What Does the Recycling Symbol Mean, Anyway?

recycling symbols

11-11-2019

Everyone knows the recycling symbol. It looks like three arrows chasing each other in the shape of a triangle, and it seems to turn up everywhere these days.

But did you know the recycling symbol doesn’t mean an item is always recyclable? In fact, there are many kinds of recycling symbols, and a lot of them don’t mean “recyclable” at all.

This is a problem because usually, when people see one of these recycling symbols, they automatically think, “I can recycle this!” and toss the item into the recycling. But the chasing arrows don’t always mean something is recyclable, and recycling the wrong items causes contamination in our recycling stream. Contamination reduces how much of our materials actually get recycled, and it makes recycling more expensive.

In honor of America Recycles Day, we’re going to debunk the meaning behind the recycling symbol. So let’s take a closer look at what all these recycling symbols really mean:


recycling symbol

1. Recyclable (Sometimes, Some Places)

Meaning #1: An item with this symbol on it is recyclable somewhere. This doesn’t mean an item is recyclable in San José!
Recycling programs all have different sorting systems and different technologies available to them. Because of all these differences, there are virtually no recycling rules that are true across the state or the country.

The manufacturers that use this symbol on their products have no way of knowing what the rules are in every community. They just know whether it’s technically possible to recycle something or not. A lot of times, it is! But that doesn’t mean we can recycle it in San José.

How can you find out whether or not something is recyclable here? Look up the item in our Recycling Guide.

Meaning #2: This item was made from recycled materials.
In this use of the recycling symbol, you might see a number in the middle that has the percentage of recycled materials used to make it. It might also say “Made from recycled materials.” This doesn’t mean the item is recyclable! Items made from recycled materials are sometimes recyclable, sometimes not. You can find out whether we can recycle it in San José by looking it up in our Recycling Guide.


recyclable symbol

2. Made From Recycled Materials

The recycling symbol over a dark circle means that the item was made from recycled materials.

Even though it looks like the recyclable symbol, many products with this symbol cannot be recycled. For example, this symbol appears on a lot of recycled paper products, but paper can only be recycled so many times. Items such as napkins and paper towels are end-of-use products, meaning it’s the end of the recycling road for them. Their super-short paper fibers can’t be recycled anymore, so you need to throw them away. Cardboard, however, can still be recycled again, so you can put that in your recycling cart.


plastic resin code

3. Plastic Resin Code, or Type of Plastic

This symbol doesn’t stand for recycling at all — it’s a manufacturing code that stands for the type of plastic an item is made from. Items with this symbol are not necessarily recyclable!

In San José, we’re lucky to be able to recycle all rigid plastics #1-#7, so if you see any of these numbers appear in the resin code, you can usually put that item in your recycling. Some exceptions to this rule are foam plastic #6 and compostable plastics, which are sometimes labeled as plastic #7 or PLA.


how to recycle

4. The How2Recycle Label

The How2Recycle label is a series of recycling symbols created by an organization called the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. This label is becoming more common, and it’s carefully regulated to provide you with information that’s as accurate as possible, given all the differences between local recycling programs.

The How2Recycle label will tell you if an item is recyclable widely, in limited areas, not at all, or if it needs to be dropped off at a store. However, by their definitions, “widely recyclable” can mean only 60% of U.S. households, so you should check San José’s Recycling Guide no matter what.

If an item has multiple pieces, the How2Recycle label will tell you what material each piece is made from and which parts can be recycled. If you need to prepare the item for recycling, it will tell you how. To see an example, check out the instructions on the frozen food package below.

how to recycle


BPI logo

5. Compostable (But Not in Your Backyard)

OK, so this isn’t technically a recycling symbol, but we still wanted to include it in this list! This symbol means the item is compostable in a commercial composting facility. However, not all commercial composting facilities accept all materials.

In San José, we do not compost BPI-certified materials. Toss these in the trash!

Additionally, do not try to compost items with this symbol at home unless the label says you can. Most of these items require high amounts of heat and pressure to break down, so they will never break down in a backyard compost.

Please note: Compostable items are not recyclable! If something can be composted, that means it can break down into tiny pieces that can be digested by little critters such as worms and bacteria and recomposed into new organic material: soil! Recycling is a very different process.

