Posts in recycling
10 tips for effective recycling

There was a fantastic piece on Colorado Public Radio earlier this week about recycling. CPR and two listeners went to the Alpine Waste and Recycling facility and talked with Brent Hildebrand, the Vice President of Recycling.

My friends regularly ask me about whether or not they can recycle X. The tricky thing is that the answer is highly dependent on where you live and what facilities your city has. When we had a friend from Germany visit a few years ago, she was shocked we couldn’t recycle potato chip bags!

To summarize some of the info in the CPR piece, combined with questions I think are on the minds of many, here are my top 10 recycling tips for DENVER. Chances are the system in your city is similar, but not identical. For example, Denver is one of the only cities in the US that can recycle coffee cups! (But you should still ditch disposable cups for a real one!)

10 Tips for Effective Recycling (in Denver):

one/ Clean it. But just a little. Jars and cans don’t need to be 100% free of food residue, but they should be lightly rinsed and empty of all food. A can half full of beans will be problematic for recycling machines, but a bit of nut butter residue is no big deal.

two/ Take off caps if they’re made from a different material than the container. Remove metal lids from jars. Remove plastic caps from glass bottles (like soy sauce). Plastic tops can stay on plastic bottles.

three/ Plastic smaller than 2 inches will not be recycled even if it has the recycle symbol on it. Small caps, contact lens cases, tiny toys, etc. are filtered out during the recycling process and go to landfill.

four/ “Extra” plastic doesn’t need to be removed, but it won’t be recycled. Plastic windows on envelopes or plastic film on the outside of a jar or bottle don’t need to be removed before you place the item in your recycling bin. However, this non-recyclable plastic will be filtered out during the sorting process, so it’ll end up in the landfill.

five/ Random metal is generally not accepted in single-stream recycling. Aluminum cans are HIGHLY recyclable and a fantastically sustainable material. Aluminum and tin cans are pretty much the only type of metal you can throw in your single-stream (purple) bin. All other metals need to be taken to a special facility.

six/ SOLO cups are not recyclable. Find some reusables for your next game of beer pong. Many single-use plastic cups are not recyclable. Try out bringing your own cup when you go out!

seven/ “Compromised” paper cannot be recycled. Think: pizza boxes or glittered paper. Paper gets turned into a pulp to make new paper, so if the paper is soiled this process won’t work. Remove embellishments on your kids’ art projects before recycling. Remove the greasy parts of food containers (they’re compostable) and recycle what’s clean. Similarly, very lightweight paper (tissues, paper towels, napkins, tissue paper) is too far down the paper chain to be recycled. It’s compostable.

eight/ You can never recycle plastic film or bags in your curbside bin, even if they have the recycling symbol on them. Recycling gets extra confusing because companies want you to think their packaging is recyclable. Manufacturers will throw a recycling sign on their packaging even if it’s not accepted in single-stream systems. For example, this dumpling bag pictured has a recycling symbol on the bag, but it’s from China, so of course they don’t know what our recycling system is like! In Denver, and most cities in the US, plastic film and bags have to be take to special facilities to be recycled. They’re a terrible problem for recycling plants like Alpine, so don’t put them in your bin!

nine/ Most shipping materials are not recyclable. Amazon has gotten some bad press lately for it’s bubble mailers. They’re using fewer boxes and more plastic wrap which is obviously terrible. Try to combine orders to increase the chance it’ll ship in a box (or better yet, just buy local as much as possible!). As for the plastic packaging you receive, the best bet is to reuse or to take them to a drop off location (find out where these are by Googling the info on the packaging).

ten/ Research your options for recycling “hard to recycle” materials. There are many drop off locations for these items. Things like clothing, technology, metals, styrofoam, and much more can be reused if you find the right place to take them. I’m planning to eventually put more info about this right here on my site, but in the meantime Google is your friend. If you can’t reuse it, try to find a new home for it before you throw it in the trash!

Denver Recycles has a great searchable directory to tell you how to dispose of anything you’re unsure about!

