The Truth About Recycling

What’s right and what’s wrong? Expert weighs in.

By Heather Trim

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MirageC/Getty

September 7, 2022

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2022 issue of Seattle Magazine.

People ask all the time, “What can I do to reduce plastic and waste?” We have all seen the explosion in our lives of items that come encapsulated in layers of plastic. Or the deliveries that arrive at our doorway with so much packaging that you fill your recycling bin to overflowing.

Here is the great news. There are a ton of easy ways to go zero waste. And these ideas will help reduce your carbon footprint and, as a bonus, save you money. It is no longer a fringe thing to go green in your daily life.

Go for a growler. The beer industry is way ahead by using these refillable containers. Bringing in your growler supports local jobs, reduces transportation impacts and is the epitome of zero waste.

Any refill action you can take is great. If you like to camp, get a refillable propane canister. All sorts of mobile refilleries are sprouting up in our region, where you can refill shampoos and cleansers. And since March 1, it has been legal in Washington to bring your own container to fill up on bulk foods or take-home foods, so long as the retailer has completed a contamination plan.

Bring your own thermos or mug when you order coffee and carry your own reusable water bottle. We recommend stainless steel or glass bottles because they are chemically inert and will last a long time. 

Avoid buying items that come with excess packaging. Many leading brands have heard the message and are offering low packaging or refillable options. 

Did you know that Amazon started a Frustration-Free Packaging program in 2008 for venders to provide products in 100% recyclable packaging that does not need that extra “smile” box on the outside? And when you check out, you can select to bundle your items into fewer boxes.

Speaking of 100% recyclable, everyone is confused about recycling.

Generally, in Washington, paper, metal (beer and soda cans, tuna cans, and practically all scrap metal), and glass recycle well in our system. Be careful with glass though – and this is super confusing. You should put only glass bottles, containers and jars in your recycle bin. Mirror glass, light bulbs, window glass and other glass items melt at different temperatures and thus are unwanted contaminants. And please do not put broken ceramic plates or mugs in your recycling bin. A small piece of ceramic can ruin an entire vat of molten glass at the glass recycler. Total horror for our recycling professionals.

Beverage bottles and clear containers made of #1 plastic and milk jugs, shampoo bottles and cleansers made of #2 plastic are the best to recycle. The other numbers (i.e., 3-7) are generally difficult to recycle because they are challenging to turn into new things. 

Plastic bags and film wrap are a major headache for our recycling sorting centers. Don’t put these in your recycling bin. Instead, find a grocery store that has a takeback bin out front. Bags and film wrap that have a little flexibility (i.e., it flexes slightly when you poke it with your finger) can be recycled into high quality plastic lumber. Crinkly film like the type that come around most crackers, on the other hand, should go in the garbage bin. It does not make good lumber.

The items you recycle do not have to be pristine clean. All you have to do is shake out the liquid. A few drops remaining is fine. And you need to just scrape off the chunky food. A little slime of food on items does not hurt recycling. Do take care, though, when paper and cardboard gets wet. That is a problem. Avoid that!

Try not to waste food. In the U.S., a shocking amount of food goes to the landfill. You can help reduce this by going for smaller portions, buying only what you will prepare and eat, freezing items for later, using all food items in your fridge (for example, saving veggie scraps to make stock) and, of course, composting all leftover food waste.

Reduce microfibers that shed from your clothes when you clean them in your clothes washer. Strive for natural fibers. And wash in cold water and hang dry as much as possible. Instead of washing your cloths for one use, try airing them out and washing less frequently. This will make them last longer.

Finally, and most importantly: Just don’t buy it. 

If you can repair it, borrow it. Or take an alternative approach and avoid the major resource and climate change impacts of extraction, manufacturing, transport and disposal. Did you really need another T-shirt? If you dig into your bureau, don’t you find several perfectly good T-shirts that are waiting for their day?

The planet and your wallet will thank you if you take these easy steps.

Heather Trim is executive director at Zero Waste Washington, a nonprofit, Seattle-based environmental consultant.

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