Recycling used to be so simple: aluminum cans, glass bottles, newspapers and paper bags. But the sheer amount of disposable items has turned a garbage problem into a garbage crisis, says Tom Szaky, founder and chief executive of TerraCycle. The company’s mission is recycling the previously unrecyclable, such as cigarette butts, contact lenses and chewing gum.
As consumers have become more supportive of recyclable products, the options for recycling what we used to deem trash have grown. Major manufacturers are partnering with companies such as TerraCycle to recover their (and sometimes even competitors’) products. Cities and counties have ramped up recycling programs to accept a wider variety of items.
How can you distinguish between recyclables and trash? Start by checking with your local recycling provider. Recycling programs vary by ZIP codes, Szaky says. For items, especially plastic packaging, that aren’t obvious, look at the item’s How2Recycle label — an effort to standardize recycling labels with clear instructions. Retailers such as Target, Lowe’s or Walmart often house large collection bins that accept more than your curbside program.
Still unsure? Search online for “how to recycle [item].” You may find local drop-off sites. There are also mail-in programs. Some services offer a free shipping label. Others ask you to cover the postage. Be sure to follow the instructions on packing and shipping.
TerraCycle also has a searchable database that allows you to type in any object and see what’s available. Can’t find a program? No problem. TerraCycle sells Zero Waste Boxes (prices start at $45) so you can pack and ship items such as toy action figures and athletic balls. Your filled box is mailed to a designated center where specific products are recycled (for example, cigarette butts and chewing gum are combined with other waste to eventually become compost and plastic resin, respectively). To maximize the use of a Zero Waste Box consider buddying up with friends, family or co-workers. You can split the cost and fill the box quicker.
Here are some of the more unusual items you can recycle.
Contact lenses. Bausch + Lomb’s One by One Recycling Program recycles contact lenses as well as the opened plastic blister packs and top foil. Any brand is accepted. Drop off your used lenses and packs at a participating eye doctor’s office. You can also print a free shipping label at BauschRecycles.com. Then seal everything in a cardboard box and drop it off at any UPS location. The program is not for your plastic lens case; check it for a recycle code. If it has one — mine is labeled with a five — confirm that your local curbside recycling program accepts it.
Corks. ReCork gladly accepts them at more than 3,000 drop off stations including liquor stores, grocery stores, wineries and general retailers. Collected corks are used to make shoes, shoe inner soles and even yoga blocks.
Pet fur or hair. You can donate human hair and pet fur to soak up major oil spills and help keep storm drains and waterways clean. Through San Francisco-based Matter of Trust, the Clean Wave program produces oil-absorbing hair mats and hair-stuffed containment booms (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP oil spill).
Plastic bags. Go beyond plastic shopping bags. Any bag that is stretchy or filmlike — even the overwraps used around plastic water bottles, toilet paper or paper towels — can be recycled. This includes zip-top food storage bags, Bubble Wrap, air pillows, produce bags and dry-cleaning bags. Just avoid candy wrappers, chip bags, six-pack rings, degradable bags and prewashed salad bags. Check out the Plastic Film Recycling website for more info and a searchable database of drop-off locations.
Cosmetics and skin-care packaging. Bare Minerals and Origins will accept empty full-sized makeup and skin-care products from any brand in store. Companies such as Kiehl’s, Aveda and MAC accept only their products. Sephora will recycle any products sold in its stores.
Christmas lights. Christmas lights are made from copper, glass and plastic — valuable materials that can actually be recycled and reclaimed. Contact your city’s municipal solid waste office. Many will recycle the lights if you bring them in. They may even run collection days for old lights or point you to a drop-off spot. Some online holiday light retailers, such as Christmas Light Source and Holiday LEDs, will accept your old lights and send you a discount coupon toward the purchase of new ones from them.
Cooking oil. Instead of throwing cooking oil down your drain and creating a potential plumbing disaster, save it. Used cooking oil has become a valuable commodity, now that it’s a key ingredient in biofuels and home heating oil. To find a nearby facility, search online for “Recycle cooking oil [city].”
Athletic shoes. Take your used sneakers (any brand) to a Nike retail store. Nike Reuse-A-Shoe recycles athletic footwear into Nike Grind, a product used to make running tracks, turf fields, gym floors and playgrounds. The MORE Foundation Group stations collection boxes in more than 2,000 locations such as schools, gyms, stores and churches across the country. Donated shoes are sold to participating vendors in developing countries. Proceeds from the shoes help MORE plant thousands of trees each year and aid small farming co-ops in West Africa and Central America.
Tennis balls. Worn-out tennis balls can be sent to reBounces. Recycled balls are chopped up, processed and incorporated into new, cushioned tennis courts.
Toiletries. Colgate takes any brand of toothpaste tube, caps and cartons, as well as used toothbrushes and dental floss containers. Gillette recycles all brands of razors, blades and packaging. Burt’s Bees-branded products can be sent back to the company for free. Herbal Essences welcomes its empty shampoo, conditioner and hair mist bottles and caps.
Crayons. Save unused pieces and mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, where they are recycled into Crazy Crayons and sold online and to gift shops, or donate to the Crayon Initiative, which melts down unwanted, broken crayons and sends the new batch to children’s hospitals.