Original Art by Anoushka Prashanth

Recycling when the only thing you really know is ‘plastic vs. non-plastic’ is a lot like taking a multiple choice exam for a sketchy class. One answer definitely sounds wrong (let’s recycle diapers…!), Another option is eliminated on a grammar technicality (please read the signs above bins if there are any), but you sit there pondering the last two options that are frustratingly similar. Can you recycle broken glass? If it’s plastic, and therefore probably recyclable, why do grocery stores now charge you for plastic bags? Hopefully this handy list and brief explanations will clear up some things no one actually feels like looking up but would feel nice knowing!

What even is recycling?

Simply put, recycling is a process that breaks down an object to its simplest
building block so that it may be reconstructed into something else of that same substance. Although this means that one object has the potential to be infinitely used, this process also means that there must be tight regulations on what may be mixed. In order for recycling to be successful, only that substance is permitted into the batch. If bits of aluminum get into a group of cardboard remains, that entire batch of cardboard may be sent to compost! Different types of plastic, or aluminum plastic combinations like Capri-Sun packaging are difficult to recycle because they meld together different substances. Given the fact that recycling requires substances to be broken down and categorized into the simplest form possible, the list below should provide some help to clarify.

What you should recycle:

  • Rigid Plastics/Bottles:
    • If it’s typically found in a kitchen and won’t flex under light pressure, it’s
      likely recyclable!
  • Paper and Cardboard
    • Snack boxes are essentially a thicker form of paper, so it is helpful to think
      of paper and cardboard as the same substance.
  • Metals
  • Tin, aluminum, and steel cans are all recyclable!
  • Glass
  • Items like glass containers are actually the most environmentally friendly because glass is a substance that can be melted and reheated into a new shape for an infinite amount of times.
  • Plastics
    • There are 7 types of plastics that may or may not be recyclable depending on the location. The number is located inside the iconic recycling triangle, typically on the bottom of products. As a rule of thumb, always recycle type 1 but compost other types. Type 1 is recyclable nearly everywhere, and the higher the number the less likely it is recyclable in any given region.
  • What you shouldn’t recycle:
    • Loose plastic bags (grocery shopping bags)
      • These may be literally recycled by being used again, but most recycling facilities are set up to handle rigid materials such as glass, metal, and cardboard. They are so thin that they get caught up in the machinery, and they end up in the trees and oceans.
    • Anything with food stains
      • Pizza filters and coffee filters, despite being a paper substance, have been contaminated with other substances that cannot be separated during the recycling process. These go into the compost. Please pay special attention to styrofoam as well, it is much safer to not recycle it because it is such a porous material that alien particles get trapped easily.
    • Biodegradable (plastics)
      • Put these in the compost! These are made with corn or wheat, which fundamentally are food products.
    • Broken glass
      • The majority of recycling processes are single stream, meaning that people physically separate items as they go down a conveyor belt. If there is broken glass, the entire batch may thrown out because it becomes dangerous for the people sorting it.
    • Any form of compound materials
      • Packages like aluminum laminates are difficult to separate, as the aluminum
        must be removed and the plastic has to be reduced to oil separately. It is
        better to trash this as well.
  • TLDR; Recyclable: firm, metal, or glass
  • Unrecyclable: flimsy or mixed materials
    A word on the ‘why’ of it all:
    Recycle not because you were guilt-tripped by an asphyxiated dolphin (unless looking up depressing stuff is in your lifestyle). Recycle because you understand that although you don’t make an immediate worldwide difference, you’ll help. If you genuinely don’t care about future generations or planet Earth, watch Wall-E. It’s well worth your time, despite being 1 hour and 43 minutes long. AND/OR, by changing your habits bit by bit, you can make your slight difference on the impending future. For now, don’t focus so much on making a giant global effect. Because you likely won’t. However, you can create that wave that begins the worldwide change. And that’s really why we started recycling in the first place.

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