While the practice of recycling has been growing, the pandemic impacted many daily routines including recycling.  A lack of workers, budgetary concerns, and an increase in the number of recyclables all contributed to the decisions by some cities and towns to stop accepting recyclables in curbside bins, or to stop taking certain types of recyclables. On this National Recycling Day, Energy Saver is pausing to reflect what would happen if people stopped recycling for good?

How Much Are People in the U.S. Recycling?

In 2017, 69 million tons of recyclables were sent to solid waste districts in the U.S. for recycling.  Another 24.89 million tons were composted, and energy was recovered by incinerating another 34.22 million tons. In all, 128.11 million tons of materials were reused or recycled in some way to eliminate or defer it becoming waste.  All of this is great, but we need to do better because still more than 140.47 million tons of recyclables ended up in the landfill. That’s just in one year. It can take items like plastic bottles hundreds of years to decompose.

It’s tough to visualize all that trash and recycling. To better understand what a ton of recyclables and waste looks like it helps to know the average weight of a cubic yard of recycling. Here are examples:

  • Aluminum cans weigh 63 pounds (31.75 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Corrugated cardboard weighs 100 pounds (20 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Food scraps weigh 1,500 pounds (1.33 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Glass bottles weigh 600 pounds (3.33 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Magazines weigh 950 pounds (2.11 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Mixed paper weighs 484 pounds (4.13 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Newspaper weighs 433 pounds (4.62 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Plastic bottles weigh 36 pounds (55.55 cubic yards in a ton)
  • Steel cans weigh 150 pounds (13.33 cubic yards in a ton)

A cubic yard is three feet high, three feet wide, and three feet deep. If one ton of plastic bottles contains 55.55 cubic yards, you’d be looking at a mountain about 165 feet tall, 165 feet deep, and 165 wide. That’s a little taller than the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. That’s just one ton and one type of recyclable!

To reduce the amount of materials ending up in the landfill it is important to improve recycling habits to make your recycling efforts count.   

Follow a Circular Economy – Reduce and Reuse

If you regularly purchase water bottles due to the quality of your well water, consider purchasing a water dispenser. If you don’t want to invest in a water dispenser at home, you could rent one or install a water filtration system on your kitchen faucet. There are even water bottles with built-in water filters that can help you avoid buying cases of water bottles each week. Use refillable water bottles to bring to work or school if you do not like the water sources there.

Not every company creates new food and beverage containers with recycled items. Support those who do and encourage your favorite companies to consider using recycled materials. Many mainstream companies now make products and packaging from post-consumer recycled plastic including recycled water bottles as well as plastic recovered from the ocean.

Ask friends and neighbors if they could use some of your recyclables. The items you have could get an extended life. For example, you have a neighbor down the road who has chickens. Instead of recycling your egg cartons, ask your neighbors if they need them. You could end up with free eggs as a thank you gift.

Your local school may appreciate the donation of old shirts to help the kids protect their clothing when painting. Another neighbor may be looking for moving boxes. A carpenter may want all of the spice jars you’re about to recycle to use for storing small items like nuts and bolts. It never hurts to ask if others could use your items.

Make Sure You are Recycling Correctly

Stop Wish Recycling

Wish recycling is a process where you think something should be recycled, but it isn’t. You recycle it hoping your local recycling facility will accept it.

Don’t recycle something with the hopes it is recyclable. Placing items that aren’t recyclable in a curbside bin makes it harder for recycling plants to process things. It could lead to an entire batch of recyclables going into the trash.

For instance, because plastic resins melt at different temperatures, if a #7 plastic got into a batch of #1 plastic hard shards of plastic would end up in the mixture, rendering that entire batch useless.

If you’re not sure, call your waste district and ask.

Print Out a Recycling List

A great way to know what is and isn’t recyclable is by using a list from your waste and recycling hauler or use the handy Energy Saver recycling label list. You don’t want to put items that aren’t recyclable into your curbside containers. If you can’t find a list on your company’s website or social media page, call and ask them to mail you one.

Properly Dispose of Recyclables

Thoroughly Wash Out Food Cans and Jars

Wash food containers like peanut butter jars out with hot soapy water. If there is stuck-on food inside the container, they end up in the trash. If they’re clean, they’ll get recycled.

Remove Lids From Bottles

Take lids off bottles and containers when you’re recycling them. Not every district accepts the lids. If they do, make sure they want you to leave the caps on. Most will ask you to separate them first. As plastic items are heated, there is the risk of the air within a bottle heating up and causing the bottle to explode, leading to injuries.

No Wet or Soiled Cardboard

Cardboard is recycled in many areas, but most solid waste districts cannot take wet or soiled cardboard. That means no pizza boxes. Don’t assume they’re recyclable just because they’re cardboard. If a box is left on your porch and gets rained on, don’t try to recycle it anyway. Instead, compost it in your compost pile, use it in a lasagna garden bed, or throw it away.

Know Where to Bring Items Your Hauler Won’t Accept

Know where to take items that can’t go into curbside recycling containers. Your waste hauler may not accept plastic bags in the curbside bin, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be recycled. Save them and take them to the grocery store. Most stores have bins for plastic film and bag recycling. It’s free, and it ensures plastic bags and packaging end up being recycled.

Save batteries to recycle at the local recycling center or a store like Home Depot. There are recycling containers specifically for batteries that ensure batteries are kept from landfills. If there is an electronics recycling bin in your area, take advantage of it. Otherwise, call office supply stores or the local recycling center to see if they recycle electronics.

Make sure your district is taking cardboard. Some stopped due to the increase in boxes during the pandemic. Others do take it, but they ask you to break it down and bundle it with twine.


With just a little effort you can make a big impact on how far your recycling will go!