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Recycling 101

Martha Stewart Living Television

If you've ever stopped to take a personal inventory of the garbage and waste you alone contribute to this country, you wouldn't think twice about recycling. One person can make a difference.

The concept act locally think globally, has been embraced by Renee Carman and the Darien Environmental Group in Connecticut. The Darien Environmental Group, which was started in 1990, is a non-profit organization made up of mostly volunteer mothers whose mission is to educate the residents of Darien about the ways to preserve and protect their environment. They accomplish this through adult out reach programs and in-school education programs. Many times, it is these kids who end up educating and inspiring their parents to recycle.

Find Out About the Recycling Policy in Your Area
Each state and town has different criteria for recyling. Some have curbside recycling -- recyclables are picked up at your home in one bulk container. In other towns you are required to collect and separate your own recyclables and take them to the local recycling center.

Places to Check

  • Your city or county government. City governments almost always sponsor curbside recycling, so they'll be able to tell you if it's available where you live.

  • Government departments: Public Works, Sanitation, Environmental Services

  • Your state recycling office, which may have a list of recycling centers

  • The Yellow Pages, under "recycling"

  • Environmental organizations

  • Local stores, which may take back things they supplied, like hangers at a dry cleaner or plastic bags at the local grocery store

  • Schools, which may be interested in egg cartons or cardboard boxes for school projects

What to Recycle
According to the Aluminum Association, 66% of aluminum cans collected were recycled. In this "closed loop" system, virtually all used aluminum cans are recycled into new ones, which often reappear on store shelves shortly after being recycled.

  • Aluminum cans are one of the recycling leaders in the U.S. It's a lot cheaper to recycle aluminum cans than to make them out of new metal.

  • Aluminum foil, pie plates, and TV-dinner trays are reusable and recyclable. Lightly rinse them if they're dirty. Some places request that you keep foil and cans separate. Check with your local recycling center.

Tin and Steel
Tin cans are actually more than 99% steel, with a thin layer of tin added to prevent rusting.

  • Tin cans that contain pet foods, tomato paste, and soup are just as easy to melt down and reuse as aluminum, and recycling can save an incredible amount of recourses.

  • According to the Steel Recycling Institute, steel cans, including food, paint and aerosol cans, were recycled at a rate of 60.7% in 1997. Recycling steel cans saves 74% of the energy used to produce them from raw materials.
  • Clothes hangers, which are steel, may be recycled by some centers, but call first. A dry cleaner or second-hand clothing shop is another good place to recycle hangers.

  • Old bike frames, rusty bucket, old tools, folding chairs, and plumbing fixtures can all be recycled. Check with your recycling center or a scrap metal dealer.

Glass is an example of a "closed loop" recyclable. A glass container can be melted and remade into another new container again and again without loss of quality. According to the Glass Packaging Institute, an estimated 35% of all glass bottles and jars sold in the United States were recycled in 1997.

Separate glass by color (green, brown, clear).Clear glass and colored glass don't mix; reprocessing often results in a hue that is gray or worse. The glass is usually made back into new containers, and manufactures don't want gray glass -- they want color-specific glass for their products. If you have any blue or other colored glass containers, recycle them with the brown or green glass. If glass is even slightly tinted, sort as colored, not as clear.

  • Remove lids and caps. You can recycle steel caps with steel cans.

  • It's OK to leave on paper and plastic labels; they burn or blow off in the recycling process. But remove metal collars as well as plastic from wine and champagne bottles.

  • Dump out food residue and lightly rinse bottles. Old food attracts animals, it's a mess for recyclers, and it stinks.

  • Window glass and other flat glass products have different chemical components or coatings, and usually are not recyclable in to containers. Check with your local recycling center for disposal.

How Recycling Works
Before recycled glass is shipped to manufacturers, it's broken so it'll take up less space. This broken glass is called cullet. When it arrives at the glass factory, the cullet is run through a device which removes metal rings from bottles. A vacuum process removes plastic coatings and paper labels. When it's clean, the cullet is added to raw materials and melted down with them.

Plastics recycling lags behind other materials. One plus for plastics is an advanced chemical and heat recycling process that literally returns them to their original material: high-quality oil. Plastic packaging and household consumer products are generally made from six different plastics (resins), with additives resulting in thousand of variations, most of which cannot be reprocessed together.

