Household recycling is something that the current generation has grown up with – children are taught in school how to sort paper, plastics, cans and bottles from an early age. For many Americans, recycling is a part of everyday life – new homes are constructed with cabinets for recycling bins as well as garbage bins, most municipalities offer curbside recycling, and many public spaces including entertainment venues offer recycling. However, due to the changing makeup of the items we recycle, some of the materials are not as valuable in the recycling market anymore. For example, plastic clamshells (like the kind your organic spring mix salad comes in from the grocery store) are made from a low-grade plastic that is considered a contaminant by some recycling facilities, since there is no demand for this low-grade plastic in the re-manufacturing industry.

The carbon savings cited in the Drawdown book for this strategy assume increasing the average worldwide recycling rate to 65% of total recyclable waste. You may think “I’m already recycling 100% of the recyclable waste in my home” – however, take a closer look in your bins to find opportunities for reducing waste and removing contaminants from the recycling stream.

Juice Box – 100% Not Recyclable

Some important things to remember about recycling:

Plastic Ain’t What It Used To Be

As in the clamshell example above, even plastics with the recycling logo and numbers printed on them may still wind up in the landfill due to reduced demand for the low-grade plastics. This varies from city to city (based on market demand), so check with your recycling hauler for what they actually accept. Some plastic drink bottles are also low-grade and do not get recycled at the municipal level.

This plastic tub was re-purposed into a Play-Doh storage container

Aluminum Is Still Worth Big Bucks

Just look at the 10 cents per can refund in the state of Oregon for evidence that there is still a huge demand for recycled aluminum. Did you know that producing recycled aluminum products uses 95% less energy than creating them from virgin materials? Did you also know that recycling one aluminum can saves enough energy to power a TV for 3 hours?

Each aluminum can comes with a 10 cent refund in Oregon

Cardboard – So Much Cardboard

Have you noticed your recycling bins filling up faster since the advent of online shopping? Today households receive deliveries in cardboard boxes throughout the week, and these boxes take up a lot of space! Luckily traditional cardboard is still recyclable in most areas.

Cardboard is also great for make-believe play

Going Paperless

The environmental benefits of recycling paper are counted separately in the Drawdown calculations (for example in Forest Protection). Going paperless (receiving mail and other documents electronically) is a great way to reduce the amount of trees cut down every day.

Timber logging – hopefully a relic of times gone by

Plastic Bags

Many cities are banning plastic shopping bags altogether, including Ashland, Oregon (Alto Sustainability’s home base). By removing the option altogether, consumers quickly acclimate to bringing their own bags, carrying groceries by hand, or paying 10 cents a bag for paper bags.

Bonus points for using a reusable bag made from recycled plastic

Actions You Can Take Today:

  • Know what you can recycle – check what your recycling service accepts, and take the extra steps to remove contaminants (i.e. remove lids and rinse out your yogurt containers)
  • Shop recycled – by increasing the demand for recycled products (for example 100% post-consumer recycled office paper and toilet paper), this ensures a market for recycled products for years to come
  • Research your city’s average annual recycling rate to see if your area is on track for the 65% recycling rate needed for this Drawdown strategy

Related LEED® v4 Credits:

  • LEED BD+C, MRp Storage and Collection of Recyclables (prerequisite)