The benefits of recycling
The act of recycling accomplishes many goals at once!
- Recycling reduces waste accumulation in landfills and the likelihood of environmental contamination. In 2017, recycling kept 67 million tons (about 25%) of municipal solid waste in the United States out of landfills.
- Recycling conserves resources for creating new products, reducing the demand for activities like mining and logging that can have detrimental environmental impacts. For example, recycling 1 ton of paper (200,000 sheets) saves about 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, and 7,000 gallons of water compared to producing new paper.
- Recycling saves energy for manufacturers compared to using virgin materials, in many cases lowering operating expenses. For example, recycling aluminum takes 90% less energy than producing virgin aluminum.
- Recycling cuts greenhouse gas emissions by saving energy and reducing the demand for activities involved in acquiring virgin resources. For example, recycling 1 ton of paper (200,000 sheets) reduces greenhouse gas emissions the same amount as preventing 140 gallons of gasoline from being burned.
- Recycling supports the economy, contributing to an estimated 757,000 jobs and $36.6 billion in wages in the United States in 2007.
While it can be difficult to keep up with changing rules, recycling forms an important part of sustainable living where reducing and reusing aren’t practical. Recycling is just one of many actions that can help preserve our natural environments, but it’s one you can start or do more of today!
Recycle right, prevent contamination!
The benefits of recycling are only realized if your recycled materials make it all the way into a new product. Unfortunately, this journey can be far from straightforward. One of the common ways that recycled materials fail to complete this journey is if a load is contaminated by non-recyclables or dirty items. An entire load could be landfilled if it contains too many materials that are incorrect, soiled, or overly damaged (like paper shreds or broken glass).
Preventing contamination can be difficult because recycling rules can vary significantly by place, material, and method. Furthermore, some items that say they’re “recyclable” on their packaging might not be recyclable where you live. For example, in Island County, glass is only accepted for recycling at drop boxes, drop-off facilities, and in Camano Island’s curbside collection program.
The most important thing you can do to prevent contamination is to keep up to date on the recycling rules from your provider (see How to Recycle in Island County). Be sure to thoroughly empty, clean, and dry any recyclables as well. Common contaminants include:
- Wet or food-soiled materials (e.g. dirty pizza boxes)
- Bagged materials (unless you’re directed to bag them)
- Styrofoam and packing peanuts
- Paper shreds and broken glass
- Medical waste (e.g. syringes), diapers, and prescription pill bottles (check Island County’s rules for medical waste here)
Some of these items can ruin other recyclables, while others, especially medical waste, can put people in danger if you put them in with your recycling. Be sure to check specific rules with your provider for how to dispose of hazardous items. For non-hazardous items, if you’re really unsure whether a particular item is recyclable, it’s better to dispose of it with the garbage (if it’s safe to do so) than to risk contaminating your recyclables. “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Some items can be contaminants depending on how you’re recycling them. For example, the following items can ONLY be recycled at Island County drop-off facilities (in dedicated containers) or as part of special collection programs. They should NOT be put in curbside recycling or in the normal recycling bins at drop-off facilities. These items include:
For more details on recycling right or if you’re unsure about a particular item, please contact the Waste Wise Coordinator using the contact information at the top of this web page. You can also consult your local provider or the Washington State Department of Ecology’s (WDOE) Recycle Right program. Finally, you can also try looking up nearby recycling options in Washington State by calling 1-800-RECYCLE or going online to http://1800recycle.wa.gov/.
What happens to my recyclables?
Out of sight, out of mind. It can be hard to tell what happens to our recycling after we put it out on the curb or drop it off at a facility. Following the journey our recycling takes, however, can illuminate both the importance of recycling correctly as well as how it can play a role in solving some of our most pressing environmental problems.
The journey of your recycling depends on where it begins. On Whidbey Island, they are collected either curbside, by Island Disposal (including the City of Oak Harbor), or Island Recycle, after you have dropped them at a recycle park. On Camano Island, curbside recycling and any recyclables dropped off at the Camano Island transfer station are handled by Waste Management. They are sorted, either by you as the consumer, or at a materials recovery facility (MRF – Waste Management’s Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville is a good example). Once they are sorted into bales or containers (in the case of glass) they are trucked to the appropriate company for processing into usable material.
What might my recyclables become?
You might be surprised at what products can be created from your recycled materials! The following list has some examples of some of the most common recyclables.
- Aluminum is a highly recyclable material: nearly 75% of the aluminum ever produced is still in use! An estimated 620,000 tons of aluminum cans alone were recycled in the U.S. in 2017. Most of these become new aluminum cans, but they can also be recycled into parts for cars, bicycles, and even airplanes as aluminum is lightweight as well as durable.
- Steel is another commonly recycled metal, with cans and appliance parts making up the majority of steel in municipal solid waste. Like aluminum, recycled steel cans can become new cans as well as bicycle and car parts. However, steel can also be recycled into new appliances and construction materials such as steel rebar and steel beams.
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE) (resin code #1) is often used to create thin plastic beverage bottles (such as for soda) and is one of the most common plastics produced. Unlike metals, plastic is more difficult to recycle into the same item again and again. Instead, many recycled PET bottles become polyester fabric that’s used in products like carpet and clothing (t-shirts, fleece jackets, etc.). You might be wearing your old plastic bottles!
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE) (resin code #2) is used to create sturdier plastic containers such as milk jugs and laundry detergent containers. In addition to new jugs and containers, recycled HDPE can also be used to manufacture a wide range of items including buckets, frisbees, and plastic “lumber” used in some outdoor furniture like park benches, play structures, and picnic tables.
- Cardboard (old corrugated cardboard, or “OCC”) is often recycled into new cardboard, but can also be recycled into paper bags, boxboard (shoe boxes, cereal boxes, etc.), and even wood chip substitutes. Cardboard benefits from being one of the easiest materials to sort out at recycling material recovery facilities (MRFs).
- Mixed paper such as boxboard (shoe boxes, cereal boxes, etc.), office paper, and newspaper is typically broken down into pulp and used to make more of the same products at paper mills. Depending on the grade of fiber, mixed paper can also be recycled into paper towel or toilet paper rolls, or the paper towel or toilet paper itself, or similar products like napkins and facial tissues. Finally, recycled paper can become a part of aggregate materials like building insulation, drywall (sheet rock), or cat litter.
- Glass bottles and jars (not other household glasses like vases) are often used to make new glass bottles and jars. Like aluminum, glass is a highly recyclable material that can be used to re-create the same types of products again and again. Some recycled glass is repurposed into more specialty materials like countertops, tiling, landscaping fixtures, and even roadway base aggregate material.