Toss Those Halloween Candy Wrappers

halloween candy

10-21-2019

Halloween is fast approaching, and as you work your way through the never-ending supply of candy, remember that candy wrappers are not recyclable. They need to be thrown in the trash.

Candy wrappers can’t be recycled because they are made of a mix of materials — often a combination of paper, plastic and aluminum — that are difficult and expensive to separate.

However, if you’re organizing a big halloween party, and there’s going to be a ton of candy, consider ordering a TerraCycle Candy and Snack Wrappers Zero Waste Box. This way the wrappers can be mailed in to be recycled through TerraCycle’s special program.

Food Scraps Don’t Belong in the Recycling

dirty food containers

10-7-2019

Is your jar half-full of salsa? Does your can still have food in it? Don’t toss them in the recycling! Food scraps contaminate the recycling process.

When food scraps get into your recycling, they make recyclables less clean and less valuable. Food can get stuck in sorting equipment, forcing workers to stop the sorting line to clean it up. Food can also seep into paper products, making the fibers too weak to be recycled — liquids, sticky residue and leftover grease, especially.

Long story short: A batch of food-contaminated recycling can quickly end up in the landfill.

What can you do? Empty and scrape out any containers that once held food.

It’s Time to Upgrade Your Tailgating Cup

solo cups

9-30-2019

No one can deny that the red Solo cup is a cultural icon: it makes us think of tailgating, BBQs, college parties and more recently, Toby Keith’s hugely popular song. When you fill one up this season, remember that the rigid plastic #6 cup is recyclable in our curbside program.

If thrown away, it doesn’t take a quick 14 years for a plastic cup to decompose, as Keith’s lyrics suggest. Estimates range closer to 450 years. That’s a long time, especially if you consider that, according to EarthDay.org, 500 billion disposable cups are consumed every year. They’re one of the contributors to the 8 million metric tons of plastic that pours into our oceans every year. Plastic is a problem that isn’t going away on its own.

Even better than recycling your cups is switching to reusable! If you’re not in charge of party planning, just BYO reusable cup! Reusable plastic or aluminum work well — you can use a spare thermos, water bottle or even a glass mason jar.

If you’re party planning and want traditional red cups, you’ll find through an internet search that reusable versions are available. Another option: the University of Colorado Boulder just released reusable aluminum cups for their new football season.

If you’re stuck on single-use cups, stick to plastics that are recyclable. Avoid plastic cups labeled “compostable” or “biodegradable” — these plastics are not recyclable, and recyclable plastic is better for the environment.

That said, if your tailgating party just won’t be the same without the classic Solo cups, reuse them as much as you can, and then remember to recycle them.

6 Ways to Cut Back on Food Waste for Climate Week

food in fridge

9-23-2019

September 23-29 is Climate Week NYC, a series of events run in coordination with the UN and the City of New York that showcase actions people are taking around the world to reduce our impact on the climate and foster discussion on how we can do more.

Want to Take Action?

If you want to join the effort to take action on climate, food waste is a great place to start. In the U.S., 40% of food goes to waste, which accounts for 16% of our total methane emissions. Methane is a harmful greenhouse gas that has more than 25 times the environmental impact that carbon dioxide has.

We can lower our methane emissions and reduce our climate impact by cutting back on food waste.

How to Reduce Your Food Waste

Try out these 6 tips to put a dent in how much food you waste:

1. Shop smart. Only buy what you know you’ll use. Create a meal plan for the week and build a shopping list around that meal plan. Try using this meal planner from Eureka Recycling, or the EPA’s smart shopping list (PDF).

2. Store food strategically. Fasten a produce storage guide to your fridge door, such as this one from the EPA (PDF), so you know which foods keep best inside or outside the fridge.

Also, learn about where food should be stored within your fridge. Your shelves, drawers and doors are designed to hold different types of foods. Check out the NRDC’s Refrigerator Demystified infographic (PDF).

3. Eat food strategically. All produce has a varying shelf life. Try labeling your food to remind yourself which items need to be eaten first (these PDF signs from the EPA are handy), and freeze food that’s about to go bad so you can use it in the future.

