How to Recycle? That Is the Question | Seventh Generation
Skip to Content
  • Pin It

How to Recycle? That Is the Question

Author: BethArky

Bales of Plastic RecyclingWhen it comes to confusion about recycling, I want to say one word to you. Just one word. Plastics.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?

Forty-plus years after Benjamin's befuddlement in The Graduate, there is still general confusion when it comes to plastics and recycling in general.

All of us, my DH (dear husband) and our 6-year-old son included, are becoming better foot soldiers in my little Operation Green. Paper goes in the colorful woven basket from Ghana -- OK, I'm the only one who remembers to flatten everything, including tissue boxes -- while glass, plastic, and metal are tossed together in a bin under the kitchen sink. (We really mix it up here in the big city.) I've also been doing a better job of reusing things like aluminum foil; Mom would be so proud!

But it's New York City's convoluted, confounding laws governing plastics recycling that really keep tripping us up. At the risk of looking like a dolt, I have literally grabbed my very patient neighbor Amanda, who has taken it upon herself to keep our building up on all the recycling rules, even sending out monthly reminders. Her bottom line: Only narrow-neck plastic bottles and jugs can be recycled.

Now that I knew the broad strokes, I needed to find out why. So I checked out New York City's NYCWasteLe$$ recycling site. (Note: To add to the confusion, every city has different rules and restrictions, so check with your local recycling authority.) There, I learned that we can only recycle plastic bottles and jugs made with No. 1 PET and No. 2 HDPE plastics. Other plastic containers -- including berry, yogurt, prewashed salad, and Chinese food containers -- may have resins that could contaminate the "good" recyclables and must therefore be trashed.

In some places, including San Francisco, all plastics go in the recycling bin. But that doesn't mean they're all recycled. According to NYCWasteLes$$$, only No. 1 and No. 2 plastics are actually used while the others are usually sorted out and discarded at the plant. The thinking goes that if you take out the guesswork, the net result will be more "good" plastics recycled. Here in New York City, high labor and transportation costs have ruled out this system.

I was somewhat encouraged to learn there are some forward-thinkers in city hall. New York's new Solid Waste Management Plan, which details how we'll handle our tons upon tons of trash for the next 20 years, includes a directive to explore how we might recycle additional plastics. But we don't have to wait for the excruciatingly slow wheels of government to turn. The city's site reports that the Preserve Gimme 5 program enables recycling of No. 5 plastics like some yogurt cups, hummus tubs, and other food containers, along with Brita® pitcher filters. You can look for collection bins at participating Whole Foods.

You can learn some pretty amazing stuff just by skimming through your city's recycling website. I even happened upon the answer to a question that has been bugging me: Yes, I can recycle those envelopes with plastic windows. (I'd actually started tearing out the plastic before recycling the envelope!)

Upon receiving Amanda's July recycling reminder, I e-mailed back to tell her I'd noticed that some people were dumping plastic bags full of paper, glass, and the like into the building's recycling bins. I wondered, wouldn't these bags contaminate the lot? I was feeling particularly gung-ho, having just written my two-parter on the joys of BYOB'ing (Bring Your Own Bag) vs. taking stores' plastic bags.

So I was thrilled to see Amanda's addendum to this month's "Do's and Don'ts":
* Plastic bags are reusable and recyclable by returning them to supermarkets. [Note: New York State's Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse and Recycling Act, which came into effect in January, requires large retail and chain stores to accept clean plastic bags for recycling.] Please do not dispose of your recyclables in anything other than clear recycling plastic bags. Recyclables should be emptied from any other plastic bags into the bins and the bags should be reused or disposed of separately. Having plastic bags mixed in with the glass, cans, and paper goods contaminates the recyclables. Thanks, Amanda!

Meanwhile, back on the home front, I continue to find yogurt cups and the like in the bin below the sink. But I've learned it's best to just fish them out and throw them in the garbage, rather than make a big stink. Just the other night, as I was dumping a huge prewashed salad container into the trash, my DH asked, "So that's not recyclable?" He noticed! He really noticed!

