After China announced it would no longer accept imports of plastic waste — a.k.a. our recyclables — recycling programs are even more strapped than usual. Some cities, like Philadelphia, have been forced to institute new policies. As the New York Times reported, they “identified the neighborhoods with the most contamination in its recycling bins and started sending their material to an incinerator in nearby Chester, Pa. The rest still send their material to a recycling facility.”

What’s recyclable also varies from place to place, so be sure you know what your town actually accepts. Not everything with a recycling symbol may be recyclable in your area. Of course, there are things that are almost never recyclable that tend to make their way into bins, too. Common offenders are disposable paper cups, like the ones you might get to-go from a coffee shop. The plastic-based lining that makes them liquid-proof is too hard to separate from the paper.

Other offenders are paper towels, Styrofoam, glass from things like windows or mirrors, plastic bags (more on that in a sec), greasy pizza boxes and really anything that’s covered in food (I’m looking at you, empty peanut butter jar.) When in doubt, your city should have a complete list of what they do and do not accept posted on their website.

Putting Plastic Bags in Any Single-Stream Recycling Bin

If you put all your recyclables in a big plastic trash bag and put it in the bin — guess what — that could mean the whole thing is going to the landfill. If you must collect recyclables in a plastic bag, dump them out loose into the bin when you take them to the curb, and then toss the plastic bag in the trash where it belongs (or, you know, reuse it.)

Plastic bags like you get at the grocery, drug or big box store are recyclable, but you have to bring them back to a designated plastic-bags-only receptacle. There’s often one right inside the door at grocery stores or places like Walmart. A few other bags can get recycled here, too, like the bag a loaf of bread might come in.

But other soft filmy plastics, like your sandwich baggies, the film you peeled off your lunch meat container or the cellophane that held your muffin from the coffee shop — sorry to say, these are trash.

Why does this matter? Besides making more work for recycling centers (see #1), the soft plastics clog up the machinery. You could break the recycling center.

Tote Bags

Ah, sorry to break it to you. I know reusable grocery bags are one of the most popular ways people try to minimize their environmental footprint — whenever we actually remember to bring them in from our trunk. Although cutting out plastic bags from your life is a good move, most people don’t stop to think about the impact of the tote bag itself.

Last year, the Administration of Environment and Food of Denmark put together a big assessment of the environmental impacts of different types of shopping bags, from the thin, flimsy polyethylene bags all the way up to the most “eco-friendly” organic cotton totes.

As it turns out, It takes exponentially more resources to make a tote bag compared to the cheap polyethylene. The report analyzed how many times you’d need to use each type of bag to equal the environmental impact of a plastic one. Paper bags, and plastic-based reusable totes, required between 35 and 85 re-uses. A cotton tote, though, had to be used 7,100 times to make up for the resources that went into it. Organic cotton? 20,000 times. If you used your organic cotton bag twice a week for the rest of your life, it’d be worth it after 192 years. Of course, if you’re already stocked up on tote bags — organic cotton or otherwise — the best thing you can do is keep using them.

Organic Cotton

Well, if an organic cotton grocery bag is 20,000 times more resource-hungry than a flimsy plastic bag, that’s a pretty good hint that organic cotton is not a sustainable choice. How could this be? Conventional cotton has been genetically engineered to increase yields and decrease the need for water. Plus, without pesticides, more of the crop is lost to pest damage. That means it takes way more organic cotton plants to make a t-shirt than it does conventional plants. That’s on top of cotton already being a fairly resource-intensive crop.

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