Recycling: What Is It & How Does It Work?
You don’t have to be an eco super warrior to make a positive difference in the world. Recycling, for example, is quick, effective and doesn’t require you to cut out meat and dairy (we can talk about going vegan later).
Want to hear some good news? Reports show that more and more people want to live sustainably. Either we got smarter or all that pressure to “go green” finally paid off—either way, recycling is popular now and it’s easy to do in most cities.
Waste sucks—yeah, there’s a lot of it—but with a little care and common sense, we can make less of it and start to reverse the trend.
As we push for more package-free and recyclable options, sustainability may finally have its moment.
With any luck, the brands you love will make it easier to find ethical options where you shop.
Eco-friendly products aren’t just for boutique stores—some of the biggest brands are rolling out more sustainable packaging options, helping to cut waste in a big way. Does this mean it’s easy to shop green? Not quite, but it’s a step in the right direction.
We know the struggle of finding quality, eco-conscious products. Pickings are slim, and if you want to avoid unnecessary packaging, finding the right store is important. So to make life easier for all of us, we’ve rounded up a few trustworthy brands to make their products easier to find.
Say hello to the Waste-Ed Co-op, your one-stop shop for minimally packaged, eco-friendly products. Everything we sell is chosen based on its low environmental impact and ethical packaging, so you can get what you need without all the single-use plastic and packing peanuts.
It’d be nice if there weren’t so much useless packaging, but here we are—living in a world where even prunes are individually wrapped.
The best way to cut waste is to not have any in the first place, but when that’s not possible, going package-free keeps waste out of landfills. No way to avoid packaging? You’re left with the next best option: recycling.
Recycling gleans raw materials from worn-out products so they don’t sit and waste away in a landfill. Materials like plastic, glass, metal, paper and electronics are broken down, sold to manufacturers and used again.
You’d be surprised by what’s made from recycled materials. Your car, for example, is mostly recycled steel. Most aluminum cans contain 70% recycled metal. Over a third of all glass is recovered and recycled. Even some boxes are made from recycled paper.
The best part? Recycling saves a ton of energy.
Products made from virgin raw materials can take up to 3x more energy to produce than those made with existing materials.
Recycled products cost less to produce, perform just as well as those made from new materials and do it all without polluting the planet.
As recycling gets cheaper, recycled products become a better, more viable option. If we want to say goodbye to plastic, effective recycling is the way to do it.
What Does Recycling Do?
Did you know plastic products are made by melting little plastic beads and pouring them into a mold? This is how they make milk jugs, medicine bottles, spatulas and pretty much any other plastic thing you can think of.
Can you spot the difference between recycled plastic and brand new, virgin plastic? We can’t. For almost any product, recycled plastic holds up just as well and costs less to produce and use.
Feeling adventurous? Try recycling plastic at home. HDPE—the plastic in small water bottles—can be cut into small pieces and melted down with a panini press, then folded into sheets of rigid plastic that you can cut into shapes.
Paper is recycled by soaking in water and blending it into a thick pulp. The pulp is pressed into paper moulds and dried. Because paper is so easy to recycle, over 68% of it was recycled in 2018. And if we’re being honest, it’s super fun to make.
Glass, metal and paper are all way easier to recycle than plastic. While you should choose these options when you can, some plastics can be recycled without too much trouble.
The problem is those other plastics can’t be recycled at all.
What Labels Tell You (& What They Don’t)
First, make sure whatever you toss into recycling is clean. It’s fun to imagine that the heat that melts plastic will incinerate food residue, but it won’t. Food particles contaminate other recyclables, so make it easy on plant workers and clean out your containers.
Also, just because something says it’s recyclable doesn’t mean it is. Some plastics are so tough to recycle that they are simply thrown out. Others, like Tetra Pak, use so many different recyclable materials that it’s impossible to separate and reuse them without special machinery.
When a product is too difficult to recycle, it's shipped to another country for processing, emitting CO2 and offsetting the benefits of recycling.
But wait a second—companies wouldn’t mark something for recycling that isn't, would they?
Let’s Read the Numbers
Everyone knows that famous arrow triangle, but what about the numbers inside? Do they all mean the same thing? Unfortunately not.
Let’s take a look at what each number means.
PETE: Polyethylene terephthalate is one of the easiest plastics to recycle. It’s used in soda bottles, peanut butter jars and more. Definitely toss these ones in the recycling bin.
HDPE: High-density polyethylene is used in milk jugs, shampoo bottles and trash bags. It’s also easy to recycle, so get these containers in the bin too.
Vinyl: Vinyl and PVC are tough to recycle. While they can be reused, most recycling plants just throw them out. Steer clear of these products if you can.
LDPE: Unlike HDPE, low-density polyethylene is hard to recycle even though it’s used in shopping bags, frozen foods and furniture. LDPE is a single-use plastic.
PP: With its high melting point, polypropylene is used in medicine bottles, yogurt containers and more. It’s a tough material, but it’s even tougher to recycle. Reuse instead.
PS: Polystyrene (aka Styrofoam) is so hard to recycle that it’s banned in some countries. Avoid this stuff—it’ll end up in a landfill.
Miscellaneous: If you see a 7 inside a recycling symbol, there may as well be nothing there because these plastics can’t be recycled.
Soup cans also pose a problem. While old-style tin cans are easily recyclable, manufacturers today coat them with BPA to prevent bacteria growth. Not only is BPA bad for your health, but it also contaminates recycling streams. You may want to go with dry mix soups instead.
What Else Can Be Recycled?
Recycling isn’t just for plastic and metal—it’s a whole lifestyle. Most people know about recycling newspaper and milk cartons, but did you know you can also recycle computers, clothing, batteries and other materials?
As new technology rolls out to cut C02 emissions, we’ll have new things to recycle.
Solar panels, batteries and electronics contain rare metals that need to be recovered. It would be a shame if we ran out of computer parts because they ended up in a landfill. Before you throw it out, check if it can be recycled first!
To Wrap Things Up
Recycling is great, but going waste-free is even better. Since we know how tough it is to find products with minimal packaging, we started our co-op to make it a little easier.
Always check to make sure that what you recycle can be reused. It may not feel like much, but you’re making a difference you can feel proud about.
The more we reduce, reuse and recycle, the more businesses will follow suit and put eco-friendly products on store shelves.