How To Recycle All The Things: Going Beyond Bottles And Cans

by Maxwell Tielman

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 9111-800-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 LessIf you live in the New York City area, the NYC.gov website is a pretty amazing resource for all of your recycling questions.

TerracycleTerracycle 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.

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  • I’ve heard of places that collect food scraps that go into a community compost, and then they sell the mulch back to the local area; such a good idea for recycling, and keeping things local!

  • Thanks so much for this. I am forever trying to reduce the amount of stuff we take in, and reduce even further the amount of stuff that ends up in our trash. Most weeks my husband and I produce between on and one-half 13 gallon bag of trash, but still, that adds up. Reducing the stuff that comes into our house really changed the way I cook– you eat better when you’re determined to avoid packaging because whole foods generally don’t come in boxes or cans (unless you’re at Trader Joe’s, where all the produce, very annoyingly, is in some sort of unnecessary plastic package– other stores you can just skip the plastic bag). Everyone should watch the Story of Stuff.

  • Not sure whether there’s a US equivalent, but for UK folks: all charity shops sell their unusable/unsold fabric items to the rag man for recycling. They are also happy to take bags of fabric scraps from dressmaking or crafting projects as long as they are tied up & clearly labelled “Rags” (so they don’t have to waste time going through them).
    As a dressmaker I keep a bag to hand for all my off-cuts & thread ends, & once a month drop them off to a good cause. Recycling & money for charity in one go.

  • You won’t catch me giving my yarn scraps to a recycler! No way, Josie! With scraps you can make a scarf – plop a bunch on a piece of wash-away Solvy, Make a sandwich by laying another piece of Solvy on top. Draw a grid on top of the sandwich with a wash-away pen. Sew the grid pattern on your sewing machine. Wash out the solvy (a temporary stabilizer, really). Pronto! Cool boutique-style scarf! What you don’t use for a scarf, you can use in machine felting. Even a short multi-colored scrap can become a colorful swirl on a garment. Sew no to yarn recyclers. Stay away!

  • This article is amzing! So many things I had no idea you can donate that I can save from a landfill. Thank you for writing this.

  • This is such a usedful article. Thank you! I have been looking for a way to recycle old leather shoes that have fallen apart. All the running store around me recycle athletic shoes, but has anyone found a place that will do something with, say, a leather boot that a dog chewed up?

  • Yes perhaps 80% of the ‘original’ forests are gone, but we have planted to replace forests. Yes perhaps pillows have flame retardant built in, but that doesn’t mean that there is any transference between pillows and people. Overall awareness is important, but critical thinking with good, unbiased, externally verified sources of data is more important.

  • I’m still worried about where electronics go after the big stores collect them; I’ve heard many take the cheap way out and they’re still shipped overseas to collect in (and pollute) developing countries. They may not end up US landfills, but they do plenty of damage elsewhere. I know a number of responsible smaller businesses have cropped up to safely dismantle, reuse or dispose of component parts here in the States, but these are still sometimes hard to access, or they charge a fee. Can you speak to the next steps (i.e., what does BestBuy do with their collections)? Thank you!! Great post.

  • Such a great article! I work on educating people about recycling and conservation and this is such a helpful, all inclusive guide. I’ll be sharing this widely!

  • Double check the UPS store thing. One near me accepted peanuts etc for recycling, then the manager told me they just throw them out anyway because they can’t guarantee the quality or cleanliness of the materials. He said they just accept them because it makes the customers feel better.

  • Hi, great article! I hope it helps to change our mind as society about enviromentalism. And thanks for using my flowers! I´m very honored ;)

  • thank you so much for posting this wonderfully helpful article. There’s some very helpful info in the comments, too. Thanks again. I’m sharing it on facebook and sending it to everyone I can.

  • I wanted to add the great resource that FreeCycle.org is. They have a yahoo group for most major cities/communities, and their number one purpose is to keep good stuff out of landfills. I subscribe to the Brooklyn group and I’ve already received and given away some great items. You save money and the environment! If you have some old electronics, housewares, clothes, what have you, post it on there and guaranteed you will have more people wanting to take it off your hands than you can handle!

    Also, I know that the farmers market at Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn has textile recycling, in addition to compost drop off.

    I’m fortunate that I work for a company in NYC that has invested in single-stream recycling pickup and composting. All of the plastic that I can’t throw in my curb-side recycling I can take to work to get recycled there (and they encourage it!). Once I started doing that, the amount of garbage I’ve been throwing out has been drastically reduced. It may not be a bad idea to ask the company that you work for to look into single-steam recycling. If you did the research yourself, I’m sure they’d be thrilled.

    Max, I have that same guilt when it comes to throwing anything away! I’ve been known to carry around “garbage” with me because I want to wait to throw it in recycling instead. I’m pretty sure my friends think I’m a little crazy :)

  • Thank you so much for posting this. We have been talking about this a lot in our house.
    We watched the film tonight and I was pleasantly surprised my 6yr old really liked it.
    We learned a lot- THANKS.

  • As I’m sure you know, NYC may not have a curbside food scrap pickup, but GrowNYC has compost bins at their farmers markets. Store food scraps (not contaminated with any grease) in the freezer and then drop them off at one of their locations. See http://www.grownyc.org/compost

    I love seeing how much of my “trash” doesn’t just end up in the landfill!

  • I used to enjoy filling my trash container–I was decluttering! Now, we are proud to have a small bag a week of trash–the few bits of plastic that can’t be recycled, bathroom stuff, etc. Paper towels in my compost pile. Anyway, it’s a paradigm shift. My partner, as a Canadian, is a better recycler by birth!

  • I took some things to Best Buy but they wanted me to PAY THEM $15.00 each for them to take them. They were things that didn’t fit in their bins, i.e. old monitor, keyboard, pc towers. They are all back in my garage until I can find another resource to take them.

  • Good stuff, but it’s important to remember that plastic is never truly REcycled, it’s DOWNcycled – meaning, it’s made into products that can never be recycled. A plastic bottle does not get recycled and made into another plastic bottle, unlike glass. Choose glass over plastic for everything, and don’t buy things that come in plastic. Paper bags can be recycled into more paper items, which is why if you’re too lazy to go out to your car to get your reusable bag, you need to choose that over plastic. Remember, plastic comes from OIL.

    To Lori/Maxwell – Best Buy no longer charges for recycling, and every location offers it now. I just gave them an old vacuum cleaner to recycle last week :) Yes, sometimes recycling does get shipped out of the country because honestly, other countries are actually using the products where the US doesn’t always have its act together.

    Re: rigid plastics (non curbside) are no longer accepted at drop-off recycling facilities as of last week here in Portland because the international markets have dropped considerably in what they pay for them. I’m curious how the new NY recycling laws will deal with this.

    Reduce is the first of the three R’s – the less we take in, the more we have to worry about putting back out there in the first place.

  • Something not usually thought about for recycling is scrap wood. Where I live in Buffalo, NY, the city has a drop off site for yard waste- you know, grass clippings, sticks, etc- and they’ll take uncontaminated wood waste- wood without nails, paint, etc. I believe plywood is a no-go (as the layers are glued) but 2 x 4 pieces, etc, can be composted. Who knew?