’t bag your recycling or have loose plastic bags in it

 

What goes in the recycling bin?

Still, it can be helpful to see recycling examples.

✅ Here is a list of recyclable items to get you started:

  • Cardboard
  • Paper
  • Food boxes
  • Mail
  • Beverage cans
  • Food cans
  • Glass bottles
  • Jars (glass and plastic)
  • Jugs
  • Plastic bottles and caps

^Those are the types of things that should go in your recycling bin! *Confirm with your local waste provider.

 

What shouldn't you recycle?

⛔ Some common items you don’t want to put in your recycling are:

  • Garden hoses
  • Sewing needles
  • Food or food-soiled paper
  • Propane tanks or cylinders
  • Aerosol cans that aren’t empty
  • Household hazardous waste
    • (If you have any concerns here, I’d recommend following the EPA’s guidance and checking the Earth 911 database and search for “household hazardous waste collection” near your zip code)
  • Batteries, plastic films, light bulbs, and other hard to recycle items
    • (It’s best to check with your local recycling provider to see what options may be available. There are also (paid) subscription services like Ridwell that may operate in your neighborhood)

It’s important to only put items in your recycling bin that can be recycled as the non-recyclable items can contaminate the recycling stream and cause costly damage to the recycling center’s equipment. Or they must be sorted out and then sent to landfills which makes it harder and more costly to run the recycling facility.

That is why it is important to check with your local recycling provider to understand you are recycling the right items.



But wait, what about...? 🤔

There are some common materials around the house that people aren't always sure whether or not they're recyclable in their bins. Here are your answers, though again, check with your local recycling provider to make sure your area accepts these items.

Is Styrofoam recyclable?

Some cities will accept Styrofoam in your recycling bin, but most will not. You'll need to go to an appropriate recycling facility.


Is bubble wrap recyclable?

Yes, but not in your recycling bin. You'll need to go to an appropriate recycling facility.


Is glass recyclable?

It depends on the type of glass. Look it up before you dispose of your glass waste; this is a good place to start.


Are plastic bags recyclable?

Usually, yes. More on this later.


What about recycling metal?

Yes, but not in your recycling bin. You'll need to go to an appropriate recycling facility that takes metal.


Can I recycle my mattress?

Yes, but not in your recycling bin. You'll need to go to an appropriate recycling facility.


Can I recycle batteries?

Do not throw away or put batteries in your recycling bins at home. Instead, look up where in your area you can take your old batteries in to be recycled by checking the Earth 911 database and search for “battery” near your zip code


Can I recycle computers and other electronics?

Like with batteries, find where in your area you can take electronics and computers for recycling. They aren't meant for your recycling bin, and will likely end up in a landfill if you put them there. Check the Earth 911 database for more facilities in your neighborhood

For more information, check out a guide like LA County's.

 

Busting a few common recycling myths

Myth: If it has the recycling arrows ♻️, it can be recycled

Reality: Only in some cases! Be sure to check your local municipality to see what can be recycled. For example, sometimes these symbols are on plastic bags that should not be put into your recycling bin but may be able to be recycled at special recycling facilities (find out more here: plasticfilmrecycling.org)


Myth: Containers must be perfectly clean before being recycled 🧼

Reality: You should clean your containers, but they don't have to be spotless. The goal is to make sure they are clean enough to avoid contaminating other items that will be recycled. Simply scraping out jars or doing a quick clean can be all that is needed.


Myth: Hoses, tanks, shower curtains, swing sets, and other plastic items are recyclable 🚿

Reality: There are many plastic items that are not recyclable, including these items. It is usually best to stick to recycling the common items like bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard, and consult your local municipality on any items you are not sure of.


Myth: Glass bottles and jars are recyclable, so I can put them in my recycling bin 🫙

Reality: It depends on your municipality! For example, some communities allow you to mix all the recyclables together, while others collect glass items separately at the curb, and some others have designated drop-off locations for glass. For this one, it’s best to check with your local municipality on what is best.


For more information on these myths and a few others, feel free to check out WM’s recycling 101 website here.

 

Can we reduce the need to recycle or throw things away? 

This is the most exciting area for me to think about. There are some innovative and also simple ways to reduce your waste and reduce the need to recycle coming to the market today. 🧑‍💻

For example, one common item to recycle is a paper or plastic coffee cup. I’ve often wondered why I can’t just bring my own mug to the coffee (or tea, in my case) shop and have them fill it up. Fortunately, some companies do allow you to do this and you just need to ask. However, it's not the norm… yet! ☕

Starbucks announced in January 2024 that they would allow customers to bring their own cups and use them for mobile and drive-thru orders, expanding this beyond their historical program of allowing customers in the store to bring their own cups. They are also incentivizing customers to do this by giving customers a $0.10 and 25 Bonus Stars for it. While I don’t claim this makes Starbucks a truly environmentally friendly company, this is certainly going to help encourage other companies to implement similar initiatives while also helping Starbucks reduce the waste they generate with their products. 🥤

Another way to reduce waste and the need to recycle is through reusable packaging. This is a really interesting space (called the “circular economy” for the folks who like sustainability jargon) and will be critical for us to reduce the amount of raw materials our society uses. Basically, product packaging will be made in a way that allows customers like you and me to conveniently return or reuse that packaging. The companies could then reuse it for future products, or you’d get something valuable out of the packaging rather than just throwing it away or recycling it. 😀

These programs and innovations are happening today and I’m excited about how they will evolve over the next few years. 💪

 

Wrapping it all up

Recycling helps our planet by reducing the amount of energy and materials we use. Most of the time it is simple and convenient, but be sure to check with your local recycling municipality to ensure you understand how to most effectively recycle. Finally, there are some exciting innovations and changes like reusable packaging that will help us all reduce our waste and live more sustainably! 🌳

 

Feedback welcome! 🙏

As always, I hope you found this insightful and actionable! To better provide you with useful content and insights on living sustainably, please share your feedback here on what you liked, didn't like, found useful, or want to understand better.




Chad Hunter is Aspiration’s Head of Sustainability, with over 13 years in the consumer sustainability, carbon accounting, and renewable energy fields. His passion is to enable and empower individual’s and organizations to take action to help solve climate change.