Go Green: Increase Your Community’s Recycling Rate

A community recycling program is a great way to green up your neighborhood and get in the spirit of working together to help the environment. Even if your community already has a recycling program in place, there’s always more that can be done to boost participation and make your program more successful.

In fact, many people don’t fully understand what items can and cannot be recycled and just throw garbage into the bins without ever really thinking about it. Try these tips and tricks to make your community’s recycling program more efficient and easier for residents to participate in.

The Importance of Recycling

Most people have a general sense that recycling is a good thing, but do you know why? Every item that’s recycled is one less thing that takes up space in the Earth’s landfills, for starters. Instead of waiting for something like a plastic doll or a metal can to break down naturally — something that could take hundreds of years, depending on the material it’s made of — recycling allows those materials to be melted down and reused over and over again.

In addition to keeping landfills a little emptier, recycling provides important raw materials for making new goods without using up precious resources to do so. Recycled metals cut down on the need for mining and processing new ore, and recycled plastic slashes the use of fossil fuels and petroleum products required to make new plastics and polymers. It’s not just the raw materials that are conserved, either. When factories don’t have to process these materials, there’s also a reduction of the fuel used to power those processing plants, making recycling useful for conserving energy in multiple ways.

Recycling the Right Way

Unfortunately, many people — maybe even your neighbors! — don’t know exactly what can be recycled and what cannot. When you launch a new recycling initiative in your community, education is key. Each municipality or waste management service has different equipment for sorting and recycling waste, so be sure to contact your provider for the very latest information on what they accept for recycling and any expectations for sorting. You can leverage your HOA connections and contacts to get out the word and educate your neighbors with flyers, emails and handy stickers or magnets that list all the do’s and don’ts of your recycling program.

Though the specifics will vary, there are some general rules about what you can and cannot recycle.

Stop “Wish Cycling” and Keep These Items out of Recycling Bins

If your area has single-stream recycling programs that allow residents to toss all recyclables into one bin to be sorted out elsewhere, it can seem like a godsend. Unfortunately, many people assume that this means everything can be recycled, which simply isn’t true. Adding the wrong items to the bin — a habit cheekily known as “wish cycling,” since you can only hope the items are eventually recycled — can make the entire process more difficult and less efficient.

Here’s what to avoid tossing into even the most robust recycling bin:

  • Plastic bags: Though some communities have begun to ban those lightweight plastic grocery bags, they’re still easy to find — but impossible to recycle. In fact, they often clog the machines that sort recyclables, making the process more time consuming and expensive. Take these back to the grocery store instead, where they often have special bins to collect plastic bags for recycling. Plastic wrap, Ziploc baggies and food pouches should be treated the same way. You could also consider a central collection bin for these items in your community to make it easier for residents to remember to sort these bags.
  • Electronics: Although they are made of metal and plastic, items like your computer, video game console, cellphone or old TV set are too complex for the sorting facility to handle, because they must be dismantled and separated into their discrete parts. These items often contain valuable bits of precious metals that can be salvaged to make new electronics as well. Many communities have special collection days for E-waste, or you can find a special recycling program near you to dispose of these items responsibly.
  • Shredded paper: Though it’s definitely recyclable, shredded paper can sometimes pose a problem for the sorting machines. To keep this from becoming an issue, it’s best to gather your shreds into a paper bag to keep things running smoothly.
  • Glassware and broken windows: Though these items can also be recycled, they have different melting points than the average glass soda bottle, so having various types of glass mixed together can pose a problem at some sorting stations. Check with your waste management provider to find out their preferred method of dealing with less common types of glass. If pieces are still intact, you may be able to give tableware or old storm windows away or sell them on Craigslist.
  • Batteries and fluorescent light bulbs: These items contain trace chemicals that technically make them hazardous waste, so they cannot be thrown out in either the regular trash or in the recycling bin. Most hardware stores and many big box stores have recycling programs for batteries and light bulbs to make sure the ground water doesn’t become contaminated. This is another item that your community recycling program may consider creating a special bin for so that you can make one big trip instead of individual residents making many small drop-offs.
  • Bottle caps: Though both plastic and metal bottle caps can be recycled, their small size can often cause problems in the sorting machines. To avoid these issues, screw plastic bottle caps back onto their original containers for disposal. For metal bottle caps, designate a separate jar to hold them all. This will keep the caps contained and keep the metal recyclables together for those who need to sort their items at home.

Keeping your neighbors informed about these recycling basics and providing convenient ways for them to deal with the trickier recyclables in their lives will make your program a model of efficiency. It’s definitely worth the effort to make recycling a community-wide goal that everyone participates in. After all, we only have one planet to live on, so we should all work together to keep it healthy and green.