Thursday, February 7, 2013

How to recycle everything (if you can)

In yesterday's post on Live Like a Mensch, the blogger was lamenting about how she can never bring herself to throw away things that she thinks it should be possible to reuse or recycle. She wished she could find some "clear instructions" about when and how to reuse and recycle things, and when just tossing them in the trash is the best option. So, in an attempt to be helpful, I Googled "How to Recycle Everything" and, ba-da-bing, up came this article from Real Simple. (They've got it split across 7 separate pages, with no guide words to show which page covers which item, so scrolling through to find the specific item you want can be a pain. However, if you click the "print" icon you can get the whole thing on a single page.)

A lot of the guidelines in this article were ones I already knew about, but I did come across a few that were new to me. In other cases, by contrast, I happened to know about some recycling options that Real Simple didn't mention. So here's a selection of the most useful tips I found in the article, as well as those it left out:
  • Backpacks. The article provides a link to the American Birding Association, which accepts donations of old backpacks for use on bird-watching expeditions. This was a new one on me (though probably not that useful for us, since we usually throw out backpacks only when one or both straps have given way and can no longer be patched with duct tape).
  • Batteries. The article mentions RadioShack and Office Depot as places to recycle rechargeable batteries (presumably those that will no longer hold a charge), but it doesn't mention alkaline batteries. Until a few years ago, our town had a big canister at Borough Hall where you could dump these for recycling; then they got rid of it and told people to just throw them in the trash. However, there is a site,, where you can punch in your zip code and find places near you for recycling alkaline batteries (and a host of other items). In our area, I found several reclamation centers in nearby towns, but they're only open to residents of those towns. So I guess it's still the trash for us. But you might fare better.
  • Books. The article talks about how to recycle them, but what it doesn't say is that it's obviously better to reuse books if they're still in readable condition, and there are loads of places to donate them. Used-book stores may be particular about what they'll accept, but libraries holding book sales will usually take anything (in our town, anything that doesn't sell is offered up for free, and presumably whatever is still left gets discarded). Also, in our town, the local Lions' Club now has collection bins where books can be dropped off for use in its literacy program.
  • Cell phones. The article names a couple of organizations that will take these, but one of the links no longer works and the other has no useful information. Moreover, the article doesn't mention what I would consider the easiest option for reusing an old cell phone: the drop-off bins at stores like Staples, Office Depot and Best Buy (so you can buy a new cell phone and immediately dump the old one). This site has links to several stores that collect phones. (Another point not noted in the article: make sure you delete your old address book and any other personal information before discarding the phone.)
  • Computers. Our local Department of Public Works collects computers and other electronic equipment for recycling. Yours may do the same, in which case taking it to them is probably easier than sending it back to the manufacturer. Of course, donating a still-working computer to someone who can use it is a still better option, and I've found that even pretty old machines will find takers on Freecycle. (Once again, clear out the hard drive of all your personal info first.)
  • Crayons! Did you know you can recycle crayons? I'd heard of a way to melt down a bunch of different broken bits in a muffin tin to make a "scribble cookie," but collecting a bunch of same-colored crayons and processing them into new crayons is an even better idea. 
  • Envelopes. I was very pleased to learn that it is not, as I thought, necessary to rip the plastic windows out of junk-mail envelopes before tossing them in the bin. According to the article, "The filters will sieve out the plastic, and they’ll even take out the glue strip on the envelope flaps." That's about five minutes out of every day I can now put to more productive use. However, I was disgruntled to read that yellow mailing envelopes are not, as I thought, recyclable, because the dye won't come out. I guess I can now justify my tendency to reuse these whenever possible by pasting a new label over the old address as part of my efforts to save the earth, rather than just being a cheapskate.
  • Eyeglasses. This is another item the Lions Club collects for reuse. You can find info about it on their website, but I found the search function didn't work very well: a search on the name of my town, and another on my county, turned up nothing, yet I know there are two drop boxes within walking distance of my house.
  • Gift cards. (These are listed under "fake plastic credit cards," the kind credit-card issuers are always mailing you to try and lure you into signing up.) The article says there's no way to recycle these, but there is a company called EarthWorks that says it will take them. However, they insist that you sign up for their mailing list first, so I haven't tried it yet. I'll probably take the plunge when I finally conclude that I'm never going to reuse the small but growing stack of cards gathering dust in my office.
  • Mattresses. The article says that can provide recycling options for these as well. If we'd known that, our old mattress might not have ended up at the curb last year. (Then again, it might have, since I don't think we could have hauled it ourselves and we probably wouldn't have been willing to pay a fee to College Hunks Hauling Junk, funny as that would have been.)
  • Paint. The article mentions paint recycling programs (again, you can search to find them), but unopened cans can also be donated to a Habitat Restore if you can't return them.
  • Printer cartridges. The article says you can return them to Staples for refilling, but a much more ecofrugal option is to refill them yourself. When we bought our old HP Deskjet, we bought a large bottle of black refill ink and a colored refill kit. Both items paid for themselves with the first refill, and the black ink actually lasted longer than the printer did. (Note that after refilling, you may have to trick your printer into treating the refilled cartridge as a new one. This site explains how to do it for HP printers, and it sells a little device that can be used to reset Epson printers.)
  • Sneakers. The article mentions Nike's Reuse-a-Shoe program, but for us, a much easier option is the textile recycling bins run by Repurpose New Jersey. The one that was actually within walking distance of our house seems to be gone now, but there are still several in striking distance. I found these by Googling "textile recycling New Jersey"; a similar search might turn up something good for you.
  • Utensils, plastic. The site says that they aren't recyclable, but it doesn't mention that you can, duh, wash them and reuse them. (Side note: don't waste your money on the kind that are made from allegedly biodegradable plant-based plastic. According to the blog My Plastic-Free Life, these things won't really break down even in a commercial composting facility, let alone in your little backyard bin.)
  • Videotapes. Yes, there are ways to get rid of these—but you have to pay for shipping yourself. Considering their bulk, it probably isn't worth it. If you've hung on to your old VCR, you can continue to watch them; if not, you can give them to someone else who has. And if he doesn't want them, oh, just throw the darn things out.
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