Recycling? Should I do it? Am I doing it right?

Hi! Some of you might know that all of us Earth Mamas live in different places in the world.  I am Erika Ugarte, a mexican currently living in Singapore. I have been living here for a year now and every time I talk to someone about Singapore they mention Semakau Landfill.  Well, long story short, it was 1999 when the singporean government observed the problem of not having enough landfills to dump their trash and decided to create their own landfill to solve that problem.  I will tell you a little about Semakau Landfill. It is located about 8 km south of Singapore. It is a 7 km perimeter rock bund encloses part of the sea to create the space for the landfill. All of the singaporean trash is incinerated and then dumped there to create an island.  The island is made basically of trash. The singaporean government has added soil, wildlife and planted trees. So this trash island is home to shorebirds, sea stars, sea anemones and rare shellfish that thrive in mangroves, seagrass beds and a reef flat right next to a massive island of trash.  The air is fresh and the surrounding waters harbour dolphins, turtles and countless fish. It might sound like the solution to our lack of landfill problem right? You might be thinking this is really really cool, and it is. The problem the Singapore government is facing is that the original plan was to use this space from 1999 through 2045 and they just reveal shocking news:

We only have one landfill left.

Each year, we send about 200,000 tonnes of solid waste and all incineration ash to the Semakau landfill. At the rate we are sending waste there, it will run out of space by around 2035.

As there is no available land for landfill on mainland Singapore, Semakau Landfill had to be created by enclosing 350 hectares of sea space between two offshore islands. Semakau Landfill opened on 1 April 1999 and is now the only one we have.

              Picture taken from the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources Singapore

So even this cool, amazing solution will run out of space, the same as regular landfills.  This year Singapore Government has been trying really hard to do their best to educate people and teach them some simple tips on how to recycle properly to reach their goal. 

Picture taken from the National Environment Agency Singapore

I would like to share with you some tips that I have been learning recently and I hope they are helpful for you too. We all know producing less trash is the best way to live, and that recycling is not the solution to the trash problem. Still, there will be times when you have no choice but to recycle a container you have in your hands.  I understand that there are some countries that are doing better than others with recyclable waste, and that is ok. So my invitation today is to get informed and do your part when it comes to recycling. Remember TRASH does not exist, everything that we produce will be moved from place to place until it degradates, so remember to think before you dispose your unwanted materials.  

Ok. So let’s say you have no other choice but to recycle, here are some things to keep in mind:

Tip 1:  E+C+D

Empty, clean and dry.  As a general rule recyclables should be empty, clean and dry.  This means removing food scraps from containers, giving them a quick rinse if they are dirty and ensuring they do not contain liquids.  Anything that could become rancid within a day, shouldn’t be placed in your recycling bin.  

Tip 2: Bigger is better so check size 

This might sound like a joke, but it is not.  When it comes to recycling, bigger is always better.  Items smaller than your fist generally cannot be recycled.  This small pieces tend to fall through the sorting machinery and end up in waste.  The general rule is that only items larger than your fist can be thrown in the recycling bin, otherwise it’s general waste. 

Tip 3:  Flatten boxes

Flatten your cardboard boxes to make your life easier and to help the sorting process and prevent machine blockages.  

Tip 4:  Avoid shredding paper

There are some countries that still find it difficult to recycle shredded paper, make sure that you get informed and learn from the regulations with shredded paper.  Many recycling plants have improved and now recycle shredded paper. However this doesn’t mean you should shred your sheets at every opportunity. I understand that sometimes shredding is unavoidable, especially when dealing with private documents.  But you should not be doing it solely to fit more into a recycling bin. 

Tip 5:  Paper 

We can recycle paper but there are two things to consider: 

  1. Paper can still be recycled if it contains staples and paperclips, still my suggestion is to reuse paper clips and avoid staples if possible. 
  2. Leaving paper outside, or exposing it to natural elements could also alter how much of it gets recycled.  Paper left out in the rain can have its organic material broken down. 

