Causes Environment

The Truth About Recycling: A Beginner’s Guide

Written by Julia Eden

There’s a piece of trash in my hand. I’m standing in the kitchen. Fear paralyzes me. The little number on the bottom of the piece, inside the recycling symbol, is a five… What does that mean?!? ARE YOU RECYCLABLE LITTLE TRASH PIECE??? TELL ME!!!

Turns out, that little number surrounded by an instantly recognizable arrow motif, doesn’t mean anything – at least, not to the average consumer. Instead, the manufacturer uses that number to denote the polymer content of the plastic.


Susan Robinson, Senior Public Affairs Director at Waste Management.

The Truth According To Recycling

I recently had the good fortune of speaking with Susan Robinson, Senior Public Affairs Director at Waste Management (you know those trucks you always see rolling around with the big WM on the side? Them.), and she was able to set me straight about how to recycle right.

“…we focused for years on recycling as being the goal, but one of the things I think we need to help consumers understand, so they can take responsibility for, is recycling as being one tool in the toolbox, and we’ve kind of lost sight of some of that whole system/bigger picture/reduction, quite frankly.”

This concept is the idea that struck me most deeply. The three R’s are: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. You probably noticed that recycling is last in the chain. And it should be last because it is the least sustainable action for our waste. As consumers, the most significant impact we can have on our waste output is to consider the packaging in our shopping choices. Recycling is a fantastic tool, but as Susan said, it is one of several, and we need to treat every step with that consideration.

“…educating consumers about recycling is the brick and mortar, the foundation, of a good program.”

So let’s start with education. One of the hardest parts about recycling is the complexity of the system. We are making an increasing range of plastics. Technological advances in the recycling process are expensive and slow to integrate. And cities and counties across the nation all have different systems and capabilities. To understand how all of this intersects, we first need to dissect how the system works.

Step By Step

1. You, the consumer, put your recyclable material in your one recycling bin – we call this single stream.
2. A big truck comes by and takes your contribution to the sorting plant.
3. Once at the sorting facility, both man and machine separate the pieces by material – aluminum, cardboard and paper, plastics, etc.
4. Now sorted, the recyclables are combined into bales and sold to the appropriate recycling plant or manufacturer, based on material content.

Seems pretty simple on the face of it, but this is actually where things start to get complicated…


The ubiquitous recycling arrows, co-opted by the public, are a misleading symbol.

Single Stream

Single stream is the system that allowed the consumer household to go from multiple receptacles, each for a specific material, to a single one. While this made it easier for the average consumer to recycle, it has also contributed to complacency.

“What’s interesting about single stream is we find, consistently, that about 40 percent more material [is contributed]…when you implement a single stream program, and so with more convenience, you have more people who are recycling more…[This] has all contributed to what we see as an increase in the amount of non-recyclable materials coming into facilities. Before single stream, about 8 percent of the incoming material was non-recyclable. Today about 16 percent of the material is non-recyclable.”


Contamination is a convoluted subject because of its perceived simplicity. However, it’s deceptively complicated. Contamination includes anything that is not supposed to be there. Things that shouldn’t be there include liquid and food waste as well as unsuitable material like mixed packaging or non-recyclable plastic.

“I think the most important thing to remember is that recycling is creating a feedstock for the manufacture of another product. So…the recyclables coming into our facilities are a feedstock…to make a product which then we’re selling for revenue off the back end. So when there’s more contamination, processing costs go up. And if the processing cost is higher than what we can then sell the product for, it doesn’t work well. More cost and less revenue make it difficult for communities and regions to sustain healthy recycling systems.”


The key to recycling is: Reduce, then Reuse, then Recycle. In that order. Rinse, repeat.

The Takeaway (Container)

So now that we all know a bit more about recycling, what do we do with this information? Here are the points to keep in mind when tackling this issue:

  • Just don’t buy it. If it’s not an absolute necessity, do you need it?
  • If you do need it, do you already have it? Can you repurpose something old into something new?
  • If you don’t already have it, can you get it second hand?
  • Ok. So you have to buy new. Consider the packaging: Can you get it in bulk? Can you use your own bag? What’s the biggest size you can get without wasting the product (i.e., food spoilage)? Can you find it in recyclable packaging.
  • This one is a biggie – Know Your Area’s Recycling Program! Access your local information online, through your recycling provider or government’s site for specific details on how to recycle right in your area.
  • Here’s an easy one-page guide to recycling right. Make it your screensaver for passive learning!
  • For more in-depth information on recycling, including some really neat facts and statistics, here’s my favorite interactive infographic from Waste Management.

Now I turn it over to you…Do you have a favorite recycling myth that I missed? What steps do you take in your own life to reduce consumption and waste? Please share your tips and tricks in the comments so we can get the conversation going! The ability to recycle waste is a wonderful piece of technology to have at our disposal. Let’s all decide to never take that for granted!

(Click here to read the interview in its entirety.)

About the author

Julia Eden

With a passion born in rivers, Julia Eden has spent the last decade crusading for the environment. Educated in fashion design and English Literature, and skilled in dance, she is dedicated to finding the information needed to live a new and better life. While not quite a Luddite, she would very much like to live in a cave with a wolf and an internet connection.

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