10 Ways to Improve Your Recycling

Treehugger / Julie Bang 

Recycling got its start almost four decades ago, when a U.S. paper company wanted a symbol to communicate its products' recycled content to customers. The design competition they held was won by Gary Anderson, a young graphic designer from the University of Southern California. His entry, based on the Mobius strip (a shape with only one side and no end) is now universally recognized as the symbol for recycling.

To many people, recycling conjures up the blue plastic bins and bottle drives. Part of the problem is that major companies like big bottlers of beer and soft drinks use recycling to shake off the responsibility of dealing with their manufactured packaging. But recycling is a design principle, a law of nature, a source of creativity, and a source of prosperity. For anyone looking to steer clear of corporate sponsored recycling and hoping to make recycling a more integral part of their lives, this guide is an overview of the basic legwork as well as some of the finer and more advanced concepts that have emerged in recent years.

To wit: "Recycling a ton of 'waste' has twice the economic impact of burying it in the ground. In addition, recycling one additional ton of waste will pay $101 more in salaries and wages, produce $275 more in goods and services, and generate $135 more in sales than disposing of it in a landfill."

Top Recycling Tips

Read on to learn more about how recycling is green and how you can make your recycling greener.

1. The Basics: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

The aphorism is so tired it almost might seem like "reduce, reuse, recycle" should go without saying. Most of us have only really heard the last third of the phrase, and they're ranked in order of importance, but there are several steps we should consider before recycling. Reducing the amount that we consume, and shifting our consumption to well-designed products and services, is the first step. Finding constructive uses for "waste" materials is next. If it's broken, fix it don't replace it! If you can, return it to the producer (especially electronics). Or better yet - don't by any packaged goods! Tossing it in the blue bin should be last. (The garbage can is not on the list, for good reason.) Through a balance of these three principals you can easily see your landfill-destined waste dwindle fast. A good example of recycling is setting your empty water bottles in the bin on the curb. But by using a water filter and reusable container you can reduce or completely eliminate your need for disposable plastic bottles.

2. Know What Can and Can't Be Recycled

Read up on the recycling rules for your area and make sure you don't send anything in that can't be processed. Each city has its own specifics, so try to follow those guidelines as best you can. But it can be more complicated than that. There's real recycling, and there's green-washed recycling and knowing the difference can help you avoid encouraging companies from 'fake feel-good' recycling. For example, Illy, the coffee company, began a capsule recycling program for its disposable coffee pods. The reality is that the 'recycling program' ships the capsules to another part of the country (hello carbon emissions!) and then down cycles the capsules to the lowest possible level. Their advertisements might make customers feel better about dumping capsules, but we know the truth behind the scheme, and it's not recycling at its best.

3. Buy Recycled Products

The essence of recycling is the cyclical movement of materials through the system, eliminating waste and the need to extract more virgin materials. Supporting recycling means feeding this loop by not only recycling, but also supporting recycled products. We can now find high recycled content in everything from printer paper to office chairs. But make sure you know the difference between recyclable and recycled.

4. Inspire an Artist

If you know someone interested in making art from recycled materials, offer to provide supplies. Many school children need items like paper towel tubes for art projects. Older artists use everything from rubber bands to oven doors. If you know someone who teaches art classes, suggest that an emphasis be put on making art from trash. While you're at it, remind them to use recycled paper and biodegradable, earth-friendly glues, paints, and pencils whenever possible. See below for inspiration and groups that connect artists and students with useful "trash." Don't forget, you can get your creativity on and re-purpose your recycled materials too!

5. Recycle Your Water

If you're a homeowner, consider rearranging your plumbing so that rainwater or wastewater from your shower and tub is used to flush your toilet. If you have a garden, water it with leftover bathwater or dishwashing water (as long as you use a biodegradable soap).

6. Compost Your Food Scraps

William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of the groundbreaking "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things," envision so-called "waste" divided into two categories: technical nutrients and biological nutrients. Biological nutrients are those that, at the end of their useful life, can safely and readily decompose and return to the soil. Composting is one of the simplest and most effective recycling methods. Both your garden cuttings and your green kitchen waste can go into an outdoor or indoor composter (with or without entertaining a population of worms). If you don't have a garden yourself, find neighbors or a community garden that can make use of your soil. Composting food scraps will mean your regular kitchen wastebasket fills up more slowly and also won't smell. After Christmas, many cities also have programs for turning your tree into mulch.

7. Recycle Old Electronics

Electronics recycling is becoming more common in many urban areas, battery recycling is ubiquitous (rechargeable batteries are ecologically sounder, but even they wear out after a while), and there are a number of non-profit organizations that will take computer parts and turn them into working computers for others. Companies like eBay have also developed programs to help your electronics find new homes. Other groups will gladly recycle your cell phone or give it to a senior citizen, as even without a contract it can still make emergency calls. If you have a major appliance that doesn't work and you'd rather replace it than try to fix it, offer it to local repair shops, trade schools, or hobbyists to tinker with. Many cities now offer hazardous waste recycling days when they will take not only hazardous waste, but electronics.

