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Recycling 101: Can I Recycle That Straw?

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We all know the drill: Reduce, reuse, recycle. But there may be a bit of confusion on that last part. Even the most seasoned ecoista can be stumped by a bottle cap or a straw. Does it go in the blue bin or the black? If I'm recycling, do I need to wash it first? Here are easy answers to some frequently asked questions.

What do those arrows and numbers on the bottom of plastic bottles mean?

That's the "chasing arrow" symbol, and the number in the middle indicates the type of plastic the container is made from. Typically, numbers one and two are the most widely recyclable plastics, but there are exceptions: For example, one through seven are recyclable in the City of Phoenix, but in Scottsdale (a suburb of Phoenix), they only take one (polyethylene terephthalate or PET, used for soda bottles) and two (high-density polyethylene or HDPE, used for milk and detergent bottles). Some recycling programs even take Stryofoam!

Why should I wash out my recycling?

First, to remove possible contaminants and second to keep your recycling bin from getting stinky. However, you won't prevent a can from being recycled if you leave it dirty.

Can I recycle small pieces of paper -- like facial tissues?

Facial tissue can't be recycled. The fibers are too weak to be turned into usable paper. And tissue is often contaminated with oils that make them unable to be recycled -- the same problem is inherent in trying to recycle paper towels.

What about plastic bags?

Plastic bags can be recycled. However, unlike plastic bottles, many curbside programs will not accept plastic bags. Because they're so light, these bags can get stuck inside machinery during the recycling process. The good news is that many major grocery chains now accept plastic bags and plastic wrap at their stores. Look for special bins outside.

Can I recycle small pieces of plastic? What about bottle caps?

Yes, you can recycle small pieces of plastic like bottle tops. Bottle caps are metal, but they're typically lined with plastic -- items made from mixed materials can't be recycled because the materials can't be separated. Same thing goes for juice boxes and coated cardboard drink containers -- although there are new versions specially marked for recycling or composting, which are indicated on the label.

I'm buying a soda. Bottle or can?

Can, definitely. Most cans contain 50 percent or more recycled aluminum. And a used aluminum can is recycled and back on the grocery shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days.

I recycle about half of my trash. Could I be doing more?

You're doing great! According to the EPA, nearly 75 percent of the 6,000 pounds of trash the average American household generates each year is recyclable and/or compostable, yet we typically only recycle and compost 30 percent.

I know how to recycle my bottles and cans, but what about the office?

Your office batteries and ink cartridges can be recycled, but you can't just dump them in your blue bin; find out where to drop them off at Earth911.com. For cellphones, contact your cellphone carrier for recycling programs or ReCellular, which takes donated phones. Gazelle.com can tell you how much your electronic equipment is worth if you want to recycle it there. Office equipment like phones and computers can also be recycled through general electronics collections at places like the Goodwill.

Closet?

In the closet, recycle your metal hangers by bringing them back to your dry cleaners. Dry cleaning bags are recyclable in general plastic bag collections bins. And if you sell or donate your used clothing to a thrift store, you'll cut down on the nearly 70 pounds of clothing and textiles that the average American tosses into the landfill each year.

So what can't I recycle?

Aerosol cans (you aren't still using those, right?), ceramics, diapers (as if), household glass like window panes and mirrors, light bulbs and CFLs (mercury) and tires. Oh, and hazardous waste, of course.

I'm still confused by the straw.

When in doubt, simply type your zip code into Earth911.com, enter the item you want to dispose of, and the site will tell you where and how to do it. It's easy!

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