Recycling (it’s complicated)

Sometimes problems are so far-reaching and entrenched and involve so many moving parts that you cannot, or should not, try to understand and address the problems all at once or you will very quickly feel completely overwhelmed and hopeless and likely give up.

That’s what I told myself yesterday as I left a presentation on creating a zero waste home. While our household has taken some really good steps to reduce our waste, there is so much more we could and should be doing—including things we didn’t even know we could be doing.

Here are some things I learned related to recycling:

  • some community recycling programs opt to accept all plastics—even ones that are going to be pulled out for landfill/incineration—because it reduces the amount of community education needed and potentially results in greater collection of plastics that actually can be recycled (my city recycling program explains why they chose the greater education approach)
  • my city accepts plastic bottle caps only if they are attached to their plastic bottles; if the caps are loose, the sorting equipment doesn’t recognize them for what they are and they get pulled out for landfill/incineration; paper milk and juice cartons get recycled as paper, so the plastic caps must be removed and put in the trash
  • metal bottle caps cannot be recycled at this time; funneling your supply to artists—perhaps via or ArtScraps if you’re in the Twin Cities—is one way to give the caps a second use
  • the U.S. organization USAgain (pronounced “use again”) accepts clean clothing and rags at drop off bins; textiles that can’t be resold (typically in overseas markets) are repurposed when possible into things like carpet padding (read more)
  • hard plastic—commonly used in point-of-sale packaging for things like electronics—cannot be recycled; in general, if a piece of plastic does not have a number on it, it cannot be recycled and will go to landfill/incineration
  • black plastic, which I see in certain microwave meals I have been buying, cannot be recycled
  • the packaging used for Capri Sun drink pouches—and all those convenience pouches of puree intended for babies/toddlers (my son loved them)—is made of layers of aluminum and plastic that cannot be separated and is in no way recyclable; there’s a campaign called Make It Take It to pressure the industry leader, Kraft Foods, to change the packaging so that consumers can get the products they like without also causing so much environmental damage
  • a handy way to calculate the cost of plastic packaging—raw materials, processing, manufacturing, shipping, recycling when possible—is to multiply the cost of the item in your hand by 70

And here are some things I learned about organics composting:

  • lint from a clothes dryer is compostable, but ideally we would only use lint that comes from drying a load of cotton fabrics (scientists have discovered that fish in the Great Lakes have ingested all kinds of microfibers that likely come from the synthetic fabrics we clean in our washing machines—if you’re like me, that fact is so ominous and potentially hope-shattering that you’re going to save it to process later)
  • paper designed to hold food—microwave food trays, paper drink cups, carryout boxes—is coated with a thin layer of plastic unless the packaging explicitly states otherwise; this paper may be accepted by commercial organics composting facilities with the understanding that some plastic is being added to the compost

My advice to myself and to you is to pick ONE thing that you can change starting today. For me, it means no more palak paneer microwave meals that come in black plastic.

What one thing are you going to do starting today?

* * *

A good resource if you really want to dig into plastics is

You can find many resources about zero waste, including the aspirational

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