Creating a Home Recycling System

Friday, August 15, 2008
I've been doing research on recycling the past couple of weeks, mostly because I reached a point where I could no longer tolerate the amount of trash our family was sending to the landfill weekly. To reduce the amount of trash our family generates, I had to find out exactly what can go curbside, and how to recycle everything else. Of course, as soon as I started setting aside each recyclable item (these add up fast), and thought about each item I placed in the trash and whether or not it belonged there, I couldn't help but find ways to eliminate some of these recyclables and trash altogether. For example, cloth produce bags and cloth sandwich/snack bags are on their way from Reusable Bags. After doing research on recycling options here in Portland, I made a recycling station in our basement, and thought I'd show you a picture of what it looks like, as well as take you through a few items in our kitchen and illustrate how each item can be recycled.

So here is our new home recycling station. I knew I wanted something easy and quick to ensure that it would be practical for our family and would be a system that would last. I went to The Container Store, and after looking at all the options available, I decided on chrome frames with clamps that are actually sold for sorting laundry (mesh bags for this are sold separately). I didn't buy the mesh bags, but I did go to Fred Meyer to buy two boxes of 7th Generation's 30 gallon garbage bags and clamped them on for sorting all the recyclables that cannot go curbside under Portland's recycling system. Everything gets mixed together upstairs in one place, then each night, I take it down and sort what we've accumulated. This setup makes sorting quick and easy, and everything is organized and has a place to go. Along with the nine bins for recycling is our Portland Recycles bin for curbside recyclables. In addition, glass goes in the yellow bin and is recycled curbside, the bin next to it is for hazardous waste (batteries), which is taken to Metro's Hazardous Waste drop-off in SW Portland. and there is a stack of Styrofoam, which can be dropped off at Pacific Land Clearing and Recycling in North Portland.

I made nine bins altogether and labeled each one. Seven of the nine bins are for separating plastics by recycling numbers. The numbers can be found on the bottom of plastics, and are sometimes difficult to see, especially if they are older plastics. Some plastics do not have a number. These go in the eighth bin (even plastic bottle caps and straws!). The ninth bin holds plastic bags and plastic film (Saran wrap, Ziplocs, sandwich bags, produce bags, plastic shopping bags, dry cleaning bags, cereal bags, Mylar, shrink wrap, Tortilla bags, etc.).

Many places around Portland accept certain recyclables year round that cannot go curbside. New Seasons, for example, accepts recycling codes 1, 2, and 5 mixed together. In this case, you can make seven bins instead of nine, mixing these common 1, 2, and 5 recyclables together in one bin.

In Portland, the place to recycle more uncommon recycling codes like 3, 6, and 7, as well as all those plastics without a recycling number and plastic bags is at the Master Recycler Plastic Roundup. Instructions on how to prepare recyclables are on their website. They require all recyclables to be separated by number.

Now, let me show you a few items in our kitchen, all of which can be recycled instead of thrown into the garbage.

Aseptics: what boxed milk, soy milk, and stocks are preserved in. Look on the bottom to be sure it is aseptic, then wash it out and place it curbside if you live in Portland. If it contains a plastic spout, this must be cut out and placed in your plastics without a number bin. In the case of this boxed strawberry milk, the plastic straw cannot go curbside. Throw it in the plastics without a number bin. The plastic film the straw is wrapped in can go in your bin for plastic bags.

Here is another aseptic box. With this, cut off the plastic spout with scissors, place the spout in the plastics without a number bin, and rinse the aseptic box and place it curbside.

The cap can also go along with the spout into the plastics without a number bin.

Here is a plastic container of tofu. This is not recyclable curbside, but can still be recycled. The film on the top of the tofu can go in the bin for plastic bags, and the container, which has a recycling code 2 on the bottom (always enclosed within the three recycling arrows), can be placed in your #2 bin.

Wow, that's a lot of cheese. I bought these to make lasagna, but now that I'm feeling more mindful about waste, I will no longer buy my cheese this way. Instead, I will buy it in the deli and bring my own reusable bag. If you do buy cheese like this, all three of these bags can be recycled in your bin for plastic bags.