Still having trouble eating food in time? Try the USDA’s FoodKeeper application for Apple and Android devices. The app provides expert-backed advice for storing and eating more than 400 foods and drinks, and can give you reminders to use items before they go bad.

4. Prepare food in advance. When you get home from the store, rinse and chop your produce so that snacking and meal prep is easier during the week. That way you’ll be more likely to follow through on making the meals you shopped for.

5. In California, best-by dates indicate freshness, not safety. Use-by dates indicate food safety. That means you can still eat food after its best-by date, but not after its use-by date. To learn more about how long you can keep food, visit StillTasty.com or EatByDate.com.

6. Have a fridge full of random items? Use an online tool to help you find recipes for them, such as Supercook or MyFridgeFood.

For Pollution Prevention Week, Green Your Cleaning Routine

cleaning products

9-16-2019

Pollution Prevention Week is September 16-22! Pollution Prevention (P2) means stopping pollution where it starts in order to prevent damage to the environment. Pollution Prevention plays a critical role in saving our planet’s resources and moving toward sustainability.

One great way to prevent pollution in your home is to limit how many harsh chemical cleaners you use. Cleaning products, from window cleaners to kitchen and bathroom sprays for tile, sinks, countertops, etc., expose you — and your family — to a host of harmful chemicals. A recent study found that people who use cleaners every day can suffer lung damage comparable to smoking 20 cigarettes a day. Replacing chemical cleaners with healthy alternatives is easy.

This Pollution Prevention Week, try out these 5 easy, DIY cleaning product recipes to reduce the amount of chemicals that end up in your home, and eventually our waterways. You can buy the ingredients in bulk and use them with a reusable spray bottle and cleaning cloths to reduce waste from single-use packaging, paper towels and disposable wipes.

1. Kitchen Cleaners

Many cleaning products used in kitchens contain ammonium compounds that can irritate the skin and lungs. Some products additionally contain butyl cellosolve, also known as ethylene glycol, a compound on California’s Toxic Air Contaminant List for its harmful effects on lungs, kidneys, hormones, liver, skin and the central nervous system.

To clean up greasy messes without chemicals, mix the following ingredients in a spray bottle and shake well:

  • 2 cups of water
  • ½ teaspoon of natural liquid soap (such as Castile)
  • 1 tablespoon of baking soda

You can also make a useful disinfectant spray by mixing the following:

  • ½ cup of white vinegar
  • ½ cup of rubbing alcohol
  • ¾ cup of water

After spraying surfaces with the disinfectant, wait 10 minutes before wiping it up.

2. Bathroom Cleaners

Cleaning your bathroom with common products may also expose you to butyl cellosolve. To avoid this chemical, wipe down your bathroom with an all-purpose cleaner made from:

  • ¾ cup water
  • ¼ cup rubbing alcohol
  • 1 squirt of natural liquid soap

3. Glass Cleaners

Common glass cleaners achieve a streak-free shine with ammonia, which can irritate the lungs, and lead to chronic bronchitis and asthma. An ammonia-free glass cleaner can also achieve streak-free results. Make one using:

  • 2 tablespoons of rubbing alcohol
  • 2 tablespoons of white vinegar
  • 2 cups of water

4. Oven Cleaners

Many oven cleaners contain ethanolamine, a skin and lung irritant.

Instead of using this harsh chemical, sprinkle a thin layer of baking soda on the bottom of your oven, spray with water and leave to soak overnight. Scrub and rinse away the mixture the following day.

5. Scrubbing Powders

You might think some tough kitchen and bathroom messes require tough chemical scrubs, but scrubs often contain chlorine, another skin and lung irritant.

Make an effective cleansing scrub by mixing equal parts natural liquid soap and baking soda and adding just enough water until it forms a paste.

A note on fragrances: Many cleaning products contain fragrances to offset the odors of their chemical cleaning agents. Manufacturers are not required to specify the ingredients used to make fragrances, but fragrance chemicals emit a wide variety of VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, which can cause a host of negative health effects, including cancer.

For fresher air, open your windows. The air in your home could contain up to five times the pollutants fresh air does. You may also consider adding some air-cleaning plants to your home.

To eliminate unwanted odors, try leaving out an open container of baking soda, charcoal or cedar chips. All of these materials absorb odor naturally. Essential oils are a healthy way to add pleasant smells to your home. You can put a few drops in any of the above recipes.

