Steps to Recycling
As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.
Get information about recycling here.
What is Recycling and Why Should We Recycle?
Doing Our Part for the Planet
With growing awareness and concern about the environment and the impact of human activity on Earth, many of us are considering what more we can do. Many local governments offer recycle many items through pick-up services, along with the trash pick-up. Some areas have non-profit and other organizations that assist with providing drop-off locations, sorting, and delivery to other facilities that re-use the materials. Wherever you live, finding out more, and how to do your part is the first step. Once you have the information about resources in your area, you can establish a plan for your household about what to recycle, how to sort it efficiently, and what to do with it each week.
What is Recycling?
The definition of “recycle” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “to pass again through a series of changes or treatments, such as to process (something, such as liquid body waste, glass, or cans) in order to regain material for human use…to reuse or make (a substance) available for reuse for biological activities through natural processes of biochemical degradation or modification.” Essentially, it’s converting materials that would otherwise be discarded as garbage into useable materials. For example, office paper that is recycled may be processed to create more office paper, paper towels, toilet paper, or other paper products. Plastic bottles and aluminum cans can be recycled to create other plastic and aluminum products. Polyester and other fibers from old clothing can be recycled into the fabric for new clothing. Broken electrical devices can be broken down, and materials within can be recycled for reuse. In some communities, even electronics can be recycled. In other words, more materials can be recycled than many of us realize.
Centuries of Practice
While it seems like a relatively new concept that gained momentum in the 1970s around much of the world, reusing items has a much longer history. Various ways of reusing items and materials have existed in some form for thousands of years, dating back to 400 BC or earlier.
Digging into history has revealed a lot to us about the people, communities, and practices of centuries past, including how people have used and reused materials. Archaeologists have revealed that people were melting and reusing glass starting in the Byzantine era in present-day Turkey. Other similar practices that archaeologists have discovered include melting bronze coins for conversion into statues by the Romans, and, throughout time, reuse of metals, pottery, and other waste during times of war, famine, and other stress.
The Industrial Revolution
Before the Industrial Revolution began in the western world, it was commonplace to reuse household items, such as glass and aluminum. The primary motivation during those times was to use recycled materials rather than new, raw materials for economic efficiency purposes. After the Industrial Revolution, in parts of the world facing the massive changes with the onset of technology and efficient production of goods in factories, it was convenient and sometimes less expensive to simply dispose of items in favor of purchasing new products.
Impact of World Wars
The onset of world wars had a dramatic impact on the use of materials, with resulting fluctuations in the practice of reusing materials. During World War II, the shortage of materials such as metal and rubber used in warfare led to the need for conservation and reuse of materials back home. This practice during that time was considered patriotic, with campaigns in many nations to conserve fiber and donate metals, while reusing at home. After World War II, on the other hand, there was a shift. While some countries continued reuse efforts due to a lack of resources because of the war, other countries faced a decline in the conservation of materials. In the United States and other countries, landfills provided an inexpensive way to dispose of items seen as trash, and the recycle trend declined.
The environmental movement that started in the 1960s in the western world, along with a rise in energy costs, led to increased awareness and concern for the environment and conservation. This, in turn, promoted an economic incentive to conserve materials once again. It was during the 1970s that the concept of curbside pick-up of used items was first initiated, which led to this common practice starting in the 1980s. The first city in the United States to recuse was Woodbury, New Jersey. This initiative prompted many other cities to follow suit, establishing successful programs aimed at reducing waste.
Why Should We Recycle?
Reusing materials in new products is beneficial in a multitude of ways. At one end of the spectrum, using recycled materials for new products means that fewer raw materials are being used, which helps us preserve our natural environment. At the other end of the spectrum, we reduce the amount of waste we produce that winds up in landfills and oceans.
Preserving Our Environment and Natural Resources
Wood, metals, petroleum for plastics all require extraction of those materials from the source: trees through deforestation or harvesting of cultivated trees, metals through various mining practices, oil for petroleum and plastics through drilling into the earth. These extractive practices each have potentially negative impacts on the environmental ecosystems they come from. Soil, water, air, the animals and humans that live near these areas can suffer from the negative impacts of deforestation, pollution, chemical by-products used in the extraction practices, and the long-term economic stress of “boom and bust” economies. Reusing or repurposing previously extracted, used materials for processing into new products cuts down on the impacts of the extractive processes required for acquiring new materials.
