Recycling is essential to creating a sustainable home or workplace environment, but the third of the three R’s—Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle—for a reason. The recycling process requires an enormous amount of energy, often more than the process of creating something new. Many places still use ancient recycling equipment, which also makes the process quite expensive. To create a truly sustainable environment, you want to minimize recycling as well as waste.
Here are 4 questions to ask before you recycle something:
1. Can part of this still be used for its initial purpose?
Often we throw things away after one use when they can be reused many times. One big example of this is high quality takeout containers. Most people throw these in the recycling—or even in the garbage—when they’ve finished the original meal, but some of these containers have excellent seals and can be used hundreds of times.
Some things really can only be used for their initial purpose once, but most things can have many different uses if you’re willing to think creatively, which brings us to the next question:
2. Can this be upcycled?
Upcycling is the process of taking something broken and turning it into something new and more valuable. If you’re into DIY projects, upcycling is something you need to know about yesterday. Almost anything can be upcycled, and there are already instructions for thousands of upcycling projects available online.
If you’re not a big fan of DIY projects, consider donating broken things to people who are. Some professional artists even deliberately work with these types of materials, and they frequently accept donations.
Many upcycling projects simply turn broken things into art pieces, but you can also find dozens of projects with practical uses. Or even create some of your own!
3. Does it need to be taken to a special plant?
Batteries and other electronics should be taken to special recycling plants, not thrown into your regular recycling or garbage bins. Some electronics stores have in-house recycling programs that deliver your electronics to these plants so you don’t have to deal with it.
Recycling electronics properly is incredibly important, because a different process is required. Electronics also use rarer elements than many other recyclable materials, and there is desperate need for these materials, especially as electronics become more widespread throughout the developing world.
4. Is it recyclable at all?
There are many common misunderstandings about what can and can’t be recycled. For example, pizza boxes are made of cardboard, but they absorb so much grease that recycling machines can’t process them (which might give you some serious concerns next time you’re ordering pizza).
What is recyclable also depends largely on the recycling equipment in your region. Many municipalities are using decades-old recycling equipment, and it can’t always process everything we’ve figured out how to recycle.
Your municipality should have information on what can be recycled available online, or an office you can call for this information. Many places also hand out recycling calendars, which have information about what can be recycled, along with recycling pickup dates.
If you’re committed to creating a sustainable home and/or office you need to be willing to go beyond recycling basics. Learning how to avoid throwing your stuff in the recycling bin to begin with—and what you can actually throw in the recycling when it’s no longer useful—is the next step towards true sustainability. It’s also one of the easiest, especially when you’ve already committed to recycling.