Ok, what did I miss? Recycling is incredibly complex. What materials puzzle you?

foods i {sometimes} buy in packaging

Below a picture from a trip I made to Safeway about 2 years ago. This was, clearly, earlier in my zero-waste “journey.” I used to buy some of these items regularly. Now, they are things I only buy a few times a year if I’m really in a food jam or it’s a special treat.

Nevertheless, these items show some of the challenges of shopping without packaging. There are many items you just can’t get. There was a time when I’d buy things anyway…I’d say to myself “well, raspberries only come in plastic, so that’s my only option.” But now, I just won’t buy raspberries. There are so many other fruits available without packaging. It’s hardly a sacrifice!

There are probably less than 1,000 people in the whole world who are actually going to sort of achieve a zero-waste lifestyle. For the rest of us, we have to use our consumer power to “vote.” If we won’t buy things in plastic packaging, we’re sending a message that we want different options. This is our power. Ask the manager at the store. Email the company. There are a lot of ways to make your opinion known. Don’t be shy; express it! And, if you really truly want the raspberries, get them!

1. Pasta. For some reason, pasta is rarely available in the bulk section. Occasionally I've found whole wheat macaroni at Whole Foods and tri-color rotini at Sprouts. But you can't count on it. So, I usually buy pasta in as much paper or cardboard packaging as possible (instead of in plastic bags). It's hard to find a box that's 100% recyclable, but most stores have pasta in cardboard boxes with just a tiny bit of plastic.

2. Alternative milk. I buy cow's milk in reusable glass bottles. I sometimes make nut milks at home. I buy coconut milk in cans. But as a family of 5, we go through a good amount of milk in coffee, cereal, etc. Tetra-pak (shown above, what many milks come in) is not at all a good choice. It's terribly difficult to recycle because it's a combination of plastic, aluminum and paper. Denver now has facilities to recycle it (as do most major U.S. cities), but it's questionable how many cartons are actually being captured and whether or not the material salvaged can really be used in any meaningful way. I buy in moderation and try to buy in a plastic jug if possible. because simply plastic is actually more recyclable.

3. Bread. Thanks to my mom, I have an awesome recipe for homemade bread. I make it regularly. If I don't have it in me to bake, I try to buy a loaf of bread without packaging from a local bakery. But let’s face it: life happens and the kids still need school lunches. Occasionally I buy bread at the grocery. I like this Dave's bread because it's one of few on the market that doesn't have added sugar. Plus it has a good amount of protein per slice. I reuse the bags and then take them back to the store recycling bins for plastic film.

4. Tuna + Beans. Aluminum is one of the most sustainable forms of packaging. Cans contain more recycled content than plastic or glass containers. They are easily melted and reformed into more packaging. They're light to ship. If a type of product is available in aluminum I will chose that over glass or plastic 100% of the time. When I occasionally buy my kids juice, I buy pineapple juice that comes in cans.

5. Yogurt. This is the worst thing I buy! Even though I've started making yogurt at home, and my kids enjoy it, when given the option to pick a "special treat" at the store, they often choose a fancy yogurt. They love the novelty of it, I guess? I hate it. I’ve gotten better at saying “no” or opting for the ones in glass instead, but occasionally I cave. I’m human. I like making my kids happy, and yogurt is a lot better than many things they could pick. I recycle the plastic...but that doesn't really make it much better.

6. Produce stickers and tags. Not much we can do about these unless the industry standards change. Even farmers' markets often have produce with stickers. I try to take the stickers off as soon as I get home so we don't accidentally compost them (on banana peels, avocado skin, etc.).

7. Tortillas. We eat a lot of tortillas. I really want to get a tortilla press and learn how to make my own, but in the meantime I reuse the resealable bags for storing food and produce.

