I know from personal experience that taking a first step toward reducing your environmental impact can be an overwhelming prospect. Where do you even start? There are a lot of resources available on this topic - blogs, articles, podcasts - but sometimes the sheer volume of information can paralyze us to inaction.
It helps to stop, take a deep breath, and remember that any lifestyle change, no matter how minute, is going to make a difference, so the only thing that matters is that we start somewhere. (Psst! If you haven't yet read my quick start guide or last month's post about taking a first step, check those out first!)
I have to admit, there was a time in my life when I didn't recycle, because I was so confused about which items my curbside recycling service would accept. This probably has something to do with the fact that my superintendent yelled at me for putting cardboard in the recycling bin with the glass, plastic, and metal, which led me to believe that cardboard wasn't recyclable in my area. I wish he'd explained to me that cardboard is recyclable, but has to be segregated from glass, metal, and plastic.
So what can you actually recycle? The short answer: more than you think. The complicated answer: it depends on where you live.
If You're Not Already Recycling, Start NOW
Call your city council, or go to their website, and find out if there is a recycling collection service available in your area. If there is, find out what their requirements are for collection. They may want you to use a specific type of bin or bag, or may have restrictions on recycling certain items.
If there is no recycling pickup service available in your area, find out where your nearest recycling collection center is. Pay them a visit and find out which items they'll accept. Odds are, they'll accept paper, plastic, glass, and tin at the very least. Some centers accept household items like batteries, lightbulbs, and electronics as well.
Segregate Your Trash
Create a home for each type of rubbish: a place for paper and cardboard, a place for recyclable plastic, glass, and food cans, a place for food waste, and a place for other household trash that can't be recycled. When you separate out the items that can be recycled or composted, it's easier to spot the items in your regular trash bin that could be avoided or eliminated.
For example, do you see a lot of plastic cutlery or styrofoam takeaway containers? Cutting back on takeaway meals, or bringing your own food containers and cutlery to takeaway restaurants could eliminate these. Lots of single-use coffee cups and lids? Invest in a reusable cup and kiss these goodbye.
Plastic, Glass, and Cans (Tins)
There is no excuse for throwing glass food jars or bottles in the trash. EVER. Same goes for tin cans. These are the most universally and easily recycled items, so sending them to landfill is almost criminal.
Where you live will determine how much plastic you can recycle. You'll have to call your city council to see which recycling numbers they'll accept. For example, my local recycling service will only accept #1 and #2 plastics for recycling. Things like blister packaging and dairy containers are usually #5 plastic, and can't be recycled in my area, so I try to avoid them when I can.
And don't forget what I mentioned in this post, about plastics having a limited lifespan, even when we recycle them. Recycle the plastics you can, but try to avoid them when possible. Are there water bottles in your bin? Get yourself a reusable bottle stat! Lots of plastic milk cartons? Try finding milk in glass, or make your own nut milk at home instead.
Paper and Cardboard
In most places, paper and cardboard are recyclable. Depending where you live, you may or may not be able to recycle glossy or heavily printed paper. You'll have to check with your local council on this. In general, though, non-glossed paper and cardboard are easier to break down, so it's best to opt for non-glossed packaging when you can.
If you're having a hard time recycling paper and cardboard in your area (and even if you're not), you should consider composting it! Shredded paper and cardboard make great dry material for a compost heap; combine them with your food waste to create extremely rich and fertile soil for your garden or someone else's.
How often does food sit in your fridge or cupboard until it goes bad? What about leftovers? Making a conscious effort to buy only the food that you'll eat before it rots, and to polish off those leftovers, can save a lot of organic material from ending up in your bin.
Even if you do have to throw out food that's gone off, though, it should be composted rather than tossed in with the rest of your regular rubbish. Some communities (like mine) have municipal composting operations and will collect food waste along with the recycling, which could be a good option for you if you're not into the idea of composting yourself. Some farmers markets also have compost collection stalls.
I've heard it said that recycling is a "good place to start, but a bad place to end." But if you're new to the recycling game, focus on diverting as much as you can from the landfill, and eventually you'll be able to cut down on the things you send to the recycling bin as well! Change takes time and it happens in small steps, so it's best to make one small adjustment, and once that starts to feel comfortable for you, make another. Every little bit helps.