Today is the 20th anniversary of America Recycles Day, a Keep America Beautiful national initiative to raise awareness about the value of recycling.

While most people agree that recycling is good for the environment, America Recycles Day is a time to remember that recycling is also good for our economy and our communities.

As AmericaRecyclesDay.org reads:

Through America Recycles Day, it’s our aim to teach Americans the importance of recycling right – recycling clean, uncontaminated materials correctly – and to encourage buying products made from recycled content. And while more than 70 percent of the population has access to recycling, the number that actually participate is much lower.

Consider that twenty years ago, 217 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) were generated and 58.6 million tons –27 percent– were recycled or composted. Now, more than 258 million tons of MSW are generated annually, and the nation has a 35 percent recycling rate with 89 million tons being recycled or composted.

That’s more than 130 million tons being landfilled. We can do better.

As career educators, we believe that knowledge is key in doing better by our environment, our communities, and ourselves. And we believe in starting small. Below, we’ve listed three ways to reconsider recycling today.

1. Separate Your Plastic Bags

Flickr: Duncan Hull

Did you know that plastic bags cannot go in the recycling bin in many towns?

“If you ask a recycling official in the U.S. what is the #1 source of contamination in a city’s curbside program, the answer is almost always ‘plastic bags,'” Earth911 reads. Indeed, there is a recycling symbol on these bags, but, because of the quality of the plastic of the bags, they need to be recycled separately from other plastics. Basically, most plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic), and the thinner-material bags (such as produce bags) are made from low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic). When plastic bags get mixed in with other recyclables, they’re difficult to sort out and they often jam or damage the machines at materials recovery facilities. This slows down the recycling process.

The good news is that there is a system for recycling these bags, you’ll just have to separate them from your yogurt cups and soda cans. Many national grocery retailers (such as Kroger, Safeway, Target and Home Depot) and many smaller retailers offer bag recycling collections in their stores. The bins are usually located near the front entrance.

Once recycled properly, the bags are chipped into pellets. Pellets can then be reprocessed into new bags, backyard decking, fences, playground equipment, pipes, pallets, crates, and even new plastic bags.

We bet you didn’t know that your plastic bags can be manufactured into plastic lumber. Yet, Trex, a U.S. decking brand, transforms your plastic bags into just that. Check out their plastic-bag collection program in your state.

2. Reuse

c/o CreativeJewishMom

As promising as this seems, we’re still only talking about #2 or #4 plastic bags (read: make sure any bags you are recycling have a #2 or #4 symbol on them). If the bag doesn’t have one of these symbols, you can’t be sure what plastic resin the bag is made from and you’ll want to reuse it instead.

Not sure how to reuse plastic bags (aside from continuing to use them as bags)? Use them to make household objects, donate to the homeless, or get crafty with suggestions from 10 Days of Organization and Architecture Art Design.

3. Reduce

Flickr: rusvaplauke

You know what’s better than figuring out how to recycle your plastic bags? Not having any plastic bags at all. You already know that plastic bags don’t biodegrade, meaning it will take hundreds of years for them to decompose in a landfill.  As such, they’re among the most common sources of marine debris, where they can be mistaken for food by birds and fish.

To be clear, we’re not just talking about the plastic bags you get in the checkout line. We’re talking about:

  • Grocery/carryout bags
  • Newspaper delivery bags
  • Dry cleaning wraps
  • Bread and produce bags
  • Zipper food storage bags
  • Plastic cereal box liners
  • Case wrap/shipping packaging (often found around diapers, snacks, water bottles, and paper towels)

How can you help to trim down that list in your own life? Bring reusable bags to the grocery store. Use  jars and containers to stock up on bulk food (note: bulk doesn’t mean that you buy more in quantity!). Invest in reusable produce bags. Use cloth instead of paper for napkins and paper towels; buy individual toilet paper rolls. When shopping, keep your eye out for brands with refilling stations, like Ariston oils and Common Good cleaners.

No doubt, cutting down on plastic bag usage takes effort. But, with a lot of intention, it’s possible.

Twenty years ago, the message behind America Recycles Day was: “Keep Recycling Working. Buy Recycled.” Today, the message is no less important. On the twentieth anniversary of America Recycles Day, find out what can be recycled in your community, continue to reduce, reuse and recycle, and, when you buy, buy recycled.

Want to do more?

Take the #BeRecycled Pledge and commit to living a recycled lifestyle.

Download the (free) Recycle Coach app to learn how to recycle in your community.

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