Growing recycling programs help us inch closer to Zero Waste

blue recycling bins
CC BY 2.0 Dano

Much of our time is often devoted to increasing the recycling rates of more conventional recyclable materials. That is: aluminum, paper, PET and HDPE plastic containers, and glass. There are large markets for these materials, so it makes a lot of sense to further build the recycling infrastructure for them.

Even so, there are countless other waste streams that we still struggle to unpin the “non-recyclable” label from. But where municipal systems for complicated waste streams fail or are lacking, a growing number of alternative programs from third-party organizations are rising up and changing our perceptions of garbage and waste.

Some are smaller and highly targeted programs from socially responsible companies, while others are broad reclamation and reuse initiatives operated by nonprofits and entire municipalities. All of them are proving that viable recycling and reuse solutions, even for some of our most complicated waste streams, are possible.


The average American household uses about 88 gallons of water each day, much of it in the form of non-potable greywater – not useable by humans, but fine for many plants. Greywater Action has developed a system for redirecting this “wastewater” for yard and landscaping purposes. This system has been especially helpful to citizens in California trying to keep their yards looking nice these past couple years and during one of the worst droughts on record. Reducing your overall consumption of water should always be preferred, but finding a use for the greywater you are already generating can greatly help mitigate your need for fresh water.

Building Material Recycling

While upcycled houses are nothing new, recycled building materials are now becoming more accessible to consumers. PlanetReuse, for instance, aims to have recycled and reclaimed materials as readily available as materials from commercial suppliers. Consumers can purchase used building materials from PlanetReuse’s marketplace, and the company has a donation program for used materials. Another leader in the recyclable building field is The ReWall Co., a company that turns waste – particularly cartons, cups and similar packaging – into building materials like ceiling tiles, wall panels, and temporary window sheathing.

Recycling E-Waste

States like New York and California, among others, are already putting some bans and restrictions on throwing away e-waste. Many cities have opted for their own collection initiatives, such as the e-cycleNYC program in New York City, done in collaboration with Electronic Recyclers International. For those in other cities: What exactly should you do with your e-waste? A good option is to check out the e-Stewards program, which is an international team of businesses, government organizations, and non-profits that certifies manufacturers and other electronics processors, ensuring they are responsibly disposing of and recycling e-waste and not shipping it overseas. Consumers can also pledge to join the program and access a database of responsible, certified e-waste recyclers.


Undergarments, for obvious reasons, are not accepted at most thrift stores. Even so, there are still reuse and recycling options available to ensure worn undergarments aren’t needlessly thrown into the garbage. The Bra Recyclers, for example, is a textile recycling company that specializes in the recycling and the reuse of both used and unused bras. Undergarments and other clothes of any condition (as long as they’re clean) can also be dropped off in one of USAgain’s 14,000 drop-off boxes throughout the U.S. The clothes are reused, repurposed or recycled depending on their condition.

Converting Plastic to Oil

Much of the plastic found in municipal solid waste streams is almost universally considered non-recyclable. And while reuse and recycling are always the better options, some companies are developing processes capable of turning plastic material back into oil. The Gen 6 process developed by Agilyx can convert plastic into high-grade crude oil, while also creating up to five times more energy than the production process uses. Other companies have also begun to experiment with this process as well. Blest Co., a Japanese company, actually invented a plastic-to-oil conversion machine for home use.

Styrofoam and Polystyrene Recycling

Polystyrene and expanded polystyrene foam have continually proven to be difficult to recycle, so much so that active bans on polystyrene foam containers and similar forms of single-use packaging are currently in place in several major cities, most recently in New York City. Seventeen states have municipalities with locations that accept expanded polystyrene, and California alone has 60 municipalities that allow collection in curbside programs. Depending on where you live, finding places to recycle polystyrene and its variants isn’t too difficult. For drop-off locations, check a search database like Earth911 for any near you. If a drop-off location is not available, check out the EPS Industry Packaging Alliance to find other recycling options, like recycling by mail.


Recyclebank is a unique company that uses a reward system to incentivize recycling and greener living. Recyclebank partners with local organizations and communities to help increase recycling rates by incentivizing the collection of recyclable materials with a point system. Points can be earned in many ways – even by completing several educational materials and presentations on the Recyclebank website – and can be redeemed for things like store coupons or discounts at local retailers and businesses. They also sponsor municipalities as well; the city of Rochester Hills, Michigan, for example, signed up for the program in 2008 and proceeded to increase recycling by a whopping 323% by 2014.

Battery Recycling

Some batteries are highly recyclable, which is fortunate because their effect on the environment can be terrible. Call2Recycle is a recycling organization that operates North America’s first and largest battery stewardship program. The organization has many drop-off sites and about 90% of Americans live within ten minutes of one. From the batteries, the organization extracts rare or toxic metals like cadmium and lead, as well as any chemical byproducts that are harmful to human health and the environment. The organization accepts many battery varieties (not just the commonly recycled lead-acid ones), some electronics, and provides resources for individuals looking to recycle similar materials and products not accepted through the program.

Zero Waste Box

To further facilitate a Zero Waste lifestyle, individuals, businesses and other organizations can also order a Zero Waste Box from my company, TerraCycle. There are different types of box depending on the amount of waste you want to recycle and the amount of separation that is required. For example, you can recycle by room in your home (e.g. kitchen or bathroom waste), by individual waste stream, or you can recycle any acceptable waste (there are some items we simply can't accept) in a single stream with a No Separation Box. You simply collect your waste in the box, and then send it to TerraCycle when full. While this system won't get a house or business to Zero Waste on its own, it is a huge step in a positive direction. 100% of what is collected gets repurposed or recycled, and nothing is sent to landfills or incinerators.

While socially conscious companies, recycling programs, and initiatives like these can vary greatly in scope, they each provide a different perspective on waste and help redefine what we consider “recyclable.” Many of these programs circumvent the common barriers that prevent certain waste streams from being municipally recycled in the first place, allowing anyone to get one step closer to a Zero Waste lifestyle. This is why we need innovative companies developing exciting new initiatives, methods of reuse, and recycling techniques, as they may one day help redefine what we think of as “waste.”

Growing recycling programs help us inch closer to Zero Waste
Looking beyond traditional recyclables and the "blue bin", here are some of the organizations and companies seeking to redefine what we consider trash with alternative recycling initiatives and methods of reuse.