The main types of plastics that consumers deal with are PET, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, polypropylene, and polystyrene. In many cases, can't tell one from the other, so the plastic industry has introduced a coding system.

Look on the bottom of each plastic container for an imprinted recycling symbol with a number form 1 to 7 in the middle. Numbers 1 to 6 represent specific types of plastics; 7 means it's a blend of plastics. Numbers 1 and 2 are most widely accepted for recycling. There are some businesses that will take the higher numbers but you must seek them out.

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
PET, a No. 1 recyclable, is usually clear or clear green. Soda bottles and peanut-butter jars are examples. PET containers have a small raised dot or nipple called a gate in the center of the base. The plastics are shredded into little flakes, the flakes are cleaned, dried, re-melted and formed into pellets to be used again.

Plastic food or drink containers are unlikely to be recycled into the same product since a similar container would need to be sterile. They are usually downgraded into things that do not have to be sterile.

Some plastic products, such as PET bottles, are in great demand from plastics recycling companies. Pet bottles are the soft drink bottles you find on grocery shelves. PET bottles are frequently flaked and melted, then spun into fibers to be used for carpets or fill in sleeping bags and other fiber filled products.

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) is a No. 2 recyclable. HDPE items are milk jugs, butter tubs, detergent bottles, motor oil containers, and bleach bottles. It's tough, lightweight and it's usually colorful. Take the tops off as they are usually not recyclable, and throw the collars away. Rinse them out.

Plastic bags are made out of both HDPE and LDPE. LDPE bags are slightly waxy to the touch, stretch easily and are quieter. HDPE bags make a crinkly noise.

Ppolyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is a No. 3 recyclable. It's used to make bottles (water, shampoo, cooking oil) garden hoses, flooring credit cards, shower curtains and more. About 5% of all plastic packaging is PVC. It's more difficult to recycle. Call your local recycling center to find out a place that accepts PVC. PVC is usually shiny and tough. When bent, PVC plastic produces a white crease (like when you bend a credit card).

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
LDPE is a No. 4 recyclable. It's the shrink-wrap packaging on CDs, plastic sandwich bags, and the plastic cover that protects your dry-cleaning. Manufacturers are working with supermarkets to set up in store LDPE plastic bag recycling. Cling wrap isn't LDPE. Don't recycle it with your LDPE.

Polypropylene is a No. 5 plastic used to make plastic bottle caps, plastic lids, drinking straws, broom fibers, rope, twine, yogurt containers and carpet. It is very difficult to find a center that accepts this material. It's usually opaque. You'll find it in syrup bottles, some yogurt containers, and cottage-cheese tubs, and disposable diaper linings.

Polystyrene Foam
Polystyrene Foam is a No. 6 recyclable. It's in styrofoam cups, foam packing peanuts, and some fast- food containers. It's one of the most difficult materials to recycle. The industry and environmentalist are in debate over whether it should be phased out altogether.

Crate & Barrel Eco Foam
Crate & Barrel makes its packing peanuts out of cornstarch-based materials that break down in water. They suggest reusing them in your own packaging or dissolve them on your lawn by spraying them with cold water. They dissolve in a couple of minutes and, because they are made from natural products, they are safe.

Recycled Glasses
Bottles and jars are melted down and make up the glass batch for recycled glasses. The finished pieces tend to have blue, green, or yellow casts and lots of small bubbles and seeds.

Most recycling programs either curbside or recycling centers accept newspaper. Some require you to tie the papers in a bundle others prefer it loose. Don't worry about pulling out all the glossy inserts, but don't add junk mail or magazines to the pile. Try to keep the paper dry.

Mixed paper, magazines, white paper and colored paper should be recycled separately from newspaper.

Paper is sorted by paper type, baled, and shipped to different kinds of mills, depending on the end product. These papers are washed in big "pulpers" at the mill. Pulpers resemble giant washing machines that clean the paper and break it down into usable fibers and discards such as inks, clays, paper clips and staples. The recycled pulp fibers are then incorporated into the standard paper-making process.

Office paper can be made into new office papers as well as bathroom tissue, paper towels and some paperboard boxes. Newspapers are made into a variety of products including newsprint, cereal boxes, cafeteria trays and roofing paper.Corrugated boxes and paper bags can be recycled into more boxes and bags.

