So I was cleaning the bathroom the other day, wondering to myself how three children can make one room smell like a subway station urinal in a matter of hours, when I spied the empty toilet paper roll on the counter. Of course, no one had thought to put out more toilet paper—that would be far too much effort—nor had he or she endeavored to toss the roll into the trash can. But as I picked the roll up to throw it away, I stopped myself—wondering, as I do a hundred times a day, if it can be recycled. What would you do? Even a treehugger can be stumped by green recycling. Does it go in the blue bin or the black? Do I need to wash it first? Here are some answers. Here’s how my thought process went: It’s paper, right? But there’s glue or some kind of toilet paper adhesive stuck to it. Does that mean it can’t be recycled? What about my almost-empty shampoo bottle? Should I leave the roll in the bathroom until that’s done and then take them both down together? What if I leave it and someone throws it in the trash? Will I dig it out? Will I be able to find it? Will I go to bad environmentalist hell if I can’t?!?
And then the reality hit me: I’m stressing over a f*cking toilet paper roll.
Yes, it’s important to recycle and buy organic and clothes swap and plant a garden and avoid synthetic chemicals in my beauty products and keep my kids away from BPA. (For more on the importance of these things, check out the Mommy Greenest Guide to Going Green.)
But it’s exhausting! Sometimes I wish I didn’t know about toxic chemicals and pesticides and global warming. Life now is like living a constant double-take, where you go to do what you’ve always done and then—screeching to a halt, holding toilet paper roll above trash can—realize that you need to think about its environmental implications.
It’s helpful to remember the stakes: Not to get all heavy on you or anything, but in August we celebrated Earth Overshoot Day, which marks the date when the world’s population exhausts our natural resources. Each year, that day arrives earlier. And at this point, we need the resources of about 1.6 Earths to support the demands of the one we’re on.
So it might help if we could hold each action in our lives up to the litmus test of: Can I do this another way so it has less of an impact on the Earth? The toilet paper roll encounter is a perfect example. A few years ago I would have just tossed it in the trash—but this time, I recycled it. And the shampoo bottle, too.
But even a treehugger can be stumped by recycling. Does it go in the blue bin or the black? Do I need to wash it first? Here are some answers.
What do those arrows and numbers on the bottom of plastic bottles mean?
That’s the “chasing arrow” symbol, and the number in the middle indicates the type of plastic the container is made from. Typically, numbers one and two are the most widely recyclable plastics, and some recycling programs even take Stryofoam!
Why do I have to wash out my recycling before I put it in the bin?
First, to remove possible contaminants and second to keep your recycling bin from getting stinky. However, you won’t prevent a can from being recycled if you leave it dirty.
Can I recycle small pieces of paper—like tissues?
Facial tissue can’t be recycled. The fibers are too weak to be turned into usable paper. And tissue is often contaminated with oils that make them unable to be recycled—the same problem is inherent in trying to recycle paper towels.
What about plastic bags. Can I recycle those?
Plastic bags can be recycled. However, unlike plastic bottles, many curbside programs will not accept plastic bags. Because they’re so light, these bags can get stuck inside machinery during the recycling process. The good news is that many major grocery chains now accept plastic bags and plastic wrap at their stores. Look for special plastic bag recycling bins.
Can I recycle small pieces of hard plastic? What about bottle caps?
Yes, you can recycle small pieces of hard plastic like bottle tops. Bottle caps are metal, but they’re typically lined with plastic—items made from mixed materials can’t be recycled because the materials can’t be separated. Same thing goes for juice boxes and coated cardboard drink containers—although there are new versions specially marked for recycling or composting, which are indicated on the label.
I’m buying a beer. Bottle or can?
Can, definitely. Most cans contain 50% or more recycled aluminum. And a used aluminum can is recycled and back on the grocery shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days.
I recycle about half of my trash. Could I be doing more?
You’re doing great! According to the EPA, nearly 75% of the 6,000 pounds of trash the average American household generates each year is recyclable and/or compostable, yet we typically only recycle and compost 34%. But yes, you can always do more.
I know how to recycle my bottles and cans, but what about my office equipment?
Your cell phones, office equipment, batteries and ink cartridges can be recycled, but you can’t just dump them in your blue bin; you need to research where to recycle them in your area. Office equipment like phones and computers can also be recycled through general electronics collections at places like the Goodwill.
What can I recycle from my closet?
In the closet, recycle your metal hangers by bringing them back to your dry cleaners. Dry cleaning bags are recyclable in those plastic bag collections bins we talked about earlier. And if you sell or donate your used clothing to a thrift store, you’ll cut down on the nearly 70 pounds of clothing and textiles that the average American tosses into the landfill each year.
So what can’t I recycle?
Aerosol cans (you aren’t still using those, right?), ceramics, diapers (as if), household glass like window panes and mirrors, light bulbs and CFLs (because of the mercury) and tires. Oh, and hazardous waste, of course. Find a drop off in your neighborhood where those can be safely disposed of.
When in doubt, I use Earth911.com. Just type in your zip code, enter the item you want to dispose of, and the site tells you where and how to do it. It makes green recycling easy!
What’s stumped you when it comes to green recycling? I’d love to hear about it, in comments. Thanks!