Reducing Waste in Landfills and Oceans
While throwing away items removes them from our homes, offices, and yards, these items must be taken somewhere. If not recycled, anything we discard will be taken to a “dump”, waste yard, or landfill. This means more landfills, and greater risk of contamination of soil and water, which we rely on for growing our food and for clean water to drink.
The United States is the number one trash-producing country in the world, with each person creating 1,609 pounds of garbage each year. Worldwide, we dump 2.12 billion tons of waste annually, with hundreds of truck visits to each landfill each day. Calculated over the lifetime of each person worldwide, this is an unbelievable amount of garbage that must go somewhere, and this means that there are more landfills, dumps and raw garbage each year that either does not break down at all or decompose at a very slow pace. Plastic, for example, can take up to 1,000 years to decompose. Some items, such as batteries, lightbulbs, and thermometers, contain toxic substances that end up in landfills, increasing the risk of contamination of our water and soil.
The Problem With Landfills
While it may seem that our trash is out of sight, it’s a lot closer than many of us realize. In the United States alone, there are about 2,000 landfills across the country. Typically, each landfill can only remain open for between 30 and 50 years, with another 30 years of monitoring required by the Environmental Protection Agency to ensure public health. During a landfill’s lifetime, the impacts on surrounding communities are noticeable, with methane stations to burn the gases that waste produces, dump truck noise and wear on our roads, and air pollution and odors from the garbage. Once a landfill is closed, there is a delay during the monitoring before that land above it can safely be considered for potential use by people for housing, parks, and other community needs. Add to that the impact on our oceans that we hear about increasingly, and the negative effects of trash seems insurmountable.
Part of the solution is to recycle used materials. By doing this, we both reduce the negative impacts of resource extraction, and we create a more livable environment for all of us and future generations.
*Do you have some useful information? Email it to us.
Obtain resources for recycling here.
Do you have used electronics laying around? Get involved in America Recycles Day by recycling them with certified recyclers.
Visit our Electronics Donation and Recycling page for more information on electronics recycling.
3. Training & Education
Learn about recycling here.
America Recycles Day
On America Recycles Day 2019 (November 15), EPA recognized the importance and impact of recycling, which has contributed to American prosperity and the protection of our environment. The recycling rate has increased from less than 7 percent in 1960 to the current rate of 32 percent. An EPA study found that recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 681,000 jobs and $37.8 billion in wages.
The recycling efforts of communities and business throughout the United States have helped with this success and growth. To build on our progress, EPA encourages every American to contribute by recycling right, not only on every annual America Recycles Day, but all year. This means checking with your local recycling provider to be certain that they will accept everything you place in your recycling bin. Items like cardboard, metal cans and paper are commonly accepted by local curbside programs, and items like plastic bags, electronics and batteries can NEVER go in the curbside recycling bin. Visit our How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables to see how and where to recycle these and other items.
On this page:
Benefits of Recycling
Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators
Conserves natural resources such as timber, water and minerals
Increases economic security by tapping a domestic source of materials
Prevents pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials
Supports American manufacturing and conserves valuable resources
Helps create new well-paying jobs in the recycling and manufacturing industries in the United States
What You Can Do To Reduce Waste
Find out what you can do to help make a difference in our environment every day. Whether you're at home, on the go, in the office or at school, there are many opportunities to go green by reducing, reusing and recycling. Visit the links below to see how, and check out our Think Green Before You Shop poster for questions you can ask yourself before shopping to reduce, reuse and recycle more.
Recycling Saves Resources and Creates Jobs
To celebrate America Recycles Day in 2016, EPA released significant findings on the economic benefits of the recycling industry with an update to the national Recycling Economic Information (REI) Study. This study analyzes the numbers of jobs, wages and tax revenues attributed to recycling. The study found that in a single year, recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for:
$37.8 billion in wages; and
$5.5 billion in tax revenues.
This equates to 1.17 jobs for every 1,000 tons of materials recycled.
The ferrous metals industry provides the largest contribution to all three categories (job, wage, and tax revenue), followed by construction and demolition (C&D) and non-ferrous metals such as aluminum.
For more information, check out the full report.
Recycle More, Recycle Right
How often do you ask yourself what's right to put in your recycling bin? Next time you go to throw something away, get creative and think of ways to reduce waste in the first place! There are many ways to improve the recycling rate. Check out our What You Can Do to Improve the Recycling Rate fact sheet for ideas on how you can improve your recycling. Additionally, see our poster to the right and our How Do I Recycle?: Common Recyclables web page to learn how to recycle more and recycle right.
