What Can We Recycle, and Where?

It has been over two months since my plastic adventure ended. It was the end of April when I stopped my hoarding, and it was the beginning of May when I piled up all of my accumulated plastic in the front of my apartment, marveling at all I’d used in a year. Here the plastic sat untouched for a month, a daily eyesore, until my husband hinted and hinted and then outright begged for me to clear it from our lives.

Like most of the projects I embark on, I initially had great plans for the “sorting” and “cataloging” of my plastic. Before I was actually faced with these tasks, I thought about all I would discover in the process of studying the plastic and gathering together like items to see what I consumed most. But when it came time to actually start, I felt utterly overwhelmed. I stood in the midst of the piles like a lost bird.

It was dreadful getting going.

sorting plastic

Sorting and counting plastic. Wow, what an exciting life I lead!

Somehow, I found the motivation. I spent a dedicated two weeks methodically picking through the piles, tossing similar items together, counting, photographing and tallying up the various plastics. I’m still not completely finished with the counting and clearing, but now, at the end of June, I’m almost there.

A week ago, I finished sifting through the biggest categories: food containers, beverage containers, and plastic bags. Here’s a sample of some of my plastic totals in these areas (In my next post, I plan to give a fuller report on my plastic inventory.):

In one year, I used 114 to-go containers. (This total does not include lids, plastic silverware, or random extras, such as the little “tables” that are put in the center of delivered pizzas to keep the cheese from sticking to the lid. And this figure is just for food I ordered from restaurants; it does not include grocery-related plastics.)

I used 22 disposable cups. 

I used 38 plastic shopping bags. (This does not count ziplock bags or dry cleaning bags or random sleeves for magazines or newspapers…)

This stuff took hours to count. I felt physically lightened—honestly, I felt like I could breathe more deeply—when I was finished counting food containers and plastic liners and when I gathered up these piles. Finally, they could be taken out of my apartment and to the recycling center.

bye bye plastic

Before my first visit to the recycling center…so happy

I stuffed the back of my car with large boxes and bags of plastic detritus, having a recycling center destination pre-programmed into my phone. But, when I reached this center, really a “drop-off” location with no staff on site, I hit a wall again, this time, one not made of my own inertia.

I heaved my bags and boxes towards the line of blue dumpsters, and when I reached them, I noticed a faded sign telling me the “Items NOT to be Included.” Some of the items on this list include plastic grocery bags, Styrofoam, and plastic wrap, some of my main plastic offenders.

I deposited what I could, and then I lugged the rest back to the car.

I realized when I drove back to my apartment, feeling  deflated, that I should have done more research on what could be recycled (and where) before I carted everything out to center. I started to feel some anxiety returning. Still, as I write this post, I have a tub of Styrofoam and a giant garbage bag filled with plastic bags sitting in the trunk of my car.

These are things the city of Chicago cannot recycle. Plastics with the Number 6 label are those made of polystyrene, or Styrofoam, and they cannot easily be recycled (or perhaps cannot be recycled at all). I don’t know why this is, but I plan to find out. I wasn’t greatly surprised that I couldn’t rid myself of my Styrofoam right away. However, I was surprised to learn how tricky it would be to recycle plastic bags. Chicago recycling centers won’t take them because they get caught in the giant sorting machines. There are locations, which I found by visiting a website called plasticfilmrecycling.org, that take plastic bags and plastic liners, but after visiting a few of these suggested locations, I found meager-sized receptacles that I didn’t feel comfortable stuffing my gobs of plastic into.

I have such a giant amount of bags and plastic liners, so I’m determined to find a way to dispose of them sustainably. It might boil down to me, slowly, over time, depositing small amounts in these shared receptacles. That’s not convenient, but might be my only option.

I really wish recycling was easier. For instance, before my attempts to clean up my apartment, I had just assumed that if a piece of plastic had a recycling symbol on it, it could be thrown into a recycling bin. Not so, it turns out. And many plastics beyond those with the Number 6, such as straws, plastic utensils, plastic food bags, and bubble wrap, can’t be recycled either. Here’s a list both of what the city of Chicago advises should be recycled and what should be thrown in the trash.

This list, while very helpful, is not exhaustive. What do I do with plastic wine corks, for example? Or what about empty mascara or deodorant containers? What about coffee bags or cheese containers or pieces of broken nylon dog chews?

It’s hard to fully understand the rules. And it takes time to discover what should be done with each item. In the coming weeks, I hope to speak with someone working in Chicago’s recycling program to learn more about what goes where and why, but many people will not do this and cannot do this. We are all pressed for time.

What if we could throw everything…cans, boxes, plastic jugs, plastic bags, straws, plastic forks…anything not made of organic waste (which could be composted) or not potentially toxic into those blue recycling dumpsters? Couldn’t that lead to greater employment at recycling facilities? Wouldn’t that encourage people to recycle more? Could that even encourage more recycling innovation?

This could be so, but it all would require more expensive equipment and more advanced recycling centers. It would mean more safeguards for recycling center employees,  more paychecks, and more vehicles to transport materials…essentially more money. And when I live in a city that has now been without a state budget for an entire fiscal year, that seems complete and utter fantasy.

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2 Responses to What Can We Recycle, and Where?

  1. You’re incredible!! The rest of us look like lazy jerks compared to you 🙂 Regarding plastic bags – I do a monthly dump at Target into their plastic bag recycling receptacle at the front of the store, but your post has made me wonder where these actually go. Do they truly get recycled or do they get handed off to be thrown somewhere dark and deep in the ocean? It makes me realize I have no idea what happens to any recycling once it’s left my house and is no longer “my problem.” Anyway, I don’t know if this would be feasible at all for you, but I saw a news story recently about old ladies at a retirement home who weave plastic bags into sleeping mats for the homeless. Maybe you could donate your bags to them?


    • I love the idea of giving the bags to be made into something new–I hadn’t thought of something as creative and inspired as this! Thanks so much for reading, Amanda, and for your thoughts. I’m constantly impressed with your efforts to take care of the earth, especially with all that you have on your plate! You are no lazy jerk!! 🙂


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