8. Consider Recycling Potential When Purchasing

In addition to buying recycled goods, keep a keen eye out for recyclable goods. Whenever you purchase something packaged, think about how you can reuse the packaging, return it to a shipping store for reuse, or try to otherwise recycle it. If you get something likely to run down or wear out over time, such as an electronic component, give preference to the model that can be easily upgraded or cannibalized for parts so that you don't have to junk the whole thing if one part breaks. Products that are impossibly fused together are often called "monstrous hybrids" and are, while often cheaper up front, frequently unfixable and unrecyclable.

9. Don't Dispose — Donate

Lots of charities welcome your donations. Groups like Freecycle and Recycler's Exchange exist to help you get rid of useful objects that you just don't want to make use of. If you're in a Craigslist city, make use of the "free stuff" section. Give away clothes that don't fit, the boxes you used in your last house move, or scented soaps that don't appeal to your sensibilities. Make it a rule in your house that nothing useable goes in the trash until you've given the community a fair shot at it.

10. Analyze Your Waste Trends

To better understand the kind of materials that enter and leave your home, office, or school, consider conducting a waste audit. Set a span of time like a week or a month, and separate your waste categories. Weigh the different kinds of material flows that go out the door (landfill waste, organic compost, aluminum, recyclable plastic, reusable material, etc.). Design a "material recovery" program that minimizes the amount going to the landfill. This is a great exercise to do with kids but can be very convincing to corporate higher-ups, too, especially since most companies pay to have their trash hauled away and can get money for recycled paper, containers, toner cartridges, corrugated cardboard, and such.

reduce reuse recycle graffiti

Gary Anderson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Recycling by the Numbers

  • 544,000: Trees saved if every household in the United States replaced just one roll of virgin fiber paper towels (70 sheets) with 100 percent recycled ones.
  • 50 million: Tons of electrical and electronic waste thrown away each year. One ton of scrap from discarded computers contains more gold than can be produced from 17 tons of gold ore.
  • 9 cubic yards: Amount of landfill space saved by recycling one ton of cardboard.
  • $160 billion: Value of the global recycling industry that employs over 1.5 million people.
  • 94 million tons: Amount of waste material diverted away from disposal in 2005 through recycling and composting.
  • 5 percent: Fraction of the energy it takes to recycle aluminum versus mining and refining new aluminum.
  • 89 percent: Overall return rate of refillable containers (cans, plastic bottles, and glass bottles) in Denmark in 2018.
  • 66.2 percent: Percentage of the paper consumed in the U.S. that was recovered for recycling in 2019.

Useful Recycling Terms

RES (resin identification code)

What do those numbers on the bottom of soda bottles mean, anyway? Understanding the numerical system (resin identification code) is essential to proper recycling.


William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle To Cradle, have recast the way we look at recycling, illustrating how most of what we do is actually "down cycling," or just delaying time at which, for example, a plastic bottle will come to a halt in a landfill (cradle to grave). These two innovators outline a system in which things are truly re-cycled in virtually endless loops.

Criticisms of Recycling

Recycling isn't all green and gold. For example, some argue that producing recycled goods is not energy efficient. It can also be quite costly.

Additionally, "reuse" is the second cardinal rule of recycling, but make sure that what you're doing is safe. Plastic water, soda, and juice bottles and other plastic utensils aren't made for multiple uses and can break down, releasing chemicals, especially in heat (like the dishwasher).

With reporting by Manon Verchot

View Article Sources
  1. Bhasin, Kim. “This 23-Year-Old USC Student Created One Of The Most Recognizable Logos Of All Time.” Business Insider.

  2. Vaidya, Srivatsa Vivek, et al. "Green Business Opportunities in Selling Energy." Asia Pacific Journal of Management & Entrepreneurship Research, vol. 1, iss. 3, 2012, pp. 157-171.

  3. Frequent Questions on Recycling.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

  4. Composting at Home.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

  5. The Impact Of Our Disposable Paper Dependence.” Creighton University.

  6. UN report: Time to seize opportunity, tackle challenge of e-waste.” U.N. Environment Programme. Published January 24, 2019.

  7. Obsolete Computers, “Gold Mine,” or High-Tech Trash? Resource Recovery from Recycling.” U.S. Geological Survey.

  8. How to Recycle Cardboard.” Earth911.

  9. Gandhi, S.M., and B.C. Sarkar. Essentials of Mineral Exploration and Evaluation (1st Edition). Elsevier, 2016.

  10. National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling.” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

  11. Sibley, Scott W. “Overview of Flow Studies for Recycling Metal Commodities in the United States.” U.S. Department of the Interior, 2011.

  12. "Denmark." Bottle Bill Resource Guide.

  13. AF&PA on the Issues.” American Forest & Paper Association.

  14. Husock, Howard, and John Tierney. “As City Budgets Shrink, It’s Time to Rethink Recycling Programs.” Manhattan Institute.