How to be a "good" recycler
By Jarrett Bellini | @JarrettBellini | February 1, 2019

I’ve been told I’m a bad recycler.

Though I’d argue the fact that I’m a recycler at all should qualify me as both a decent human and a responsible steward of our planet.

But I’m not. I’m a bad recycler.

At least according to my girlfriend who is a good recycler.

Which is to say: Certifiably insane.

I follow basic logic. She follows the rules as though Moses carried them down from Mount Sinai. Presumably in some sort of reusable tote.

But make no mistake. These rules are ripe for interpretation. Especially under our roof where recycling isn’t so much a simple routine as it is a prolonged cold war between allied nations.

Here’s one small, stupid example. 

We live in Atlanta. And according to the local government website, households are encouraged to use their big blue bins to recycle aluminum and steel cans, paper products, plastics, and glass. And it suggests they need to be empty and dry.

So a certain someone (ahem the beautiful and loving and wonderful and infinitely understanding Carolina Guerrero) long insisted that each item be completely devoid of any moisture. And I generally acquiesced in the spirit of maintaining peaceful trade relations.

But then, one day, I cracked and successfully argued that this was illogical. That it would require EVERYONE in the local area to do it. Perfectly. Also, if it’s raining on the day the truck picks up our bins - guess what - everything’s gonna get wet. And it’s not like the driver will say, “Welp, this batch is ruined,” and then just dump the whole load behind a Waffle House.

I’ve even confirmed it because I’m weirdly competitive. And a representative from the Georgia Recycling Coalition told me it should be “as dry as reasonable.” Another spokesperson for The Recycling Partnership - an NGO part-funder of Atlanta's recycling program - got back to me and noted that “the bottles just need to be empty.”

Validation. Sweet, sweet validation. 

But, like I said, this is a small, stupid example. It’s nothing, really. And we’re well past that. Just another adorably cute domestic disagreement. 

Ha. Ha. Weeee.

But, in that particular case, my strict adherence to minimal effort was validated, and it allows us to now move on to some other nuanced stumbling blocks in my quest to become a lazy but “good” recycler. Like what does “clean” actually mean?

(Coincidentally, this is the same question I ask each morning when considering a shower.)

To be clear, if I drink a soda or a beer I’m absolutely going to quick-rinse the can. Not that I think it’ll have any net-positive effect on the recycling process, but so the bin doesn’t get all gross and sticky.

But what about, say, a tuna can or a salsa jar? 

If I finish the contents, sure, I’ll give it a proper C-minus wash in the sink. You know, just a bare minimum once-over to remove any major chunks. What I’m NOT going to do, however, is scrub the rim to get every last spec of fish flakes or tomato-leavings. 

As opposed to Queen Clean of the Purell People who will get into every nook and cranny before insisting on one final white-glove inspection with aerial assistance from the James Webb Telescope.

It. Doesn’t. Matter.

In fact, The Recycling Partnership clarified that materials do “not need to be spotless.” 

And the Georgia Recycling Coalition told me that items should be “drained and rinsed, but not like you would your dishes,” They added, “Not pristine, but not gross.”

That said, a far more relevant concern is what to actually do with glass and plastic. Because, apparently, not all recyclables are … recyclable

Let’s start with glass. Of which we have a lot. In fact, if you sifted through the weekly haul from our house you might reasonably believe we spend our nights curled up under blankets, alternating between a steady intravenous flow of red wine and Topo Chico. 

You know, gotta stay hydrated.

Now, the city’s website says we should recycle all this glass. It’s right there on page one. Bottles and jars. And I’m totally committed to doing that with minimal effort.

I’ll rinse. I’ll dump. I’ll move on.

But, despite the city CLEARLY stating we should recycle glass, it turns out … maybe we shouldn’t.

According to another page from the VERY SAME WEBSITE it states the “best option” is to drop them off for safe handling at a designated facility. In Atlanta, that would be this amazing place called CHaRM - the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials.

But then, on this exact same second page, the city also notes under “other options” to “put this item in your blue recycling cart.”

So which one is it?

Well, the completely unsatisfying answer is: Both.

It’s sort of a choose-your-own-adventure. Because, yes, your bottles may absolutely go in the blue bin and will be sorted at the city’s recycling facility. However, it’s an imperfect science where some glass can literally fall through the system, become residual, and end up in the landfill. The rest gets shipped to a glass processor. 

However, a more aggressive recycler can actually drive their bottles directly to a place like CHaRM where ALL of it will get sent to the proper facility without residual loss.

I’m firmly on team blue bin. While someone else around here wants to meticulously pile our glass in the garage (pre-sorted by tint) and then (eventually, perhaps someday) haul it over to CHaRM. But only after the top of Glass Mountain grows above the timber line.

So I suspect, moving forward, it will play out like this: I’ll toss glass in the blue bin. She’ll do the sorting thing. Some will go here. Some will go there. And we’ll peacefully co-exist as such until I inevitably get shamed into just doing it her way.

As per usual.

Finally, then, let’s talk about plastic. 

Our city’s website suggests we recycle bottles and containers, and offers a visual reference that includes laundry detergent, a water bottle, a milk jug, a juice container, and a yogurt cup. 

It does not, however, specify any specific recycling codes - those hard-to-see number imprints you find on most plastics. Nor does it include images that resemble a take-out container from my Chinese food or a plastic cup from my smoothie. Both were sitting in front of me when I reached out for clarification.

The Georgia Recycling Coalition said, “If it’s not in the picture, it’s not likely accepted (curbside).” 

And because I’m a complete nuisance and specifically asked, they added, “I would say no to your smoothie cup and Chinese carry out container.”

To make this even more confusing, if you use the city’s Waste Wizard search tool and literally type in PLASTIC TAKE-OUT CONTAINER or PLASTIC CUP it tells you that the best option is “put this item in your blue recycling cart.” 


The Georgia Recycling Coalition agrees it’s not a perfect system and the recommendations can vary from community to community based on available technology. Which means that, despite all these resources and all these great services and all these amazing organizations who are all working so hard to do all the right things and share all the right information, it all remains a little confusing.

So, in conclusion, no matter where you live - whether it's Atlanta or some other lesser city - if you want to be super serious about it, go nuts. Create a mountain of glass in your garage. 

But, if you want to be lazy (yay!) and still be a good recycler (yay!) my best advice is this: Don’t overthink it. 

Just do it. If you’re 80% sure it can be recycled, toss it in the blue bin, and go on living your life knowing that you did, in fact, make an effort. You’re doing your part. And Mother Earth gives you a fist bump.

Rinse. Dump. Move on.

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