Set Up a Recycling Center at Home
Get your family involved. Make it easy and convenient otherwise no one will stick to the program. Figure out a convenient place or places to keep recyclables. It could be in the garage, under the sink, or on the back porch, on a shelf in your basement or in a closet or pantry.

If you have curbside recycling in your area, you have probably been issued bins from you town. Otherwise, you need a storage system suited to your space and sense of aesthetics.

One reason people often give up on recycling is because it looks too messy. There are ways to make it tidy; cans and bottles should always be rinsed before storing in the recycling bin. Organizing recyclables is much like organizing tools or other supplies.

Recycled Products and Companies
Wellman's EcoSpun

  • Patagonia began working with Wellman, Inc., in 1993 to produce a fiber made from 100% recycled plastic bottles.

  • Made from discarded 2-liter plastic soda bottles that are chopped, washed, and converted into flakes, which are melted and then spun into a fiber that has the same soft feel as virgin fleece.

  • Each garment keeps an average of 25 bottles out of the dump.

  • Other fleece items include a child's jacket and hat from Corky & Co., and mittens from Patagonia.

  • Although originally associated with fleece, EcoSpun is now the basis for other fabrics, including blends of wool, cotton, and spandex.

  • The baseball cap and insulated lunch bag are from Direct Access International.

Yemm & Hart

  • Decorative material made from post-consumer detergent bottles.

  • It is an aesthetic response to recycling.

  • Plastic bottles are collected, sorted by color, and shredded into pieces about the size of oatmeal.

  • The flakes are washed in hot water to remove contaminates such as soap, milk, and paper labels, then thoroughly dried.

  • Individual colors of flakes are carefully blended into specific color formulas.

Paper Products

  • Ruled notepads, sticky notes, green pencils, and index cards are made from recycled paper.

  • The index cards, which are sold by Earthwise, are made from 100% recycled paper, 50% of which is post-consumer waste.

  • The ruled notepad, which is manufactured by Hammermill Papers, is made from 50% recycled material (15% post consumer 35% pre-consumer).

  • The green pencils made out of green dollar bills is from Signature Marketing.

Used Rubber USA

  • Toiletry bag

  • The company reuses waste inner-tube rubber by transforming it into durable and functional handbags and accessories.

  • Rubber tires and inner-tubes are one of the largest unnatural resources piling up on the planet.

  • Over a billion already in existence and approximately 200 million added annually.

Circuit Board Clipboard
It is made from re-utilized printer computer circuit boards and sold by Tecnotes, Inc.

Computer Disk
This computer disk is made from outdated disks or unsold disks that have never been used. They are sold by Green Disk.

Comments (22)

  • varianelle 6 Dec, 2008

    You can take items that have holes or tears and tear the cloth into strips and crochet rag rugs from them. My grandmother and I used to do this when I was little. The strips can be sewn together as one long cord to make the process of crocheting them together easier.

  • varianelle 6 Dec, 2008

    You can take items that have holes or tears and tear the cloth into strips and crochet rag rugs from them. My grandmother and I used to do this when I was little. The strips can be sewn together as one long cord to make the process of crocheting them together easier.

  • JessePiester 20 Oct, 2008

    Textile recycling. Why was this not addressed? What do we do with our ratty old bathrobes or worn-out quilts? They aren't good enough to give to anyone else, and they are not all potential rags. Years ago, Goodwill would take them as rags for textile recycling but they won't any more.
    Anyone have any ideas about this?
    BTW, towels, past their prime, are much appreciated by animal shelters.

  • JessePiester 20 Oct, 2008

    Textile recycling. Why was this not addressed? What do we do with our ratty old bathrobes or worn-out quilts? They aren't good enough to give to anyone else, and they are not all potential rags. Years ago, Goodwill would take them as rags for textile recycling but they won't any more.
    Anyone have any ideas about this?
    BTW, towels, past their prime, are much appreciated by animal shelters.

  • Cynharvey 20 Oct, 2008

    Some schools in your area will recycle ink cartridges or newspapers...all you have to do is ask!! I also know my daughter's school gets money for playground equipment for recycled items!!

  • basketcaz 20 Oct, 2008

    A lot of people are well aware of what and how to recycle; let us not assume that every one is. This was a very informative article and although I know quite a bit about recycling I learned a few new things. People reading about other people faithfully recycling is a motivation for them to start as well.
    A second follow-up article about seting up a recycling center would be a great idea; especially for apartment dwellers that have limited space.

