Green for Dummies: Recycling

Almost four decades ago, a US paper company wanted a symbol to communicate its products’ recycled content to its customers. The design competition they held was won by Gary Anderson, a young graphic designer from the University of Southern California. His entry, based on the Mobius strip, (a shape with only one side and no end) is now universally recognized as the symbol for recycling. For many people, recycling conjures up the blue plastic bins and bottle drives, but it’s so much more than that. Recycling is a design principal, a law of nature, a source of creativity, and a source of prosperity.

Don’t forget: it’s three R’s — The aphorism is so tired it almost might seem like “reduce, reuse, recycle” should go without saying. But in fact, most of us have only really heard the last third of the phrase, and they’re ranked in order of importance. Reducing the amount that we consume, and shifting our consumption to well-designed products and services, is the first step. Finding constructive uses for “waste” materials is next. And tossing it in the blue bin is last. (The garbage can is not on this list, for good reason.) Through a balance of these three principals you can easily see your landfill-destined waste dwindle fast. A good example of recycling is setting your empty water bottles in the bin on the curb. But by using a water filter and reusable container you can reduce or completely eliminate your need for disposable plastic bottles.

Know your numbers — Read up on the recycling rules in your town and take care not to send in anything that can’t be processed and recycled; one bad bottle can blow a whole batch! Each city has its own specifics, so try to follow those guidelines as best you can.

Buy recycled — The essence of recycling is the cyclical movement of materials through the system, eliminating waste and the need to extract more virgin materials. Supporting recycling means feeding this loop by not only recycling, but also supporting recycled products. You can find high recycled content in everything from printer paper to office chairs to countertops.

Recycle your food — We’ve said it before [] and we’ll say it again: compost your leftover organic waste. Composting food scraps will mean your regular kitchen wastebasket fills up more slowly and also won’t smell. Remember, if you don’t have a garden yourself, find neighbors or a community garden that can make use of your soil — there’s always someone looking for some good dirt.

Recycle your electronics — Electronics recycling is becoming more common in many urban areas, battery recycling is ubiquitous (rechargeable batteries are ecologically sounder, but even they wear out after a while), and there are a number of non-profit organizations that will take computer parts and turn them into working computers for others. Companies like Ebay have also developed programs to help your electronics find new homes. Other groups will gladly recycle your cell phone or give it to a senior citizen, as even without a contract it can still make emergency calls. If you have a major appliance that doesn’t work and you’d rather replace it than try to fix it, offer it to local repair shops, trade schools, or hobbyists to tinker with. Many cities now offer hazardous waste recycling days when they will take both hazardous waste and electronics. Check out our series of posts on e-waste, starting here [], for more details on electronics recycling.

Remember, “recyclable” is important, too — In addition to buying recycled goods, keep a keen eye out for recyclable goods. Whenever you purchase something packaged, think about how you can reuse the packaging, return it to a shipping store for reuse, or try to otherwise recycle it. If you get something likely to run down or wear out over time, such as an electronic component, give preference to the model that can be easily upgraded or cannibalized for parts so that you don’t have to junk the whole thing if one part breaks. Products that are impossibly fused together are often called “monstrous hybrids” and are, while often cheaper up front, frequently unfixable and unrecyclable.

If you don’t love something, let it go — Lots of charities welcome your donations. Groups like Freecycle and Recycler’s Exchange exist to help you get rid of useful objects that you just don’t want to make use of. If you’re in a Craigslist city, make use of the “free stuff” section. Give away clothes that don’t fit, the boxes you used in your last house move, or scented soaps that don’t appeal to your sensibilities. Make it a rule in your house that nothing useable goes in the trash until you’ve given the community a fair shot at it.