A bag of salty pretzels. A tasty snack. These can be purchased bulk, using your own reusable bag. If you do buy pretzels in a sack, place the sack in your bin for plastic bags.

Canned tomatoes. Canning them myself is something I hope to start doing in the future to cut down on waste, but in the meantime, both of these cans can go curbside, but you have to remember to crimp the lid (baby jar lids can also be crimped and placed curbside) and place it inside the can so it doesn't fall through the recycling machines. It is no longer necessary to remove the bottom lid and flatten the can.

Everyone who knows me has probably figured out by now that I have a coffee addiction. For someone like me, who buys several lattes each week (okay, some weeks every day), bringing a personal mug instead of getting to-go cups can make a big difference over the course of a lifetime in reducing waste. This is an example of reducing so that recycling isn't necessary. When you do order your latte in a to-go container, all hot latte cups cannot be recycled (although the plastic lids can--check for a number, if there is not one, place it in your plastics without a number bin). The reason they cannot be recycled is the paper coffee cups have a layer of plastic on the inside to prevent the liquid from penetrating the paper. Unfortunately, these are not recoverable. Another good reason to bring your own mug. The good news is that iced latte cups and lids ARE recyclable. Most contain numbers, so place in the appropriate bin. If not, place in your plastics without a number bin. Remember, the straws can go in that bin, too.

Ahhh, the compost items. I filled this Ziploc to the brim this morning cutting up cantaloupe for Sam's breakfast, and washing grapes and peeling carrots for his lunch. Last night, an overflowing bin went out to compost containing an empty coconut shell (love coconut milk!), and all the leftover vegetable trimmings from dinner. Some of these can go down the garbage disposal, but I put all fruit and vegetable scraps (eggshells, too) into the compost. Remember to mix these with carbon containing items from your yard to eliminate odor and prevent rats and mice from moving in. Placing these scraps into your compost is great for the garden, and will greatly reduce the amount of trash your family generates. Also, in a landfill, these break down and produce methane gas, a leading contributor to global warming!

I no longer plan to buy grain this way, because I can get it bulk, save money, and eliminate waste by bringing my own bag. However, for grocery products packaged this way, this bag can be placed in your plastic bags bin.

I made a decision this week to get rid of our plastic in the kitchen and use glass for saving food instead. Until my order of Pyrex storage set arrives, I'm using these glass jars with metal lids from The Container Store, then I'll probably use them for dry ingredients in the cupboard. All of our age-old Tupperware was recycled. Most Tupperware and GladWare tubs and lids contain recycling codes, but for those that don't, place them in your plastics without a number bin.

Honey--this can be bought in a reusable glass jar, but since we already have this, the cap will go in the plastics without a number bin and the container will go curbside, because it has a neck, and all plastics that have a neck can go curbside in Portland. A side note about honey--a friend of mine recently shared on her blog the benefits of raw honey. I think I'll buy it that way in the future.

Ahhh, something I didn't know. Freezer boxes CANNOT go curbside. These are not recoverable, as the paper is infused with plastic and the fibers cannot be separated. This is garbage. All paper made for freezers must be placed in the garbage. Luckily, all recycling is placed on a conveyor belt and people actually have the fun job of removing these items that contaminate other recyclables. So don't worry if you've been throwing them into your curbside bin with other cardboard--chances are they've been removed further down the recycling chain. Paper made for refrigerators can be placed curbside (boxed butter and gabled juice and milk cartons).

These plastic bags are put into the freezer, but they are recyclable! They can go in the bin for plastic bags. Always make sure plastic is clean before placing it into a recycling bin.

Ziplocs: they can be washed and reused time and time again, but eventually, they need to be recycled. These can go into your plastic bags bin.

Sandwich bags--these are plastics we won't need to use anymore, as we're going to cloth sandwich and snack bags. With sandwich bags, as well as Saran wrap, when it's time to toss, wash and place in the plastic bags bin.

Cereal bags--these can also go into the plastic bags bin!

Whew, I bet you're feeling a little overwhelmed by now. I know I was when I started sorting through all the information and examining each product. I still e-mail Metro and the Master Recyclers just about every day as I come across items that I'm unsure about. Just this morning I e-mailed about all of Juni's pacifiers, which she only used for her first three months of life. As you probably guessed, they can be recycled and placed in the plastics without a number bin.

