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Recycling 101 with Zero Waste Box™

Many of us are familiar with recycling. Children are taught the three R's in school, we ask “Where’s your recycling?” when visiting friends, and participate in municipal programs in an effort to prevent litter, save resources, and help the environment. 

Recycling is an impactful habit that makes a difference every day. The challenge is that standard curbside recycling programs are incredibly confusing. What is accepted varies from region to region (even town to town!), very few items are accepted, and sources say much of what we try to recycle through standard programs nowadays gets tossed in the trash anyway. 

Why are there so many obstacles to our items being recycled, and what can be done to ensure more products and packaging aren’t thrown “away” to landfills (essentially, land sites where garbage is dumped or buried) or incinerators (where garbage goes to burn)?

What is recycling?

For starters, let’s define what recycling actually is: the collection of discarded items (also known as “waste”) and their transformation into material for new products. Recycling reduces the use of new, “virgin” material and the need to extract additional resources from the earth.

There are many ways to use resources instead of throwing them away. However, unlike waste to energy (using discards as a fuel source for heat or electricity) or upcycling (changing the function of an item without breaking it down, also known as “creative reuse”), recycling breaks down recovered material to build it back into something entirely new. It’s kind of magical!

So, what’s the problem?

There are key ingredients to the magic of recycling that are essential to its success, and if one is missing, it falls apart. Even if something is technically recyclable (more on this shortly!), there are several steps between it being tossed and it being transformed into a new product.

Aluminum, for example, is endlessly recyclable with strong demand all over the world. However, when it comes to plastic, companies often go for new over recycled. That's because oil is currently cheap, and recycling costs more money to collect, transport, sort, and process into a reusable form.

Generally, if these costs are greater than what a material can be profitably sold for (this is the case with most plastics today), it is considered non-recyclable. Above all, recycling is a function of supply, so if manufacturers aren’t buying recycled materials to produce new items, there is no end-market for the material, and public recycling programs for said materials don’t exist. 

This has come into even sharper focus with the recent tariffs on foreign garbage in China and other South Asian countries, covered extensively in mainstream news. Western regions such as the United States had long been sending our recyclables to those countries to supply their manufacturing, and now that they aren’t buying, our “recyclables” have nowhere to go!

As a result, public recycling is a bit of a mess. Single-stream recycling programs (where all recyclables — paper, plastic, glass, and aluminum — are collected in one bin instead of separated) cause cross-contamination, and good-intentioned residents often resort to “wish-cycling” (or, aspirational recycling) because they don’t how for sure what is accepted.

Everything from car parts, bicycles, 5-gallon pails, garden hoses, working smartphones and laptops, even an actual German Enigma machine from World War II, have been extracted from recycling lines as a result of poor separation, another key ingredient to effective recycling.

Discouraged, confused, and, to no fault of their own, generally uninformed about the ins and outs of recycling, people all around the world say they recycle, and yet, the US recycling rate remains stagnant at 35 percent, reflecting a lack of participation in existing programs.

What can I do to recycle more?

Public recycling is economically motivated, so most common items don’t belong in your blue bin. However, TerraCycle® proves that everything is technically recyclable, including candy and snack wrappers, plastic packaging, shoes, razor blades, and old and broken toys.

Even the taboo, the “yucky,” like chewing gum, dirty diapers, and cigarette butts—the most littered item in the world and one for the largest sources of ocean plastic pollution— are recycled into formats manufacturers and brands use for new production. 

Recycling always comes at a cost, and public recycling is funded by taxes. The way TerraCycle works around these limitations is through partnerships with conscious companies, who create first-of-their-kind National Recycling Programs, which are free for consumers to use. 

For products and packaging that don’t have a brand-sponsored recycling solution, the Zero Waste Box™ system has you covered. This is a convenient and all-inclusive option for households, schools, businesses, facilities, and events looking to lighten their footprint. 

Simply select and order a solution based on what you want to recycle, collect, ship back to us with a prepaid return label and reorder your next Zero Waste Box system to continue to recycle everything.

It is worth repeating that the key reason TerraCycle is able to recycle almost everything is the fact that someone is willing to pay for it. More and more, the world is waking up to the fact that public recycling is on the decline, so by creating access to solutions, TerraCycle aims to show the world the magic of putting more material to good use.

Here are some additional tips on recycling correctly through your curbside program: 

  • The most important aspect of recycling correctly is knowing exactly what your municipality accepts. Don’t be a “wish-cycler”! Go to your municipality’s website or call or email them to learn more.
  • To find out what type of plastic a container is made of, look for the Resin Identification Code (RIC) at the bottom: a triangle made of arrows containing numbers 1 through 7. These are NOT “recycling numbers,” of which there are no such thing, and they do not equal recyclability.
  • Here are some examples of items that fall into the Resin Identification Code (RIC) categories:

#1 PET

Beverage bottles and personal care packaging. Widely municipally recyclable if clear or white.

#2 HDPE

Milk jugs, shower gel bottles, cream tubs. Widely municipally recyclable if clear or white.

#3 V (Vinyl)

Cosmetics containers, PVC piping, protective clamshells. Not municipally recyclable.

#4 LDPE

Squeeze bottles and tubes, plastic films and bags. Not municipally recyclable.

#5 PP

Shampoo and conditioner bottles and product tubs. Sometimes municipally recyclable. 

#6 PS

“Glassware” containers or protective packaging for fragile items such as cosmetics. Not municipally recyclable without a dedicated take back program.

#7 OTHER

Multimaterial packaging, flexible plastics, bioplastic and compostable plastic. Not municipally recyclable without a dedicated take back or composting program.

  • Many municipal recyclers accept #1 or #2 white or clear bottles or jars (with caps, pumps, and spouts removed), aluminum containers, and clear glass with no attachments or added plastic. Again, this varies by region, so please check with your municipality for what is accepted. 
  • Colored plastic and small and complex items are generally non-recyclable. 
  • Nearly everything not accepted can be recycled by TerraCycle through Zero Waste Box.

Still confused about recycling? Ask us anything in the comments below!

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