About Recycling

Welcome to a brief overview of residential and office recycling in America. 

Individuals and organizations are welcome to reuse any of the information here, or take a deep dive into some of the studies, projects, and papers that influenced the Calendar

What is recycling? 

Recycling is the process of converting used materials into new products. It's reusing the resources on hand so we don't have to mine, create, or import new resources - we keep using the one's we already have.

Recycling is American, essential, and:

Is recycling dead? (no)

It's just misunderstood. For decades, well-meaning recycling education created the myths that:

❌ anything recyclable can go in any recycling bin

❌ the recycling symbol ♻️ means it's recyclable curbside 

❌ recycling more is always better

❌ the recycling system can handle and sort out stuff that shouldn't be there 

In reality recycling is booming, but different materials have to be recycled differently.

⚙️ Aluminum and tin are almost infinitely recyclable and cost much less than mining new minerals from the earth. 

📰 Paper & cardboard can be recycled 5-7 times before being downcycled into stuff like egg cartons or insulation.

🥤 Most plastics can only be recycled 1-3 times before being downcycled into items like textile fiber, and then landfilled or incinerated.

🧴 Glass is almost infinitely recyclable, but has smaller energy savings and a much higher cost of transportation, which keeps demand for recycled glass low, so most programs can't accept it for recycling. 

👚 Textiles are often made of multiple types of materials (50% polyester, 50% cotton), creating such a high cost of material recovery that they almost always get downcycled. 

Should I recycle? (yes!) 

When done right, recycling is an essential part of good resource management and a strong economy. 

It reduces dependence on foreign and virgin feedstocks, creates more American jobs, and is supported by more than 80% of Americans

Recycling in the US creates:

"Most Americans view recycling in environmental terms. But practitioners know it as something quite different:
a commodity business that meets roughly 40% of the world’s raw-material needs. " 

- from Recycling Isn’t Dead. It’s Booming. by Adam Minter, Bloomberg, 2021

Recycling is different everywhere. Recycle what you can, where you are. 

Always keep recycling empty, clean, and dry. Stuff like food and liquid will lower the value of recyclables, and can mean it will end up getting landfilled. 

Learn your local basics like paper, cardboard, and metal cans. Recycle those things right as often as possible, and you'll be doing a huge part to help keep the economy circular and growing.

What is regular versus special recycling?

Almost anything is "recyclable", but only some things are recyclable regularly

Regular recycling is the kind you find in your office, apartment, curbside at your house, and many public places.

Regular and curbside recycling services are only built to handle the basics - the most commonly used and in-demand recyclable items. These items, like aluminum and metal cans, paper, cardboard, and often some plastics like water bottles, are also the most likely to come back to you as a new box or beverage. 

Regular programs are typically "single stream", meaning paper, aluminum, and plastic get mixed together and picked up in the same truck to be sorted later at a recycling facility. Some cities, offices, and public venues collect different materials in separate bins, but the common basic materials are the same.

Special recycling is for stuff like batteries, clothing, laptops, plastic grocery bags, and everything else.

Anything that isn't on the short list has to be collected and processed separately in a specific system. Many people already participate in a specialty recycling program by turning in their old phone for a rebate, or returning plastic grocery bags to the store. 

When special items end up in regular recycling, they are called "contamination", cost the program a lot of money, and end up getting landfilled.

What is contamination?

In recycling, "contamination" is a fancy word for trash. It's anything in a recycling bin that can't be repackaged and sold by the facility or program that's going to process it.

Contamination Costs a lot of $$$ 

The Recycling Partnership estimates that contamination costs the U.S. recycling system at least $300 million every year

🍎 Food waste and liquids from food cartons and drinks ruin the value of paper, cardboard and metals - one bad bin can ruin a whole neighborhood or office building's recycling.

🔌 Some stuff like hoses, cords, batteries, and propane tanks can actually shut down whole facilities for hours, damage machinery, cause fires or explosions, and generally put workers at risk.

👟 Clothing, shoes, and toys slow the whole process down - these items will not be sorted out of the recycling stream for donation and will end up in the landfill anyway. 

How can we keep our resources valuable?

Recycling for the future 🚀

Landfilling resources removes their potential from the economy. 

The future of the space, automation, machine learning, medicine, energy and food industries all rely on recycling and recycled feedstocks to keep our valuable materials circulating and in use, especially rare earth minerals like gold and aluminum.