How to Shop With Recycling in Mind

Most of what we buy comes with some kind of packaging that will need to be disposed at some point in time. And each material has a different recycling path. For example, in the US, paper has a 68% chance of being recycled, while the recycling rate of plastic was only 8.7% according to the EPA. In 2018, nearly 20% of all our landfilled waste was plastic.

Ultimately, effective recycling relies on the capacity and efficiency of local sorting and recycling facilities. But we can try to avoid waste and choose materials items that have a higher likelihood of being recycled.

Note: In the US, the rules governing which materials you can recycle vary from place to place. You also may need to clean, sort, or crush your recyclables for them to be accepted. Visit How2Recyle.Info to check your local regulations. 

Here’s how to do what you can to better ensure that your waste has the highest likelihood of actually getting recycled. 

Better recycling starts at the store

The less packaging you have to dispose of the better. The first way to limit your packaging waste is to buy less. When you do shop, consider packaging in your purchase decisions. 

  • Find bulk or refill options: Refill stores give the option to bring your own container to refill everything from flour and rice to soap and detergent. 
  • Bring your own bags: Bring your own bags and containers and opt for items that are unwrapped. 
  • Repurpose and reuse: Glass jars and other sturdy containers can be reused for leftovers, to store spices and pantry items, as homemade dressing containers, and so much more.
  • Choose materials with a high chance of being recycled: We have some options listed below.

Materials most likely to be recycled

Metal Containers 

Metal containers (like soup, soda, and vegetable cans) can be recycled easily and infinitely without losing quality. In fact, aluminum cans are the most recycled containers worldwide, and 75% of all the aluminum ever produced is still in circulation. (Green Biz, 2019

Paper and Cardboard

Unless they’re heavily treated with chemicals, paper and cardboard are easy to recycle. Paper fibers can be recycled five to seven times. The more they're recycled, the shorter the fibers become, until they're ultimately sifted out in processing.

Glass

Glass is infinitely recyclable and requires far less energy to produce than metal. Unfortunately, the US only recycles around a third of the glass in circulation. (Glass Processing Institute) It’s also heavy, which increases transportation emissions. So, if you have the choice, pick canned beer over bottled. (It’s cheaper, too!)

#1 and #2 Plastics

The recycling number on plastics is not an indicator that the material will be recycled. It simply tells you what type of plastic the material is made from. Types #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) are most likely to be recycled, with rates around 30% (US EPA). Unfortunately, plastic can only be processed once or twice.

Materials least likely to be recycled

Mixed Materials

Items made from more than one material are tricky to recycle. Paper cartons and to-go cups, for instance are often coated in wax or plastic. It’s nearly impossible to separate these materials, so they usually end up in the landfill.

Plastics #3 – #7

When it comes to recycling, all plastics are not created equal; anything other than #1 or #2 is FAR more likely to end up in the landfill. Visit BeRecycled.org to check which plastics are recyclable where you live. 

Never or Rarely Recyclable 

Styrofoam 

Avoid styrofoam. While it’s technically recyclable, it’s an expensive process and most local programs steer clear. In fact, placing styrofoam items in your bin can cause the entire load to be discarded. 

Plastic Bags

Plastic grocery bags clog up sorting machines and can’t be recycled with other items. If you have these, reuse them or return them to your local supermarket if they have a dedicated dropoff. To avoid plastic bags, bring your own bags to the store or choose paper bags.

Plastic Straws

Plastic straws are too small to sort, so most recycling programs don’t accept them. Instead, they end up in our landfills, rivers, and oceans. 

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