Check out our Frequent Questions on Recycling page for more information on ways you can contribute and where.
Save Energy By Recycling
Recycling everyday objects, such as paper, bottles and magazines saves energy. The materials that you recycle are used to create the products you buy. This means less virgin material needs to be mined or harvested, processed, manufactured and transported - all of which consume energy. The iWARM tool is based on EPA's Waste Reduction Model (WARM) for solid waste planners and organizations. iWARM can be used to calculate how much energy organizations can save and how much greenhouse gases they can avoid by recycling versus landfilling their waste.
Learn how to implement recycling here.
*If curbside is not the right resource for recycling your item, find out what is. Join the Zero Waste Movement!
What Can’t Be Recycled?
Much of what we use daily can be recycled and, in many communities, picked up at your curb. For curbside pick-up, you can usually recycle rigid plastics, such as bottles and other containers. Most paper and cardboard products are recyclable, including cereal and other dried goods boxes, phone books, magazines, mail, newspaper, cardboard boxes, and office paper. Recyclable metals include tin, aluminum and steel cans and containers. Any glass food containers and jars, beverage bottles of different colors can be recycled.
What Can’t Be Recycled?
Depending on where you live and the services available in your area, some items cannot be recycled curbside, and you may have to deliver them to a recycling center that accepts them. Checking online, you can find the services provided in your area by the city or county where you live, and by any non-profit, store, and other organizations that also provide those services.
There are some items that are not generally recyclable, including Styrofoam egg containers, take-out containers, and cups; loose plastic bags and stretch wrap; soiled food containers and paper products; broken or sharp glass, batteries, light bulbs. Commonly, many pick-up services do not take these items or broken electronics. In these situations, there are sometimes other options available before you decide to throw something away.
In some communities, there are more extensive services provided, either by the city or county or by a local store or organization. Some cities provide pick-up services for certain items, such as electronics, on designated days or at designated locations regularly, or have designated drop-off locations for certain items such as batteries, light bulbs, and electronics. City websites, and information included in garbage collection billing notices provide details about when and where you can drop off items not picked up at the curb. In addition, there are trash removal organizations in many communities that accept drop-off of items not picked up by commercial, municipal, or county curbside services. Those organizations have the staff, volunteers and equipment to dismantle, sort, recycle, and relocate for reuse many materials that are otherwise considered not recyclable.
If you do have an organization nearby that recycles, their website will include a list of what they accept and can include materials such as packing materials, electronics, batteries, light bulbs, clothes, a variety of plastics, and more. If you do not have an enhanced processing center near you, you may call your local hardware or home improvement store, as they often accept and recycle used lightbulbs and electronics. Before you discard these materials, check online for possible options near you.
Compost Food and Yard Waste
Yard and food waste make up a significant portion of the trash that goes to landfills. Some cities offer pick-up or accept drop-off of compost material, such as yard waste and trimmings and food waste. Also, some non-profit organizations, community gardens, and local farmers accept compost material, to be used for soil development in food production and landscaping. Increasingly, people are researching and trying their own home composting to cut down on waste and provide rich soil and natural fertilizer for their gardens. The many methods of composting are detailed in books and online for those who are interested.
Give It Away
Keep in mind that many items that you no longer need may be useful to someone else. Household items, clothing and shoes, parts left after a home remodeling, and construction materials are in demand by those in times of need. You can drop off these items at resale donation centers, churches, non-profit organizations, and volunteer-based affordable housing construction organizations. Some of these organizations will provide pick-up services if needed. Reuse of items is another way to recycle and plays an essential part in our conservation of the planet and healthy communities.
Organizing Your Recyclables
The internet abounds with websites providing creative ideas for planning and organizing your recycling efforts at home. Setting up designated bins for each type of recycled items, helps you recycle more efficiently. If you set up areas of the house, for example, a designated closet, to store broken electronics or used light bulbs until the designated pick-up or drop-off day to recycle those items and getting them out of your way will be more efficient. Coordinating with neighbors to take turns handling drop-off of certain types of recyclable items can save everyone time and help encourage each other to recycle more.
Toward a Better Environmental Future
Returning to the ways of yesteryear, of reusing and repurposing items, fixing what breaks instead of discarding, helping neighbors and working together, using only what we need, we can minimize the need to send garbage to the dump. While we can re-use some items or find a new purpose for them, when we recycle, we perform another very important part of the solution to a healthier planet and healthy communities.
