I started recycling in the 1970s, when we lived in Michigan. That was before blue bins and curbside collections, and we took our glass and cans to a local yard to sort the glass by color and flatten the cans underfoot.  As the concept of recycling grew and spread, I continued to recycle and thought I was doing things right. Turns out I’m not, so I did some research and learned a few facts that reinforced the reasons to recycle and to do it correctly.

Plastic, glass, rubber, and aluminum cans are just a few examples of non-biodegradable trash. While some are recyclable, all that we throw away remain in some form for decades and longer. They clog landfills, pollute landscapes and often find their way into the ocean. About 80% of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from land, and consists of plastic bags, bottles and various other consumer products. Free-floating fishing nets make up another 10 percent and the rest comes from recreational boaters, offshore oil rigs and large cargo ships, which drop about 10,000 steel shipping containers into the sea each year, full of things like hockey gloves, computer monitors, resin pellets and LEGOs. 

Recycling reduces the energy, oil and raw materials we use. It also reduces pollution and the need for landfill and prevents items finding their way into the oceans.

Recyclables always have non-recyclables mixed in and these are called contaminants, and include hazardous materials, anything soiled with food and items that are not accepted for recycling. Some contaminants can clog machinery, and must be separated out by hand. Others, like those soiled with food make recyclables unusable.

So here is a small challenge: How good is your recycling knowledge? 

Does recycling glass use more or less energy than making it from scratch?

Recycling glass takes 30% of the energy required to produce glass from raw materials. The United States throws away enough glass every week to fill a 1,350-foot building. Please note: Pyrex and other types of tempered glass are not recyclable. Colored glass needs to be recycled with like colors only. 

Why should you NOT recycle shredded paper?

Shredded paper will get mixed up with the glass and affect its quality, making the glass unsuitable for recycling

What cardboard items are NOT accepted for recycling?

Pizza boxes and other food containers contaminated with grease, making them useless for recycling. Corrugated cardboard and paperboard can’t always be recycled. Some collectors will not take cardboard or paperboard that’s wet.

What should you look for and avoid when buying cosmetics?

Microbeads. Millions of plastic microbeads are washed down the drain each year, posing a serious threat to marine life who mistake these small plastic particles for food.

Why do most recyclers refuse to take aluminum foil and foil pans?

While most recycled aluminum is in the form of cans, aluminum foil is technically recyclable, but it needs to be clean, free of food residue, as grease or food residue can contaminate the other recyclables during the recycling process. 

Can you collect your recyclables in a plastic bag to put in the recycling bin?

No, plastic bags clog machinery and must be removed by hand from the recycling stream. Non-recyclable plastics in the blue bin contaminate the entire recycling stream. Manufacturers who buy the recycled plastic will pay less for contaminated plastics, or they won’t buy them at all. For information on “12 Sustainable Alternatives to Plastic Bags,” go to the Huffington Post website.

Can you recycle all plastics with the triangle and number code on them?

It would be great if plastics just had a simple code for “yes, recycle this” or “no, trash it.” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Recycling codes #1 and #2 are the most widely accepted. Recycling centers have the equipment to process these plastics, and there are plenty of manufacturers willing to buy them. Ask your local facility if they accept #4 and #5 plastics. They are becoming more commonly accepted as technology improves and as the market for these plastics grows. Generally not accepted are #3, #6 and #7 plastics because of the difficulty of recycling them into other products. But check with your local recycling facility, because some cities do accept one or more of these codes and, as technology improves, more cities will do so.

What about items that are not currently accepted in our regular recycling mix?

To learn what to do with all those wrappers, razors, toothbrushes, etc. that are not suitable for regular recycling, go to terracycle.com for information.

I believe we can continue to make a difference if we are all more careful about what we put in our recycling bins, if we continue to ban single-use plastics and support efforts to clean up the beaches and oceans, and work toward a world of sustainable products and services.

 —Lesley Frost, Advocacy chair

Sources: earthday.orgplasticpollutioncoalition.orgcare2.com, npr.org, greenopedia.com, 4ocean.com,

national geographic, ecowatch.com, Huffington Post, livegreen.recyclebank.com