  • AAnderson 18 Oct, 2008

    More things you can recycle:
    - Wire hangers: I transfer my dry cleaning to better hangers and bring the wire hangers back to the dry cleaner's with my next load.
    - Vases from the florist: If someone sends you a vase of flowers and you don't want to keep the vase afterwards call the florist it came from to see if they will take the vase back. The florist near my mother-in-law even gives you a long stem rose in thanks for returning the vase!
    - Drop off packing peanuts at the nearest packaging store.
    - printer ink cartridges can be sent off in prepaid envelopes offered by some non-profits to be refurbed, refilled and resold. HP ink cartridges include a prepaid envelope in the box. Type "Recycling Ink Cartidges" in your search engine (Google, Yahoo, etc) to find resources.
    - Many "Friend of xxx Library" groups accept gently used books (and may even give you a receipt for your taxes).
    - Go to "" to see if there is a Freecycle network in your area. Offer up things you no longer want/need, Ask for things you want/need, browse through things others are offering. Like a big, free, community swap neatly stored on your computer.

  • clariceneukam 18 Oct, 2008

    You find ways, if you are serious about re-cycling. I keep my "scrub" bucket under my sink

  • virgovalley 18 Oct, 2008

    Thank you for this very detailed and educational information.

  • BigMon 18 Oct, 2008

    We used to sort our recycling into the three bins from our trash company, but each week the garbage collector just dumped them all into the same trash compactor on his truck! Now, we take it every couple of weeks to our nearby military base (we are retired military). The Boy Scouts used to benefit from this recycling, but since the military are no longer allowed to sponsor Boy Scouts, I suppose the military gets the money earned.

  • heathersc 18 Oct, 2008

    This is a great beginners guide to recycling. I live in a province in Canada - Prince Edward Island, where we have had 100 percent mandatory recycling for the last 6 years. It truely is amazing just how much we do throw out. Great ideas!!

  • Barbara_Beers 18 Oct, 2008

    Our city is a recycling leader, we recycle everything from paper to electronics, and our neighborhood has a special pickup day 2 or 3 times a year for paints, wood and other stuff so we don't have to take it to the special pickup areas ourselves.

  • silverqueen 18 Oct, 2008

    All the trash companies in our area stopped the recycling project many years ago. The reason given was the cost factor. They said it was too expensive to recycle. Hopefully, with the resurgence of "green living", they will soon begin the recycled item pick up. In the meantime, we all have to do this on our own.

  • charliegirl20 18 Oct, 2008

    In our community, we are very fortunate to have weekly recycling by our trash company. We can even dump everything in that particular garbage bin and not have to sort it out. Because of this, I believe people are recycling more because it's not so much work. Our trash can is quite small because so much of our trash is in the recycle bin.

  • lonniernorris 18 Oct, 2008

    We've purchased some awesome containers from IKEA that are stackable and also have lids that are accessible when stacked. We have them placed under our island so they are easily accessible when in the kitchen.

  • lovetocook2 18 Oct, 2008

    I agree with some of the other comments, we do recycle religously, however it gets overwhelming because there is so much. Getting Ideas on how to organize the stuff would be most helpful.

  • bnikituk 18 Oct, 2008

    Oh, Container store has good recycling stations

  • bnikituk 18 Oct, 2008

    I guess I wrote too much. Most of my comment was cut off....We have 1 small bag of trash in a household of 4 adults and 1 teen...Your recycleables are Cash.

  • bnikituk 18 Oct, 2008

    We own East Coast Metal Recycling. We also are extreme home recyclers. We used Cardboard boxes to save our cardboard, plastic bags (hung on our kitchen drawers for plastics and a plastic bag for cans

  • mndasu 18 Oct, 2008

    I would, like the other comments, enjoy learning more about how to set up a recycling station at my home... tips and more.

  • blonde2di42 18 Oct, 2008

    I agree with mamaratliff, I was expecting to see some ideas on setting up a home recycling area. Most people who are interested in recycling are already aware of the information provided in this article.

  • mamaratliff 18 Oct, 2008

    Some actual ideas for setting up a space at home would be extremely helpful. This was useless to me.