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How to Recycle or Reuse Anything

Recycling: A Refresher Course

This primer reminds you of what you can and can’t recycle―and why.

By Natalie Ermann Russell
Two garbage bags next to a garbage canJoe Scafuro

Paper

Putting the wrong type in the wrong bin can make a difference. Recycling facilities work to keep similar papers together so they can get the most money for their products. (For example, office paper, which has long fibers, is worth a lot more than the “mixed paper” of cereal boxes, which has shorter fibers.) Another factor is food contamination. Plastic, glass, and metal containers are cleaned to remove food, but paper is not. Food particles can contaminate an entire batch, as the food (along with the paper) begins to biodegrade if it is left to sit. When paper is recycled, it is pureed into a pulp “smoothie” and passes through screens that take out anything that’s not paper: chunks of wood, plastic, or glass; paper clips; staples. It’s then treated with chemicals to remove inks, which means recycled office paper can still be white.


 

Metal

Recycling metal saves an enormous amount of energy and money. All steel products, for example, contain at least 25 percent steel scrap, which requires 75 percent less energy to produce than “virgin” steel and explains why scrap metal has become a valuable commodity. As for aluminum cans, recycling just one saves enough energy to run your TV for 2½ hours. Metal is separated into two piles―ferrous (containing iron) and nonferrous. The device that figures this out? An industrial-size magnet that attracts ferrous metals, like steel, but not aluminum, which is nonferrous.


 

Glass

Recyclable glass almost always refers to “container” glass―that is, bottles and jars. Other types, like windshields and Pyrex, have different melting points and are not accepted by most recyclers.


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