It's actually easy once you create a recycling station and familiarize yourself with the various packaging materials that come through your home. You really start to realize that we are swimming in a sea of plastic. Just about everything is wrapped and packaged in plastic, and just about all that plastic can be recycled. It kind of makes you wonder how many diseases like cancer could be linked to the harmful chemicals in plastic packaging, or what exactly we are putting into our babies' bodies when we stick a plastic bottle in their mouth (see wiki article on BPA) or let them chew on plastic toys. I'm not sure how far we will go as a family when it comes to eliminating plastic, but for starters, I'm going to slowly eliminate it from the kitchen so it isn't near what we eat. The next step will be to try to minimize plastic when it comes to Sam and Juni's toys. Blogs like Life Less Plastic and Fake Plastic Fish are good sources of information on plastics and ways in which to eliminate some plastics from your life.

Recycling takes a little extra time, and there is more sorting involved, but the satisfaction far outweighs the inconvenience. What's more, we are moving to a smaller 32 gallon metal garbage can (we were filling up a 38 gallon roll-cart each week), and will cut our garbage bill nearly in half if we can switch to a once-a-month pick-up plan. On this plan, the city will still pick up recycling weekly and compost bimonthly. Going to one can a month might seem impossible for a family of four, with Juni in diapers and Sam still wearing them at night, but it's surprisingly not. If only non-recyclables go into the garbage, there is actually very little trash generated.



Jeremy said...

Karli... I'm SO impressed by this post! What an incredible amount of information and it's so well thought out and presented. I'm completely inspired now to start my own recycling system in our garage.

Great job Karli!

Anonymous said...

Great post Karli! Recycling like this has reduced our garbage accumulation DRASTICALLY, I'm sure it will for you too.

FYI, Far West Fibers has locations in NE, SE, and Hillsboro for free public recycling of many items. They have one big bin to dump ANY plastic #1-7--this means MUCH less sorting and storage area (for those who don't have as much room to accumulate or don't want to sort). They also have many other bins (film plastics, rigid plastics, paper, athletic shoes, metals, etc.)

One thing I love about all this recycling is it lets you see what items you accumulate the most of so that you can work to reduce consumption of those items. It really makes you think before you buy!

Anonymous said...

That is awesome, Karli... I honestly did not know that all those items could be recycled. Thanks for educating and inspiring us. -JC

Anonymous said...

WOW--I, too, am very impressed (and blown away) by all of this information. I will be honest and admit that I won't be able to jump in full-force like you did, but I'm definitely going to be more mindful of what comes into the house. Thanks so much for taking the time (WHERE DO YOU FIND THE TIME?) to share with us! --Stefanie

Kelli said...

Wow, information overload. I think I'd have to read this a few times to absorb it all! I also have a small recycling station in our garage (not nearly as advanced!) and love being able to keep things out of the trash. I will add that you are very lucky to live in a city so concerned about recycling, because we can only recycle plastics #1 and #2, paper, glass, aluminum, cardboard and paper. It's very limited... however, I realized what a great idea it is to use glass containers in the kitchen instead of plastic. Several months ago I sorted out all of the kids' toys and got rid of everything plastic, plus all cups and water bottles with BPA.

Now, onto the kitchen! Thanks for all the info!

Claudia said...

WOW!! WOW!!! WOW!!!
I'm impressed!! You are very well informed in a lot of areas.
Love you,

Anonymous said...

Very nicely done. A lot of time went into writing this for the rest of us, so thank you very much! I did learn a lot, and I will be trying even harder not to throw away my plastics now that I know where to take them. I live in vancouver, and it's hard to find places to take those plastic bags, and 1's, 2's and #5's. I do go to N. Seasons tho', once a month, and now I know I can save up and take all those containers and bags with me! I feel better!! Again, thanks for the time you put into writing this! Suzi

Anonymous said...

Hmm...Copy and paste this to my garage! : ) I learned alot from this, thanks so much. I love the laundry sorter idea!

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