What Can I Recycle?

When people hear we recycle for a living, they start asking us recycling questions, a common one being “Can I recycle ___?” Fill in whatever word you want, the “What can I recycle?” questions are always difficult to answer because there’s no singular correct response.  At Northstar, we like to tell people everything should be recycled. But really, it’s complicated.

There exist many articles which try answering this question with specific lists for things you can and can’t recycle. However, such lists inevitably won’t fit every scenario. Therefore, they can be dangerous because they often confuse and misinform readers. The fact is, the ability to recycle something goes beyond whether or not it is chemically or physically possible to process a material into a new item. Every circumstance has additional factors that play into the practicality or availability of different recycling solutions.

To help you understand how complicated this question is, here are some common factors that affect whether or not something can be recycled:

1. Material Composition
Whether it’s a safety issue or a matter of chemistry, the composition of an item also plays into whether or not it can be recycled easily. For instance, if you don’t recycle a battery correctly, you can risk causing a fire or other environmental hazards. Therefore, not all recycling programs will take on the responsibility of safely collecting and processing batteries. Similarly, products like tempered glass and mixed material chip bags require more chemically complex recycling processes and are harder to recycle.

2. Your Location
We can’t stress enough how much your location will affect your ability to recycle certain items. Transportation costs have a huge impact on recycling, and if you live or work remotely, you may be limited in your recycling options. For instance, if you live in location X and the nearest organics recycler is over 200 miles away, the likelihood that your local recycling company accepts organic waste for recycling decreases from what it would be if the organics recycler was down the road.

3. Material Volume and Weight
Sometimes you can diminish the importance of location if you have a large enough quantity of materials you want to recycle. Using our last example, if you’re a single household living 200 miles away from an organics recycler, you’ll probably have difficulties finding anyone to transport your household organics that distance. However, if you’re a large manufacturing facility that produces about 40,000 lbs. of organic waste per trailer load, it becomes much more financially practical for a company to transport your organics 200 miles for recycling. In short, the larger the volume, the more likely you’ll be able to find a practical recycling solution.

 4. Material Value
Yes recyclables are valuable. The whole reason for recycling is that waste contains valuable resources you can use again rather than harvesting virgin materials. However, things like material quality, virgin material prices, processing requirements, and availability all affect a recyclable’s value (or commodity price). For recycling companies to be financially stable, they need to be able to offset operational expenses with revenue generated from the recyclables they collect. Therefore, they’re less likely to accept recyclables that are less valuable or those which generate no net profit. But it all goes back to volume. I’ve seen instances where companies accept a material for a loss just so they can get a large volume of a different, more valuable material. For instance, at Northstar we leverage valuable commodities to provide solutions for harder to recycle and less valuable materials. It’s a complicated balancing act that every recycling business has to figure out for itself, so don’t be surprised when one recycling company says they’ll take plastics 1-7 while another only wants plastics 1 and 2.

5. Recycling Program Constraints
At the end of the day, recycling companies are unique businesses with different service offerings and processes. Some can handle more varied and complex materials while others may only accept specific items for recycling. One great example of this is for plastic film and plastic bag recycling. I know many curbside and comingled recycling programs tell customers these items can’t be recycled because they gum up equipment or lose value when they’re contaminated. But really, these items can be very valuable commodities when collected separately and baled for recycling. It all depends on the situation and capabilities of your recycling service provider.

So going back to the original question of “What can I recycle?” the only answer we’d like to leave you with is “It depends.” The best way to understand what recycling solutions are available to you is by contacting your recycling service provider. We hope this helped. As always, please feel free to contact us with questions on how we can help your business recycle more and landfill less.