Time to Rethink How You Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle

“Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” We’ve all heard it for years, and hopefully practiced it whenever possible. But, be honest, you’re doing more recycling and less reducing and reusing, right?


No judgement, we’re all doing that. Why? Because recycling programs are part of our daily lives. We have different bins, and separate pick-ups, and even little recycling symbols on our bottles and boxes. It’s an integral part of helping to protect our environment, and a lot of the time, it’s as easy as dropping your trash in the blue (or green) bin, no matter where you are — home, work, airport, mall, anywhere, really. But, as much as we rely on recycling to help keep our Earth clean and free of dangerous plastics, it might not be working like many of us thought.


Recently, NPR’s Planet Money podcast released a two-part episode on recycling. As usual with Planet Money, the economic journalism comes with a mix of hard-hitting information and welcoming personality that keeps you listening to the end. But, with these recycling episodes, you’re truly made to rethink how you handle your trash, and if it’s even worth the effort at all. (Spoiler Alert: It definitely is, but there’s far more to learn and consider than many people realize.)


According to Planet Money, the recent history of recycling in the United States goes back to the 90s when China was shipping a lot of goods over to us. At the time, it didn’t make sense for the Chinese companies to return the ship empty once the goods were off-loaded here in America. So, they created a business out of our recycling by bringing it all back on the ships in order to reuse it instead of mining, sourcing, and producing the materials needed to create new plastics and aluminums. That means your plastic milk carton might have shipped over to China to be broken down and remade into a pair of polyester socks that were shipped right back over to be sold back to you. When you think recycling, that might not be what you envisioned, but it kept your milk carton out of a landfill.


However, according to Planet Money, a lot of this trash we thought we were recycling was really (maybe accidentally) ending up in the ocean. That means, while we all thought we were doing something good, we were actually contributing to major pollution of the oceans. That’s horrifying when you stop and think about it — the good we all were doing might have done something very bad.


So, what can we do to make sure our efforts to help the planet are working? How can we make sure we’re limiting the amount of waste in the world? 


Let’s start simple:


1. Remember to not just recycle

Reduce and reuse are important aspects of protecting the environment. This might mean limiting the amount of plastic you buy and use. Even using a portable coffee cup helps, because many to-go coffee cups are lined to keep the coffee in, which prevents them from being recyclable. Glass is also difficult to recycle, with it being accidentally crushed, broken, and ground into other recyclables, like plastic and paper, making them no longer recyclable. So, when possible, don’t recycle your glass — reuse the container in your household for storage or preservation, whether it’s food or even small items, like nails.

2. Clean Up Your Food Waste

Whether you have leftover soup in a can or peanut butter stuck to the inside of the tub, that food waste can actually make items no longer recyclable. That’s because when being processed, the leftover food scraps from cans and bottles is absorbed into other recyclables, like paper, which makes up a majority of residential recycling, and that damaged paper can not be processed the same way. Pizza boxes, for example, are often a major item to be sent from your recycling trucks right over to the trash trucks, due to the rotting food waste of leftover pizza stuck to the inside of the boxes. To solve this, simply give everything a good rinse before dropping them into the recycling bin. They don’t have to be sparkling clean, but that extra effort can help make sure more gets recycled and less food waste causes damage. 

3. Know what can and can’t be recycled

Recycling rules and guidelines change drastically by city and town. In some, the caps to your plastic bottles absolutely cannot be included. In others, they welcome the tops as long as it’s the same material. Recycling can be so confusing in fact, a study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association found that 92% of people were unclear about what they should put into the recycling bin, and 23% said they found recycling to be more confusing than doing their taxes. That’s why it’s important to understand what doesn’t belong in your curbside collection bin. Most likely, your local government posts your recycling rules online, but you can also look yours up on BeRecycled.org, which lets you enter your ZIP code to see a list of local websites with official information. 


Reducing, reusing, and recycling are certainly not always easy to do or understand, but they are absolutely valuable to us and the environment. The alternative is more landfills and even more plastic clogging up our oceans. Hopefully these tips help you rethink how you toss out your trash, and remember that the real first step is believing that you can make a positive difference on our planet, because you can. For more thoughts & ideas on recycling, cutting back on food waste, and helping to protect the environment, join the ZENB community on our website or social media, and be sure to send in your own recycling tips & tricks.