photo: Tom Peck


emarket8888 picture
How do I dispose and/or recycle umbrellas and a wooden weaved basket? I live at Flushing, NY. I tried to google it and I got nothing. Please kindly help me on this matter. Thank you very much for your assistance.
stiggly picture
you can take your number 5's - plastic lids and yogurt pots etc., to participating whole foods who work in conjunction with Preserve. they turn these plastics into products... contact Preserve and Whole Foods to see where you can drop them off. We drop off ours at the Whole Foods in the east village on Houston Street at Bowery/2nd avenue just as you walk in the main door way. You will need another bin for number 5's but it's better than trashing them.
notyourlawyer picture
I think I muddled my main point. People eat food that comes in plastic tubs. These plastic tubs replaced the Wax Cardboard that DOES biodegrade. The same material that is used in milk cartons. A few years ago salad dressing, applesauce, etc, etc. came in glass jars. Now those have been replaced w/plastic. We seem to be going backwards. notyourlawyer
PACHES01 picture
I am very happy because this year my hometown (Rochester Hills, MI) switched over to a new waste management company. Not only can all plastics #1-#7, glass, cardboard, aluminum, and paper be recycled, but residents get coupons back to spend at restaurants and stores in the area based on how much they recycle every week. With this new program my family recycles about 50% of our waste, and we don't have to sort it because it gets sorted at the recycling facility. Another plus is that the recycling bin and garbage bin are the same size. I wish that more cities would start adopting this great program.
mimilichterman picture
As you find out that there aren't as many recycling options as you once thought, and you're wondering what do with all these yogurt cups 'n such, one answer is to USE LESS! Instead of wondering what to do with 20 empty yogurt cups a week or feeling horrible that you HAVE to dump them in the trash, buy yogurt in quart or bigger sizes. Stop buying food in individual serving sizes and make the effort to portion them yourself. I know, I know. Who has time to do that? We all have make the sacrifices and just suck it up.
Amanda Gentile picture
Amanda Gentile
Your article How To Recycle? That is the Question (or other article name) points out some great resources in New York City. We hope you will learn more about Council on the Environment of New York City’s Office of Recycling Outreach and Education, or “OROE.” We are charged with just that, helping residents understand New York City recycling rules better. We have conducted direct education to more than 45,000 New Yorkers since our creation in 2006 as part of Mayor Bloomberg’s landmark Solid Waste Management Plan. For example, at Greenmarkets and other events throughout the city, you can play the recycling challenge where potential trash and recyclables are matched with their proper receptacles. In this way, people are learning how to recycle better in a fun and engaging way while helping to decrease waste in New York City. Please visit our website to request a building audit, recycling FAQ’s, special recycling collections such as textiles, and many more resources. Learn More at
LolitaMurrah picture
Last year Houston started accepting Plastics 1-5 and 7 at all centers and in curbside bins.
notyourlawyer picture
Yogurt - Cottage Cheese - Sour Cream...... My family eats these things. I eat these things. And in the course of a week I can easiy rack up 20 containers. (I won't buy the little ones as certain family members would like.) I do reuse. But not that many. So - In the OLD days - these products were waxed cardboard, like milk cartons. And I would readily switch and pay a premium (small please) to whatever brand took up that practice. Seventh Generation, Inc. - You must know the players. Give me a list. Plastic Caps I remove them from my recycled bottles, shampoo, dish soap etc. and bring them to Aveda. They recycle plastic caps for their shampoo bottles. Check out their web site. It's they're small stab at helping the ocean breathe. But as I make my little piles, argue w/ the unenlighteded, recycle my toilet paper cardboard, drive said piles to Whole Foods, Aveda, Bag Store and feed my obsessive-compulsive quest to save the earth..... I sometimes wonder if the Big Kahuna is looking down and laughing it's a** off. I digress. And continue my quest. notyourlawyer
MotherLodeBeth picture
I avoid buying stuff in plastic to begin with. Thankfully when I am wanting a treat like a bottle of Pepsi, I buy it in a glass bottle. Store leftovers in glass containers as well. Invested in a stainless steel reusable water container that I fill at home and take with me. Use a large homemade pillow case that is the size of a 30 gallon garbage can and I use this to hold garbage that is then dumped before garbage pick up, and then I wash the pillowcase and re use. After reading the book Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America's Drinking Water and finding out how much oil goes into making plastic I changed how I do things. Also use washable tea towels for wiping up spills, since I hate spending money on paper towels that get tossed away. Actually I only have enough garbage to put out, once every three months, since we compost kitchen waste and any paper or cardboard is take to the recycling center.
Sherry picture
Yogurt containers have a million and one reuses. In fact, I found a science teacher on freecycle willing to take them for class projects. I, too, am amazed that many people believe "If it has a little triangle on it, It can be recycled." (Which is completely false) Another tip, take the caps off of those 1 and 2 plastic bottles and throw them away. The caps are 5s or 6s and inhibit the crushing of the bottles.
10ftdoll picture
I suppose we should feel some relief that the plastic bags being used at stores these days now bear a "Please Recycle" sign, and that if we simply remember to place it in the reycling bin, we are actually doing something good for the planet. Unfortunately it takes twice as much energy to recycle plastic than it is to even manufacture it. And do we really know if they really get recycled? Has anyone followed the recycling truck to make sure that it is reprocessed and reused? It's a super long shot to take on the plastics industry but I think that we should do as much as we can to avoid using plastic as much as possible. Thankfully there are some food companies/stores now that are using biodegradable and/or compostible packaging. Hopefully others will jump in the bandwagon soon.
Jenifer Sloan picture
Jenifer Sloan
"the colorful woven basket from Ghana" - what's the basket's footprint? What were you using before the basket that traveled over 1,000 miles to get to your home in NYC? What happened to it when you upgraded to the new imported woven basket? "huge prewashed salad container" - why not get salad from one of the greenmarkets that doesn't come in a plastic container in the first place? I commend your efforts and don't mean to sound combative. But there are simple - and less expensive/consumptive- ways to be "green." So often people think that being "green" means buying more, buying new recycled products and throwing out old items that still work.
lobelia2001 picture
Even though the narrow-necked plastic bottles and jugs are being collected curbside, and sorted, and baled, and shipped off to plastics reprocessors (most of them overseas - consider the carbon footprint of that), they're not reincarnating as bottles and jugs. That post-consumer plastic is just feedstock for products which are themselves not recyclable. In the industry, this is referred to as 'downcycling'. That post-consumer PET and HDPE is coming back as decking material and textiles, primarily. Take into account how much money the plastic industry spends on propaganda to make plastics look environmentally friendly and sound, and then take notice that despite this great effort cities are making to collect the bottles curbside, new bottles are being manufactured from virgin resin instead of the post-consumer material. It's a lot of bluster, in other words.
Rotkapchen picture
While Arlington, TX used to have the same policy -- they've more recently expanded their plastics rainbow (and have great pictures to help in the effort): I'll likely do a video interview to find out what happens to the recycling stream after it's collected.
peaceout picture
If any of you are interested in getting free ecofriendly tips visit It's a cool website.
heatherllevin picture
I'm the same way at my house! Fortunately, my small town has an amazing recycling program, and takes all plastics. I'm constantly grateful for that. I recently wrote an article on 5 Surprising Things You Can Recycle and How To Recycle Your Flip Flops if those will be of help to your readers! Thanks for the great post, as always!