As the pandemic impacted daily routines, some cities and towns had to stop accepting recyclables in curbside bins. Others stopped taking certain types of recyclables and asked people to throw those items away instead. A lack of workers, budgetary concerns, and an increase in the number of recyclables all play a part. What would happen if people stopped recycling for good?

If you’ve ever seen the movie “Idiocracy,” there’s a scene set in the future in a world where people stop recycling. Piles of trash and recyclables are covering overpasses and covering the bottom levels of skyscrapers. If everyone stopped recycling, it’s not too far off what would happen.

How Much Are People in the U.S. Recycling?

The EPA keeps track of municipal solid waste management statistics. In 2017, there were 69 million tons of recyclables sent to solid waste districts in the U.S. Another 24.89 million tons were composted. Energy was recovered by incinerating 34.22 million tons. Finally, 140.47 million tons ended up in the landfill. That’s just one year. It can take items like plastic bottles hundreds of years to decompose.

It’s tough to visualize all of that trash and recycling in your head. Formulas to try to better understand what a ton of recyclables and waste looks like do exist. To better understand it, you need to know the average weight of a cubic yard of recycling. Here are examples:

  • Aluminum cans weigh 63 pounds (31.75 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Corrugated cardboard weighs 100 pounds (20 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Food scraps weigh 1,500 pounds (1.33 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Glass bottles weigh 600 pounds (3.33 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Magazines weigh 950 pounds (2.11 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Mixed paper weighs 484 pounds (4.13 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Newspaper weighs 433 pounds (4.62 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Plastic bottles weigh 36 pounds (55.55 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Steel cans weigh 150 pounds (13.33 cubic yards in a ton)

Now, a cubic yard is three feet high, three feet wide, and three feet deep. If one ton of plastic bottles contains 55.55 cubic yards, you’d be looking at a mountain about 165 feet tall, 165 feet deep, and 165 wide. That’s a little taller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. That’s just one ton and one type of recyclable!

What are the best tips for improving your recycling habits? To make your recycling efforts count, make sure you’re recycling correctly. It would be best if you remembered that recycling is only the first step.

#1 – Follow a Circular Economy

If you regularly purchase water bottles due to the quality of your well water, consider purchasing a water dispenser and using refillable water bottles to bring to work or school instead. If you don’t want to invest in a water dispenser at home, you could rent one or install a water filtration system on your kitchen faucet. There are even water bottles with built-in water filters that can help you avoid buying cases of water bottles each week.

Not every company creates new food and beverage containers with recycled items. Support those who do, and encourage your favorite companies to consider using recycled materials. For example, Pilot now makes gel roller pens from recycled water bottles. Method’s cleaning products are packaged in bottles made from post-consumer recycled plastic and plastic recovered from the ocean.

#2 – Know Where to Bring Items Your Hauler Won’t Accept

Know where to take items that can’t go into your curbside containers. Your waste hauler may not accept plastic bags in the curbside bin, but that doesn’t mean you can’t recycle them. Save them and bring them with you to the grocery store. Most stores have bins for plastic film and bag recycling. It’s free, and it ensures your plastic bags and packaging end up being recycled.

Save your batteries to recycle at your local recycling center or a store like Home Depot. There are recycling containers specifically for batteries that ensure batteries are kept from landfills. If there is an electronics recycling bin in your area, take advantage of it. Otherwise, call stores like Staples and call your recycling center to see if they recycle electronics in your area.

#3 – Thoroughly Wash Out Food Cans and Jars

Wash your food containers like peanut butter jars out with hot soapy water. If there is stuck-on food inside the container, they end up in the trash. If they’re clean, they’ll get recycled.

#4 – Remove Lids From Bottles

Take lids off bottles and containers when you’re recycling them. Not every district accepts the lids. If they do, make sure they want you to leave the caps on. Most will ask you to separate them first. As plastic items are heated, there is the risk of the air within a bottle heating up and causing the bottle to explode, leading to injuries.

#5 – Remember No Wet or Soiled Cardboard

Cardboard is recycled in many areas, but most solid waste districts cannot take wet or soiled cardboard. That means no pizza boxes. Don’t assume they’re recyclable just because they’re cardboard. If a box is left on your porch and gets rained on, compost it in your compost pile, use it in a lasagna garden bed, or throw it away, don’t try to recycle it anyway.

Make sure your district is taking cardboard. Some stopped due to the increase in boxes during the pandemic. Others do take it, but they ask you to break it down and bundle it with twine.

#6 – Donate to Others

Ask others in your area if they could use some of your recyclables. The items you have could get an extended life. For example, you have a neighbor down the road who has chickens. Instead of recycling your egg cartons, ask your neighbors if they need them. You could end up with free eggs as a thank you gift.

Your area school may appreciate the donation of old shirts to help the kids protect their clothing when painting. Another neighbor may be looking for moving boxes. A carpenter may want all of the spice jars you’re about to recycle to use for storing small items like nuts and bolts. It never hurts to ask if others could use your items.

#7 – Print Out a Recycling List

Know what is and isn’t recyclable. To do this, print out a list from your waste and recycling hauler. Keep the list updated throughout the year. You don’t want to put items that aren’t recyclable into your curbside containers. If you can’t find a list on your company’s website or social media page, call and ask them to mail you one.

#8 – Stop Wish Recycling

Wish recycling is a process where you think something should be recycled, but it isn’t. You recycle it hoping your local recycling facility will accept it. Don’t recycle something with the hopes it is recyclable.

Placing items that aren’t recyclable in a curbside bin makes it harder for recycling plants to process things. It could lead to an entire batch of recyclables going into the trash. Why?

Plastic resins melt at different temperatures. If a #7 accidentally got into a batch of #1 plastic, they melt at different temperatures, and hard shards of plastic would end up in the mixture, rendering that entire batch useless.

If you’re not sure, head to Recycle Nation and see if it’s accepted in your area. You can also call your waste district and ask.