by Janelle Rolke @sustainablestepswithjanelle

This is the sixth chapter from "Lead a Circular Lifestyle By Practicing the R's of Sustainability"

If a particular item cannot be refused, reduced, or reused then perhaps it can be recycled.

Of the seven R’s of sustainability, “Recycle” is the most tedious topic for me to write about.  It’s  confusing, controversial, and there’s always more to learn about.

I previously mentioned that the recycling industry is broken.  Here are just a few reasons to support my claim: 91% of plastic is NOT recycled, the process to pick up/sort/melt is expensive, and because plastic degrades, it cannot be reused more than once or twice. There’s an incredible amount of conflicting information and the recycling guidelines vary from community to community. 

“Recycling is an aspirin, alleviating a rather large collective hangover…consumption.”  –William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle.


When plastics are littered, burned or dumped, they poison the Earth, air, and water. We genuinely need to be changing the way we behave. I’ve stated this a number of times throughout this blog series, but we absolutely positively need to consume less and start making changes to our consumer behavior.

Let’s keep in mind that we’re aiming to lead a more circular lifestyle. The linear lifestyle of taking materials, using energy and water to make something useful from them, and then tossing them into a landfill is not sustainable. Unfortunately this throw-away lifestyle has become the natural way most people behave.

Consider the lifecycle of your products with the goal to choose products that last the longest. I came across an informative podcast called “Wasted! with Bruce Bratley”.  Here’s a nice episode (Season 2 Episode 9) Assessing the route to a circular economy. You will notice that this episode is not focused on recycling.  Instead the conversation is about changing our mindset in all aspects of how we lead our lives and attempt to avoid using recyclable materials altogether.


What’s the deal with the numbers in the recycling triangle?

The number on the triangle DOES NOT mean that the item is recyclable. Instead, the number classifies the type of plastic. Usually the safest to put in your curbside recycling are numbers 1 and 2, but again communities have different recycling guidelines, so please become familiar with yours!

What about tough to recycle materials?

  • Textiles - The fashion industry is one of the most environmentally destructive on the planet, textile waste is a big part of the problem. Reusing, reselling, and donating clothing, bedding, and towels can help reduce the amount of textiles going into landfills.
    If you are in Massachusetts, Bay State Textiles is a good resource for textile recycling.

If your textiles cannot be donated or reused, then PLEASE make sure they are brought to a textile recycling bin or brought to an organization that accepts textile recycling. My city just launched a free, curbside textile recycling program through Helpsy, the largest clothing recycling collector in Northeastern United States. Contact your city TODAY to request this service being offered!

As I  mentioned in previous sections of this piece, rethink where you are purchasing your items and always consider buying second hand first. Support companies that do not contribute to fast fashion and purchase higher quality items that will last longer and made from materials that do not release microplastics.   

  • Footwear - Used shoes are a tough item to properly dispose of when you’re finished with them. There are over 24 billions pairs of shoes manufactured each year. Most end up in the landfill or incinerator (YIKES). There are too many shoes and not enough recycling options that are readily available. Here are a few organizations that accept used footwear: Nike Reuse-A-Shoe, Soles4souls & Zappos for Good. Buy less, take care of your footwear so they last longer, and bring them somewhere that will make use of them again when you’re finished.
  • Electronics (E-Waste) - These items are difficult to recycle and filled with toxic chemicals. Items include, TV’s, VCRs, DVD players, phones, computer parts, cameras, stereos, appliances, etc. Many cities and towns host e-waste recycling events once or twice a year. I usually collect these items throughout the year, store them in my basement and bring them all together during my city e-waste recycling event. Here is another resource on where to Donate or Recycle Electronics

  • Packaging (Infant formula, Vitamins, minerals, and supplements, contact lenses, Burt's Bees, Toothpaste, etc.) - Unpacked Living in Beverly, Massachusetts has an incredible amount of items being collected through TerraCycle. Here is a list of TerraCycle Recycling Collections they accept!

Recycling Tips:

  • Know your local curbside recycling guidelines. If you are from Massachusetts, RecycleSmart MA should be your go-to resource.
  • Empty, clean and dry your recyclables
  • Do not recycle small pieces of plastic (less than two inches) Example: circular containers used for ketchup and other condiments. These items are too small for curbside recycling programs.
  • Pumps and nozzles are not recyclable since they contain a metal spring (REUSE: bring these to your local REFILL store!)
  • Receipts are not recyclable. (REFUSE: whenever possible and forgo a printed receipt!)
  • If you have the option to purchase a product in either aluminum or plastic, choose the aluminum (RETHINK). Aluminum requires less energy to create, the process emits fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and it can be recycled infinitely.
  • Never put soft plastics such as plastic grocery bags, Ziplock bags, or bread bags in your curbside recycling. Instead bring them to a store that accepts them (Stop&Shop, Whole Foods, Home Depot, etc.) Be sure they are cleaned and dried prior to dropping them off in a bin!
  • “When in Doubt, Throw it Out” Because the recycling industry is so complicated, if you are not sure if something can be recycled and you’re unable to look it up, then throw it in the trash.


What else can you be doing?

  • Buy recycled products. The Everyday Recycler has an amazing post about why this is SO important!
  • If you’re passionate about recycling and want to make a positive impact with waste reduction, I encourage you to sign up for the free recycling programs through TerraCycle. There are so many FREE programs to choose from. I have been collecting plastic and glass containers through the Rubbermaid® Food Storage Recycling Program and shipping (for free) to TerraCycle as I fill boxes. Between family, friends, and members of my community I have saved over 30 lbs of plastic waste from going into the landfill or incinerator.
  • Learn to recycle smart in Massachusetts by signing up for a free interactive presentation with Keep Massachusetts Beautiful
  • If your household uses a lot of soft plastics, consider making Eco Bricks


Recycle Summary:

Recycling is not going to get us out of the plastic crisis, but you should NOT stop recycling.  Reduce the amount of waste you produce by rethinking where you purchase items and what the items are packaged in. Be sure you are properly disposing every item. Change the way you buy things and first choose second hand or recycled as opposed to buying brand new.

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