5. Collaborate & Exemplify
Collaborate with people in your community on recycling and see how its done here.
All Green Recycling
w/Penn State University
Dr. Karen Winterich
What would happen if everyone recycled?
The world would look a lot different if everyone recycled. Most likely, it would be cleaner and make more use of available resources. Landfills would shrink tremendously. Recycling plants would be an epicenter of activity.
“As a society, if everyone recycled we will have moved from a linear ‘take, make, waste’ economy to one that is more circular by keeping materials in our economy and not allowing them to waste away in landfills,” Brenda Pulley, senior vice president of recycling with Keep America Beautiful, wrote via email. “It would contribute enormous environmental, economic and social benefits across the country.”
Here are a few ways the world might change if everyone recycled:
Plastic water bottles, aluminum cans and plastic bags would go a lot farther.
Keep America Beautiful compiled data to imagine what just one act of recycling by everyone in the U.S. might look like:
If everyone in America recycled just one plastic bottle, those materials could make more than 54 million T-shirts or about 6.5 million fleece jackets, according to Repreve data.
If everyone recycled one aluminum can, 295 million new aluminum cans could be made, according to Aluminum Association data. Also, everyone recycling just one can would reduce green house gas emissions equivalent to taking 6,750 passenger cars off the road and save energy equivalent to 80 thousand barrels of oil. Keep America Beautiful used the EPA WARM model to calculate energy estimates.
If everyone recycled one plastic bag, those materials could be reused in making 28,906 park benches or, according to Tex data,144,530 16-foot composite deck boards. Right now, plastic bags must taken to a drop-off location for recycling and shouldn't be mixed in with other recyclables.
With so many substances flowing through recycling plants, new products would be created. Chaz Miller, director of policy/advocacy with National Waste and Recycling Association, said that extent of recycling would create "products you and I haven't dreamed about."
Everyone could save money.
The Bureau of International Recycling, a global recycling organization based in Belgium, believes recyclables should be recognized as the seventh most important resource, behind water, air, coal, oil, natural gas and minerals. BIR President Ranjit Baxi said recycling has not only environmental benefits, but also paramount economic ones.
"The recycling industry, whilst continuing to promote sustainability, is also projected to add about 850 billion USD to the global GDP by 2025," Baxi said in an email. "It is time that all global stakeholders [recognize] the huge carbon emission savings our industry continues to contribute."
Efficient recycling practices could save companies millions. In Apple's latest Environmental Responsibility Report, the company said it recovered more than a ton of gold from recycled devices — that's an estimated worth of $40 million.
Recyclables would always go in the proper cans.
The greatest obstacle of recycling in America is contamination: People mixing recyclables and trash, unsure of the process. Here are current EPA guidelines on how to recycle.
"The chance that all of us would be perfect recyclers is pretty slim," Miller said. "For us to recycle everything implies that we’ve figured out a way to take all of the recyclables out of mixed garbage."
Everyone would have to know and abide by a streamlined recycling process.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific trash vortex, would be no more. (However big or small it is.)
Miller estimates the U.S. would need "a couple thousand" facilities to process materials, which could also effect the workforce. If the U.S. alone reached a recycling level of 75%, 1.5 million new jobs would become available, Recycle Across America reports.
There would still be waste.
"Waste is inevitable in any ecosystem," Miller said. "Every time you recycle something, there’s a little bit of loss."
For example, Miller said paper fibers can only be recycled seven times. After that, the fibers are too small to use.
Follow Ashley May on Twitter: @AshleyMayTweets
Do you or will you collaborate or exemplify for your neighbors recycling? Contact us and tell us your story!
6. Community Champions & Partners
Learn about community champions or partners who have (or are) recycling or contribute to the establishment of recycling efforts here.
Collection occurs every other week on the same day as trash collection.
Learn your collections schedule, view the 2021 curbside calendar (PDF), or review the accepted items. All residences and multi-family homes with four units or less that are on the City of Norfolk waste collection system are eligible for curbside recycling. To request a cart, please call 757-664-6510 or fill out the online form to request a cart. Households are also allowed to have up to two recycling carts at no additional charge.
Can’t remember your recycling collection date? Sign up for Recycling Perks to receive the Recycle e-Minder email to remind you to set out your recycling.
Where do you live. What are the rules and resources for your city or town?
Are you or will you be a community champion or partner in establishing rain gardens? Contact us and tell us your story!