For more information on what chemicals to watch out for in your cleaning products, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. You can also find their top-rated products or look up any product or ingredient in their database to find its health rating.

If you decide to ditch your old cleaning products, consider donating them to a local organization that could use them, or give them away for free using a neighborhood-connecting app such as Nextdoor, Craigslist or Freecycle. Otherwise, dispose of them with other household hazardous waste.

Torn Jeans? Here’s an Easy Way to Fix Them (Video)

9-9-2019

Wear your favorite jeans for long enough and eventually they’ll tear. Better than throwing them away and buying a new favorite, you can fix them!

With an inside patch for stability and some jean-colored thread, your favorite denim will be back in action. Watch this video to see how:

You can also start fixing your tear by applying an iron-on patch, as this second video demonstrates:

Jeans can last a long time, so fixing a tear can give them a much longer life. And not only will it keep them out of the landfill, it will also save you money.

How to Dispose of Lunchables

Lunchables

9-2-2019

Lunchables are easy to pack for kids when you’re short on time, but how do you dispose of the packaging when you’re done?

The cardboard sleeve goes in the recycling. The plastic wrap and plastic container go in the trash. They are not recyclable.

To cut back on waste, try making your own “Lunchables” at home. You’ll save money, too. Check out the Squawkfox homemade lunch experiment to learn more.

Back to School This Fall? Here’s How to Dispose of Drink Pouches

drink pouches

8-26-2019

If you’re sending kids back to school this fall, chances are you’ll be packing some snacks and lunches. If you pack any drink pouches, such as Capri Sun, Tropicana or Honest Kids pouches, make sure they get tossed in the trash, along with their straws and plastic packaging. Drink pouches are not recyclable.

Want to go the extra mile? Sign up for TerraCycle’s Drink Pouch Mail-In Recycling Program, or ask your kid’s school to start a collection for it. That way you can mail in empty pouches to be recycled through their special program.

Even better, invest in a reusable drink container for your kid to take to school, and fill it from a larger container of juice at home. You’ll quickly save money and reduce waste at the same time.

Recycle Right at Your Summer Party

BBQ

8-19-2019

Planning a BBQ or picnic this summer? Check out this cheat sheet for six easy ways to green your event and recycle right.

1. Put dirty items, food and drinks in the trash. Don’t put greasy items or anything containing liquids or food residue in the recycling. Help your guests by putting clear signs on your trash and recycling containers. For example, “Trash: Food, Plates, Cups, Forks” and “Recycling: Empty Bottles and Cans Only.”

2. Put clean glass bottles, aluminum cans, cardboard and containers made from plastics #1-#7 in the recycling. At a party, beverage containers are the most common recyclable, and you can even redeem them for 5-10 cents each at a beverage container recycling center. Not sure if something is recyclable in San José? Look it up in our Recycling Guide.

3. Share leftovers to prevent food waste. In your invitation, ask your guests to bring a food storage container so that they can bring home leftovers.

4. Plan your portions. Prevent food waste by tallying up how many guests you’re expecting, how long the event will be, and plan food portions accordingly. Here are some pointers:

  • Adults tend to eat one pound of food per meal, and children, half a pound.
  • If you’re serving only appetizers, folks will eat about 4-6 in their first hour, and 2-3 per hour after that.
  • If you’re serving a full meal, plan about 6-8 oz of meat per adult (a store-bought hamburger tends to run around 6 oz) in addition to side dishes.
  • A serving of pasta salad is about one cup per person. For baked beans, half a cup.
  • For light desserts like watermelon or cookies, plan two small servings per person, or 4 oz of a cake or pie.
  • For beverages, estimate two per person for the first hour, and one per hour after that.

5. Serve finger food. To cut down on plates, serve foods that don’t need them. A lot of classic summer fare is handheld, including hot dogs, sandwiches, skewers, corn on the cob, fresh vegetables and watermelon.

6. Skip disposables. Choose reusable plates, cups, utensils and napkins over disposable ones. If you’re set on disposable, choose compostable and unbleached paper or bamboo products over plastic or styrofoam ones. If you want to use plastic cups, you can either collect them for reuse, or invest in a more durable version.