8. Frozen peas. I buy almost all of our produce without packaging. But peas are the vegetable my kids will consume the most of, and so I like to have a “back up” bag in freezer for those times when there aren't any other vegetables in the house or I'm super tired or lazy. I wish fresh peas were more available. Maybe this summer I can find a bunch and shell them an freeze. #goals


Other things I occasionally buy with problematic packaging:

  • Cheese

  • Fish/seafood

  • Tofu

  • Dates

  • Potato chips

  • Frozen foods at the Asian grocery - dumplings, baozi, etc.

Foods we love but I try not to buy because of their packaging:

  • Clementines

  • Grapes

  • Cherry tomatoes

  • Baby carrots

  • Rice cakes

  • Crackers

What about you? Do you think about the packaging on the foods you buy? What tips do you have to share? 

ten first steps to reducing household waste

one. // Use what you ALREADY own.
Being “eco-friendly” is trendy. There are stores that will sell you many things to help you go forth on your “zero-waste” journey. Some of these things are very useful (metal straws). Some of these things are beautiful but not necessary (Wreck jars). Use up the things you already own. Using items that are already in your life is always better than supporting the manufacturing of new materials. Even if those companies are sustainable and ethical. Just a few examples of many:

  • There are some health reasons to avoid using plastic for food, but you can still find other uses for the plastic containers lying around your house. Use them to organize toys, or screws and other hardware.

  • If you’re having a party, don’t buy new decorations; decorate with what you have!

  • Shop your closet before buying new clothes. You probably have forgotten about some of the things you own.

  • Break out your grandma’s china. It should be used more than once a year!

  • Have you kids make art projects with “trash” instead of buying new art supplies.


two. // Buy LESS and buy USED.
The cold, hard truth is that the world is against us in this crusade. It might change in the future, but for now we live in a disposable economy and it’s incredible hard to avoid having trash come into your life. The best way to create less waste is to just consume less. When you need or want something, first shop your house. Maybe you have something like it that you’ve forgotten about. If not, ask around. Maybe you can borrow it or get it for cheap from someone you know. If that fails, buy it used. There are lots of online or local consignment options.

Food is obviously a semi-exception to this point because you have to buy some amount of food. It’s still a good area to think about buying less (statistics about wasted food are crazy!) but when talking about shopping for food, this is an area it’s more important to consider the packaging…

three. // If you have to buy, CONSIDER the PACKAGING and the MATERIAL.
Best choice = buy without packaging.
Better choice = buy with compostable packaging.
Good choice = buy in paper, glass, or aluminum packaging.
Less than ideal choice = buy in recyclable plastic packaging.
Worst choice = buy in non-recyclable packaging.

Packaging is pretty easy to “rate” but the material of the product can be harder. But the key question to ask yourself is “what is going to happen to this when I can’t use it anymore?” For this reason, I try to buy mostly clothing of organic fibers and toys made of wood or paper. And you always want to think about the quality of the item. If it’s really high-quality plastic that won’t likely ever break or is something you’ll use for years and years to come, then you should buy it!

four. // COMPOST and seek out COMPOSTABLE items.
Food scraps, brown paper bags, pizza boxes, wine corks, tissues, tissue paper, paper towels, paper napkins, toothpicks, bamboo = all compostable. Many cities, including Denver, have city-wide compost collection. It’s pretty ridiculous that in Denver we have to pay for it yet trash is free. However, the bin is large, so you can certainly share with several neighbors to defray the cost. Backyard compost is always an option too; look for free 101 classes at your local library or through the city.

If you need a single-use option, try to find one that’s compostable. It’s easy to order food “for here” at a coffee shop or restaurant and then pick it up off the plate with a compostable napkin. Much better than getting a plastic container! However, you should always try to use reusables before turning to compostable paper products. Paper towels, plates, tissues, etc. all take a lot of resources to manufacture and ship. This makes them less ideal for the environment.

five. // Develop a “rag system.”
In our house, we use different-sized towels or cloths for all kinds of tasks:

  • Towels are for kitchen clean up.

  • Large rags are for one-time messes like Zoë’s food on the floor.

