Ask an expert: What materials are actually recyclable?

We're shopping online more than ever before, and it’s generating a whole lot of waste. We asked the experts for advice on how to develop better recycling habits and reduce our waste creation overall.

Sarah Drumm

Produce in reusable jars from zero-waste grocery store, Zero. (Photo: Zero)

We're shopping online more than ever before, and it’s a habit that’s generating a whole lot of waste.

Some of that is hard to avoid, like packaging. By the end of 2020, the global e-commerce packaging market was thought to have hit $51.7 billion, up more than 50% on 2019’s $33.7 billion total. Other times, that waste is a result of impulse purchases for things we don’t really need – behavior driven by the boredom of lockdowns or the anxiety of living through a global pandemic.

While the best way to reduce the waste generated by online shopping is simply to do less online shopping, the second best thing that we can do is get smarter on reuse and recycling, and shop with waste reduction in mind.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 75% of everything that gets thrown away in America could be recycled – but only 30% of it actually is.

The U.S. does not have a uniform federal recycling program – meaning different things can and can't be recycled in different states and counties. This lack of cohesion creates a lot of confusion around which materials should actually go in the recycling bin. Moreover, an estimated one quarter of what goes in our recycling bins ends up incinerated or in landfills anyway due to "contaminated" items that have touched food or sticky labels.

We asked Zuleyka Strasner, founder of zero-waste grocery store Zero, and Tom Szaky, the founder of U.S. recycling firm TerraCycle, for some advice on how to develop better recycling habits and reduce our waste creation overall.

What are the most common mistakes people make when it comes to recycling?

Tom Szaky: The biggest [problem] is folks not knowing what is and isn’t recyclable, and we see more people putting things into the recycling bin that can’t be recycled, versus [putting recyclable objects in the general waste].

Zuleyka Strasner: It’s honestly just a lack of knowledge and education. Most people think that if it’s vaguely plastic, and you put it in the recycling, then it’s going to get recycled. But 91% of [plastic] doesn't get recycled.

What makes something recyclable?

Strasner: You should check depending on what country, city, county you live in to configure if something is recyclable or not. In California, county by county it’s different. It’s very confusing as a consumer, but try to check as much as you can.

[If you aren’t sure about something], I actually tell people to err on the side of not recycling it. It’s better to have smaller recycling that you know can be recycled and is not contaminated, rather than including a lot of materials that can’t be recycled.

What kinds of plastic can be recycled?

Szaky: Generally speaking, number one plastic, which is PET, will be very recyclable if it’s clear. Number two plastic – HPDE – if it’s white in color, that’s generally good too. In both cases, [it needs to be] larger than a bottle in size. And then depending on the municipality, some things like polypropylene might be alright.

What about metals?

Szaky: Those should be something that local recyclers can handle. Generally speaking, alloys are going to be high [value] for recyclers. Then it’s plastics, papers and glass [in] the hierarchy of what’s more profitable. That’s why you see very high recycling rates of aluminium cans, they tend to be the most profitable.

What about the single-use packaging that things are delivered or sold in – what’s best for recycling?

Strasner: Minimal packaging, and the less plastic it has on it, obviously, the better. But the ideal material is something that is reusable. At Zero, about 90% of our catalogue is glass and glass jars, and then we have some paper and compostable materials as well.

What can you do with fabrics and clothing when you’re done with them?

Szaky: Donating your clothing to a charity shop so it can be cleaned and sold to someone else is fantastic. But what’s important to know on the donation side is that because of the velocity of fast fashion, when you donate to a charity only a small part of your clothing is reused within the country. The vast majority is going to be exported to emerging markets, and those markets are now flooded with our clothing and there is simply too much out there.

If you purchase higher quality clothing, then the chance of it finding a reuse market in the country where you threw it out is much higher. From a recycling point of view, if you have pure, natural textiles like cotton or wools, those can technically – but not profitably – be recycled. That’s [the same with] polymer clothing, like a rain jacket. But a lot of clothing is a hybrid [material], and those are more challenging unless there is a brand or retailer that’s willing to pay the extra cost to get it recycled.

What about compostable packaging?

Szaky: If it says anything other than home compostable, it’s likely industrial compostable. I would be very cautious about anything outside of home compostable. Most [industrial composters] sort out packaging that shows up and incinerate it. It’s why [some] retailers have banned it.

If you have a functioning home composting bin you can put compostable packaging in, but it has to be mixed with all the good stuff like banana skins and yard clippings.

What are some easy ways to reduce waste overall?

Szaky: The easiest question of all is “do I need that object?” It requires no research. Instead of buying lots of cheap clothes, buy fewer, more premium clothes. Instead of buying things that are hard to recycle, buy things that are reusable or very easy to recycle. Everything we purchase will become waste, so [we should] edit how we purchase.

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