According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2012, on average, each person in the U.S. generated about 4.38 pounds of waste every day—but recycled or composted only about 1.5 pounds of that waste. Even if you already recycle, your trash likely contains many other recyclable items that would boost that number.
About one-third of the typical American household’s garbage consists of paper and packaging materials, reports Duke University’s Center for Sustainability and Commerce. Second in line is food and yard waste, at 27 percent. Glass, metals, textiles, and plastics account for most of the other waste generated in households. While recycling levels have improved over the past decades, much of what goes into landfills could have been recycled.
So take a good look in your household trash. Be brave! Make some mental calculations on how much of it is food scraps, paper products, and plastic, and any of the items below.
Weird Recyclable Items
Plenty of things you throw out are recyclable.
- Packing peanuts: If you cannot reuse packing peanuts for your own shipping needs, go to loosefillpackaging.com to find a nearby recycling location.
- Corks: Need a home for a bunch of wine corks after a big celebration? Go to reCORK for a place to drop them off, and they will transform into shoe soles.
- Technotrash: Recycle “technotrash” (VHS cassettes, CDs, computer devices, and other electronics) through groups such as GreenDisk.
- Inhalers: Recycle inhalers at pharmacies involved in the GlaxoSmithKline “Complete the Cycle” program.
- Sneakers: Turn running shoes into playground surfaces, basketball courts, and more through the Nike shoe-recycling program.
In 2012, almost 31 million tons of paper products entered the U.S. market. Out of that amount, about half was recovered and recycled. Fifty percent sounds good, but since paper products are the number one component of our trash, increasing paper recycling would significantly benefit landfills, not to mention tree growth.
Most people think of paper recycling as throwing magazines and newspapers in a bin that goes out to the curb for weekly collection. Consider using a broader definition of recyclable paper, in addition to keeping a “reduce, reuse, recycle” mindset:
- Corrugated cardboard such as shipping boxes
- Use boxes for home organization and storage
- Retain boxes for future shipping needs
- Recycle boxes in municipal recycling programs
- Magazines, even though they are “glossy”, are recyclable
- Use both sides of office paper prior to putting it in the recycling bin
- Paperboard such as cereal boxes (it must be clean with no food waste)
- Paper cardboard milk and juice containers (rinse them out first)
- Junk mail
- Phone directories are completely recyclable
According to Waste Management, one of the most important things in recycling plastics is ensuring they are clean prior to putting them in the recycle bin. It takes just one item with food waste in it to contaminate thousands of items in one bale of plastics. The result is that all those items end up in a landfill rather than in new items made from recycled materials.
Municipalities maintain lists of the plastic types they accept according to the recycling code on the item, usually a triangular recycling emblem with a number inside of it. Waste Management provides some general guidelines on commonly accepted and commonly refused plastics:
Commonly Accepted Plastics
Possibly Accepted Plastics
- Code 4: LDPE
- Includes squeezable bottles, bread wrapping, frozen food bags, and dry cleaning bags
- Acceptance of LDPE increases regularly
- Code 5: PP: yogurt containers, syrup and ketchup bottles, medicine bottles, and some straws
Commonly Unaccepted Plastics
- Code 3: V or PVC: bottles for window cleaner and dishwashing detergent, some shampoo bottles, oil bottles, clear food packaging, siding, and windows
- Code 6: PS (brand name Styrofoam): over-the-counter medicine bottles, CD cases and take out containers
- Code 7: Other: bullet-proof materials, iPod cases, sunglasses and three- and five-gallon water bottles
Yard and food waste account for a large portion of garbage, about a quarter of the total. However, properly composted, these things transform into a type of “black gold”—super-fertile gardening soil. There is even a recyclable plastic made of plant materials such as sugar cane or cornstarch. Polylactide is biodegradable and compostable in both home and municipal facilities.
Composting is not very difficult. A space at the back of a yard suffices, as does a compact composter made from plastic or metal. Composting involves three major materials:
- Browns such as dead leaves, branches, dried grasses and stalks
- Green such as grass clippings, vegetable food waste, fruit scraps, and coffee grounds
Use equal amounts of brown and green materials, alternating layers by type and size, ensuring the pile receives adequate water so that the materials break down.
Taking a little time and making a small effort to keep more stuff out of the landfill makes a huge difference in the well-being of the ecology.