  • Small cloths are used as baby wipes, tissues, or as toilet paper.

  • We use tablecloths and cloth napkins.

  • Cloth produce bags are for grocery shopping and taking food on the go.

After use, baby wipes (and cloth diapers) go in a wet bag and all the other soiled cloths are thrown in a big laundry basket in our unused downstairs shower. Everything gets washed on the “Sanitize” cycle in the washing machine and is used again. Our towels are an assortment of dish towels, and all the smaller cloths are cut-up old clothes. When I am out of the house I will sometimes throw away a “baby wipe” cloth. I figure the old clothing was destined for the landfill anyway, so at least it got a few more uses.

This is our system, but there are lots of ways you could do it depending on your family’s needs and your house/washing set-up. Also, everyone has a different tolerance for and understanding of germs…do what you’re comfortable with but I’m sure you can come up with a system that works for you!

six. // Use CLOTH BAGS and a WASHABLE MARKER at the grocery store.
Stock pile a whole bunch of cloth bags to use at the grocery for produce and bulk items. These can be bags you have bought (I, personally, avoid bags made of synthetic fiber, but that’s a personal choice), bags you already have (I have several cloth bags that purses or other items came in like TOMS shoes), or you can make your own if you’re a sewer (make me some too, please!).

The washable marker is to write the PLU number on your cloth bags for bulk items. The cashier can then see it clearly and it’ll wash right out in the laundry. If your grocery requires you to print out stickers for bulk items, your hands are probably tied, but you can always ask!

(A more “advanced” option is to take your own jars to places like Whole Foods that will tare them for you, but I don’t recommend tackling this if you’re just starting out.)

seven. // RECYCLE but only minimally. REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPAIR and ROT are all better choices!
Recycling is not the answer, particularly when it comes to plastic. Plastic gets downgraded each time it’s recycled and there’s not much of a market for thin/cheap plastic. I often hear people complain that their recycling bin is overflowing every week and they wish it got picked up by the city more often than their trash is collected. I agree with this to a certain extent, but if your recycling bin is super full, then you should still take a closer look at your materials consumption. Recyclables often end up in the landfill.

eight. // ANALYZE your waste.
Everyone is different and we all consume different types of products. Check out your own trash and recycling bins to see what you are throwing away on a regular basis. Ask yourself if you could procure those items in a different or better way.

Examples from my house:

  • Yogurt containers. Even though I was buying the big tubs of yogurt, we’d still have one in our recycle bin each week. As a first response, I started buying yogurt in a glass jar. That helped from the waste perspective, but it was expensive. I then started making my own yogurt which has worked really well for us. And it’s really not that hard!

  • Bread. We eat a lot of bread, and it was our main source of plastic bags. I used to occasionally bake bread, but now I’ve found a recipe that I can make weekly to keep us stocked. If I don’t get my act together to bake, I try to get to a local bakery and buy a package-free loaf.

nine. // Don’t be too SELF-CONSCIOUS.
Eighty years ago, people would have thought the idea of using something one time and then throwing it out was absolutely bonkers. But, today, it’s the norm. When you challenge the norm, people sometimes get a bit confused. When I first started asking for drinks without straws people looked at me like I had three heads. But now, they often reply, “oh of course, we don’t use straws anymore!”

The grocery worker often thinks I’m a bit weird when I ask them to put deli meat or salmon in my Tupperware, but then, sometimes, they have an “ah-ha” moment when they’ll respond “oh wow, that’s a good idea!” My family has rolled their eyes at me more than a few times, but I have observed subtle changes in their own behavior over the years. If refusing single-use packaging is important to you, just be friendly and polite, and usually you’ll get a decent response. Sometimes you’ll get a dirty look or a “no,” but just keep on trying!

ten. // Remember THIS:
All the plastic ever created still exists. It won’t go away in a period of time that we can conceptualize. That one fact keeps me up at night, but has helped me dramatically change my behaviors of consumption!

Now, go forth and reduce your waste. Fist bump, friends!