Some of the basic paper products most recycling plants around the world take are junk mail, office paper, newspapers, magazines, telephone directories, paperback books.  Recycle all of your unwanted paper.  

Tip 6: Pizza boxes

This is a very common mistake.  Are pizza boxes recyclable? Most people would say yes, they are made of corrugated cardboard, they even have a recycling symbols on them. And in fact that is true.  The pizza box by itself it is recyclable. However, what makes it not recyclable are the tasty delicious cheese and toppings that you just enjoyed. These products soil the cardboard making it not recyclable.  When you put a pizza box into a recyclable batch you might be doing more harm than good. So what could you do? The easiest solution is to cut or tear out the dirty portions of the box and throw them to the trash.  If the entire box is grease-free, the whole box can be recycled. Make sure it really is clean, without grease, food or stickers; you do not want to contaminate a whole load of recycling!

I have to say that there are some places in the world, your city might be one of them, that they have a wonderful local compost bin, where greasy pizza boxes are welcome.  Find out if your city accepts the pizza boxes or not. 

Tip 7: No plastic bags

Any recycling that is thrown out in a plastic bag will go straight to landfill, so it’s really just a waste of your time. It is better to just dump your empty, clean and dry containers without a bag. Most plastic bags can’t be recycled. So avoid plastic bags at all costs.  

Tip 8:  Non recyclables 

There are some of the non recyclables: laminated pouches, chip bags, plastic toys, cotton wool, toothpaste tubes, wrapping paper, tissues, lightbulbs, styrofoam and broken glass (read the next tip for more information). 

Tip 9: Broken glass goes to trash

Something new for me was broken glass can not be recycled.  I thought because the glass is recyclable so then when it is broken it should be recyclable too.  Sadly it is not.  Drinking glasses have a different chemical composition and melting point compared to container glass.  Mixing the two together would be hazardous and unreliable. Broken wine and drinking glasses should always be wrapped and thrown in the trash.  Of course, if your drinking glasses are unbroken and reusable, repurpose or donate them. I encourage you to contact your local bottle-bank and inquiring if they accept broken bottles or reuse the fragments in a creative craft projects. 

Tip 10:  Batteries and electrical products

These can’t be recycled, and you shouldn’t even be putting them in the bin. Instead, take your electrical waste to household waste centres, or find out if your city does a collection. Find a safe place to discard all batteries and electrical products. 

Tip 11:  Unwanted useful things

So many times I have found myself with products that I purchase and did not liked or will not consume or use any time soon.  Then the question is, what do I do with them? They are good for someone else to use. I recently download the app OLIO. Have you heard of it?  Have you used it? It is an amazing way to avoid unwanted food and products go to waste. Earthmamas are joining forces with OLIO to avoid food waste.  Wait for it, we will have an OLIO blog post really soon to explain more about this wonderful free app. 

Tip 12: List of materials

This is a useful list of materials that can be recycled and the ones that are not.  This might just apply only to Singapore but I encourage  you to find a list for your country.

Tip 13:  A & G over P

Choose aluminum or glass over plastic.  Even though those three materials can be recycled an average of only 10 percent of plastic, 20 percent of glass and 50 percent of cans are recycled every year.  Cans and glass containers are more efficient to recycle than plastic. Glass and Aluminum can be recycled over and over again. If not recycled, all containers would take more than 400 years to decompose in a landfill.  

Tip 14:  Find recycling apps in your area

Find apps you can download that might help you sort your trash in a better way.  Here are different apps that you might want to explore. 

1. Recycle Nation (United States)

2. iRecycle (United States)

3. RecycleSmart (Australia)

4. My-waste® (Worldwide)

These are some of the things that I have been learning this past year about recycling.  I know not all of my tips are applicable to everyone because each city/country has their own recycling procedures. So, share tips for your area, city or country that might help others.  We would love to hear them and share them with our community. Remember I can, you can, we all can learn something new each day to improve our disposing habits.

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