Header design by Maxwell Tielman with with floral graphics by Mia Charro.
When I was an undergrad at Pratt Institute, I took an introductory course in the history of interior design. Toward the end of the semester, when discussions about postwar excess gave way to the earth-conscious counter movements of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, my professor screened a short video entitled The Story of Stuff. Essentially a critique of the unsustainable western lifestyle, The Story of Stuff tells, as it promises, the story of how things are made and end up, ultimately, in a landfill. Although the video disguises itself as a lighthearted cartoon filled with charming little stick figures, I honestly don’t think I have ever seen anything so terrifying. After watching the video, which doesn’t exceed the length of a standard sitcom, I felt absolutely rattled—shaken to my core. It made me completely reevaluate my consuming habits, the things I purchased, and how I eventually disposed of these items. From that point on, every time I threw something into the trash, whether it was a lightbulb or a plastic takeout container, I felt completely overwhelmed by guilt. The curbside recycling program here in Brooklyn leaves a bit to be desired, so more often than not, I found myself disposing of the vast majority of my used-up products. Aside from simply cutting back on purchases, I decided that something else had to be done. So I did a little bit of research.
As it turns out, you can recycle pretty much anything. Okay—that’s an exaggeration—but you can definitely recycle a lot more than cans and plastic bottles. After perusing some excellent recycling resources (I highly suggest checking out Earth 911, 1-800-RECYCLING, and Terracycle), I found that when curbside won’t recycle it, there are often a number of other sources that will. You can, for instance, recycle old paint! And un-useable textiles! And broken cookware! And mattresses! And packing peanuts! The list is seemingly endless and, in most cases, recycling these items simply involves driving to your local drop-off center or mailing out a pre-paid box. It’s a little more difficult than curbside, but the earth (and your conscience) will thank you for it. Below are some of the more perplexing Can-I-Recycle-This? items with tips for safely recycling them.
Plastic Bags — When you go grocery shopping, it’s generally considered eco-conscious to bring your own tote bags. However, there are times when you don’t have your own bags on hand. What, then, can you do about those pesky plastic supermarket bags, aside from using them for garbage and dog poo? You can recycle them! Some municipalities accept plastic bags (and other plastic-bag-like materials like plastic packaging and produce bags) in curbside pickup, but if yours does not, you need only venture as far as your local supermarket or pharmacy for a drop-off center! Near the entrances (or in some cases, exits) of most large supermarkets, Targets, Wal-Marts, and pharmacies, you will find handy-dandy containers for collecting your used plastic bags. After I accumulate a lot of bags, I just bring them all together on my next grocery trip.
Electronics — You know the situation: You’re cleaning out your closet and you find all manner of tangled cords with nary a matching device in sight! What on earth do you do with all of these defunct chargers and connector cables? Instead of simply tossing them into the trash, you should know that these, along with most other electronic objects, can indeed be recycled! Many municipalities, New York City included, will collect most electronics (even large televisions and computer monitors) after making a pick-up appointment. In fact, after 2015, New Yorkers will be required by law to recycle such objects. Be sure to check your local municipality’s website to see if they have a similar program. On the off chance that they do not, fear not! There are many stores that offer electronics recycling free of charge! Office Depot, for instance, will accept any electronics that fit within their recycling boxes. If you’re an Apple-phile, you can rest assured knowing that all of your Apple products can be dropped off or mailed to any Apple store for recycling— they’ll even give you an Apple gift card in return! Best Buy will also take your electronics off your hands, even if you didn’t purchase them there! Perfect for those obsolete cellphones, chargers, CD players, etc!
CDs and DVDs — Now that much of the world is going digital (and many computers don’t even come with disc drives anymore!), you might be wondering what to do with all of your CDs and DVDs that are collecting dust. The plastics that these discs are made out of are oftentimes excluded from typical curbside recycling, but there are some services, like The CD Recycling Center of America that will allow you to mail in your old discs for recycling.
Clothing and Shoes — If you’ve simply outgrown or gotten tired of your clothes and shoes, the logical thing to do is donate them to a thrift store. What, though, do you do with fashions and footwear that have become too worn out to be useful? It turns out that you can still drop them off to those very same places. Both the Goodwill and Salvation Army have programs that will accept unusable clothing and textiles and recycle them into things like mattress filling and carpet underlay. If you have worn out denim, the company Cotton From Blue To Green, will take it off your hands and turn it into insulation. If you have old sneakers that can’t be repaired, Nike offers a program that turns old sneakers into track flooring.
Packaging Supplies — If you work in a busy office like the one here at Design*Sponge, it’s likely that you receive a lot of packages and, subsequently, scores of mismatched packaging supplies. Common sense tells you that simply throwing out styrofoam packing peanuts, cardboard boxes, and bubble wrap is a bad thing, so what to do with those pesky things? As it turns out, you can recycle these items at the same place you picked them up from! Participating UPS Stores will accept your used packaging supplies. You can also check out The Plastic Used Fill Council for more local drop-off sites.
Non-Standard Plastics — Many curbside recycling pickups will only accept certain types of plastic. Be sure to consult your local municipality’s recycling guidelines to find out which plastic numbers are acceptable. For plastics that can’t be accepted from your local pickup, there are often drop-off alternatives. Preserve Products, a company that makes products out of recycled plastics, has a program called Gimme 5 that accepts all of your “number 5” plastics. These include toothbrushes, yogurt containers, and even Brita filters!
Personal Care & Beauty Products — One of my main beefs with New York’s recycling program is that they won’t accept many of the plastic containers that hygiene products come in, whether it’s a toothpaste tube or deodorant packaging. To my great relief, a recently established company called Terracycle will take all of these used products (and much, much more) and they’ll pay the shipping costs!
Food — That’s right, you can even recycle food. Some municipalities (like Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco) already have curbside recycling programs in place that will collect your compostable food scraps. If your city is still waiting for such programs, however, you might be able to donate your food scraps elsewhere! Many local farmer’s markets, for instance, have drop-off centers for compostable food and household waste. Make sure to check with your local market first!
Everything Else — Whether it’s used house paint, an unfixable air conditioner, car tires, or old furniture, chances are that you can, in fact, recycle it! Although most municipalities will not accept such items through their regular curbside pickup, many have regional drop-off centers that will accept just about any sort of household waste for recycling. Check your local municipality’s website for information about local drop-off centers and what kinds of objects can be recycled. You’ll probably be surprised at just how much can actually be saved from the garbage dump!
Earth 911 — In addition to offering fantastic information for living greener every day, Earth 911 offers a mind-blowingly concise guide to recycling pretty much everything. Their website guides you through what can be recycled in your region and maps out your local drop-off centers for you.
1-800-RECYCLING — Like Earth 911, 1-800-RECYCLING offers in-depth directions for recycling all manner of objects in your region. They also offer a fantastic smartphone app that helps you find drop-off centers on the go.
NYC Waste Less — If you live in the New York City area, the NYC.gov website is a pretty amazing resource for all of your recycling questions.
Terracycle — Terracycle is a company that allows to send in a huge array of products for recycling with free shipping. Their website even has a guide for starting your own recycling center at your business or office.