Cleaning up after dinner you pause over the empty blue recycle bins on your way to the main garbage can. You want to recycle but you aren’t sure what to put in the containers.

I’ve also had this dilemma. So I recently went and did a little research. Here is what I learned….

Here is an easy primer on a few of the things you can recycle on a weekly basis.

At a minimum, you should divide your recycling into two bins. Paper products and newspapers should go into one bin, and glass, tin cans, aluminum cans and plastic bottles in another.

Let’s consider what to do when cooking for a big dinner party. You’ve just finished serving the lasagna, green beans, romaine lettuce salad with tangerines and almond slivers, finished off with a moist death-by chocolate cake.

On cleaning up you could put the cake mix box and the lasagna noodle box in the paper bin (that is without the plastic package that was inside). Then you could remove the label from the tangerine can, give the inside a quick rinse and toss it in the glass/cans bin.

Plastics — Plastics are derived from crude petroleum oil, the same stuff that is used to make gasoline for your vehicle. Generally # 1 and #2 plastic items can be recycled, i.e. water bottles, higher density plastics such as milk jugs.

This might be a hard pill to swallow but…not all plastics are recyclable. Just because it has that recycling logo and a number on it does not mean it is recyclable.

Plastics do not decompose and plastics that are sent to the county incinerator with the rest of your trash can release toxins into the atmosphere when burned. Note that Montgomery County, Maryland, uses an incinerator for a lot of trash.

If you do nothing else, you can make a huge difference recycling and re-using your plastic drink bottles. Making bottles to meet Americans’ demand for bottled water in 2004 required more than 1.5 million barrels of oil, enough to fuel some 100,000 cars for a year, according to data from the Beverage Marketing Corporation and the Earth Policy Institute. More recent data show that this figure may be overly conservative and is estimated to now have grown to exceed 10 million barrels of oil each year.

There are 7 basic recycling codes. Plastics manufactures have created a coding system to identify the seven basic types of plastic. The number is usually marked on the bottom of an item and located inside of three arrows chasing each other. Photobucket

The most commonly used plastic for making water bottles is polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE), commonly known as polyester, or recycle code #1 on the bottom of the bottles. Of those, may recycling programs will only accept #1 (PET) in the form of soda/water bottles and #2 high density polyethylene (HDPE) in the form of milk jugs.

What not to toss in the bin: Plastic utensils, drinking straws, baby wipe plastic containers, detergent bottles, any bottle that the inside residue can’t be rinsed out of, styrofoam cups and yogurt cups. Yes, yogurt cups.

Cans, aluminum, tins — Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make a can from scratch and cuts air pollution at about the same rate.

Tin cans are usually made of steel with a layer of tin added to prevent rusting. It has been estimated that Americans use 100 million tin and steel cans every year.

Recycling tin will save manufacturers 74% of the energy used to make them from scratch.
Before throwing things in the bins, take off the labels. Labels can be recycled with the paper items.

Throw away lids and caps and rinse the containers. If you cannot get a substance rinsed out, such as grease or oil, throw it out. Dirty containers can contaminate an entire lot. Cut off can tops (things that can be opened with a can opener) are recyclable.

What not to toss in the bin: Metal bottle tops, jar lids, paint cans, car parts and building supplies shouldn’t go in the standard bins. Again check your local county website.

Glass — Most glass is 100% recyclable. In other words, for every ton of glass that is recycled, one ton of glass does not have to be created. And since glass never wears out in its quality it can be recycled forever.

What not to toss in the bin: Do not put broken glass in the recycling bins. Light bulbs, drinking glasses, window panes, mirrors, Pyrex ware, crystal, china and pottery are made from different materials and melt at different temperatures so they should not be included in your standard recycling bin.

Corrugated cardboard — Cardboard that has a wavy middle layer between two flat layers can be recycled. Boxes should be flattened and stacked neatly next to the recycling bins on pick-up day. Dirty cardboard, pizza boxes or stuff with food residue cannot be recycled.

Mixed paper products — Just about everything that came from a tree can be accepted here including junk mail, cereal boxes (with the insides removed), wrapping paper, magazines and catalogs. Phone books are usually collected once a year.

What not to toss in the bin: Waxy or plastic coated paper, or food soiled paper products such as cardboard milk cartons and drinking boxes cannot be recycled.

Plastic bags — Plastic bags (including the ones your newspapers come in) are typically not accepted for recycling. But that should not stop you from doing a little re-using/recycling of your own. You can get a small discount for re-using your own bags at most local grocery stores.

For items that cannot be recycled, consider finding ways to re-use them. If you don’t want something anymore and it’s in decent condition, donate it to a local charity or organize a swap meet with a bunch of your friends.

Some churches hold annual “swap and shop” meets. Usually it means you bring at least one bag of clothing items, peruse what everyone else has brought, take home as much as you want. I’ve been to one. Granted I ended up coming home with more stuff than I took there.

How to reduce the amount of garbage you produce: To avoid having a lot of non-degradable and non-recyclable trash, pay attention to the amount of disposable packaging that comes with the stuff you buy. Buy glass instead of plastic when you can.  And you might want to opt for a bulk item or a refillable bottle when you have a choice.

In all, recycling is a great way to make a big difference with only a few seconds of effort.

Good luck and please don’t get discouraged. It might take a bit of thought at first but as time goes it will become an automatic part of your daily routine.

Now go outside for a minute or more and breath the air, look up to the sky and be thankful that you still have a beautiful earth to enjoy, that you don’t have to live on top of a landfill.

Disclaimer: I am not a scientist (although I took three semester as a chemistry major). And because I am human, and each county has it’s own rules, you also might want to check your own county’s website to know exactly what it will accept.

*Addition: March 2009 — If you want to know where to dispose of things that typically can’t be recycled, Earth911 has a directory of recycling centers accross the nation which is searchable by zip code.  I recently used it to find out where I could dispose of my dead TV remote batteries.