Out Of The Bag: Yes, You Can Recycle That ...

People often ask "Can I recycle that?" Here's our response ...

Our project has a two-fold mission: supporting neighbors relying on food pantries AND reducing the impact of disposable bags on the environment. 

Recycling can be confusing so it is important to have some "go to" resources to help you make the best choices possible.

First, let's talk terms. As part of our quest to understand the green movement, we contacted several greenish folks to better understand the words that we use, specifically

  • Recycle
  • Reuse
  • Repurpose
  • Upcycle

The results varied quite a bit, but that’s one reason we like “reupcypuruse” – it focuses on doing SOMETHING. Ideally, we reduce original consumption, period. The items we do consume, we reuse as much as possible. When they are past reuse, we find a new purpose – be it rag, jewelry or tote bag.

I personally like the term “repurpose” because it has the root word “purpose” and I think that’s an important concept. Items should have purpose and we should put thought into the whole chain of consumption. Are we buying stuff for a purpose? Can we find a new purpose for it? Can someone else find a purpose for it? Then, finally, can we recycle the materials so it can be turned into something new with yet another purpose? 

Recycling in the sense of reusing our items until there was no possible use left is a cultural value that goes back through human time. Recycling as we now know it began in 1884. Here's a little chart that explains its history.

Recycling is a good tool, but its not foolproof. For example, even the chemical industry finds that we only recycle about 3-5% of our plastic bags and 10% of our paper bags even though those are theoretically some of the easiest items to recycle. If you eliminate the bags reused (cat litter, trash, etc), there are still a lot of bags that simply exist somewhere. 

For now, we are going to focus on recycling in a broad sense - what do you do with your stuff when you no longer use it or need it?

General Recycling Info for City of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.

Allegheny County Recycling Information. They also have a specific resource guide.

What about your municipality? Call or visit the website. Things change as technology changes. And you can recycle as many items as you like - you may simply need to find a way to transport them to a recycling drop-off. Construction Junction in Point Breeze is an official City recycling center - but anyone can use it. The key is to make sure you are informed about what you can recycle. 

Some frequently asked "Can I recycle this?" topics ...

Plastic bags - over 90 drop off spots in a five county region. Consider donating to a local soup kitchen, shelter, animal welfare organization. Reusing a bag to scoop poop or line a trash can isn't really recycling - it still ends up in the landfill. Consider alternatives or at least how you can reuse that one bag as many times as possible. You cannot include plastic bags in your curbside recycling. Yes, they use bags to collect the recycling, but they do not recycle bags. The machinery is not designed to manage the flimsy material. 

Plastic lids and caps - Aveda's store in Ross Park Mall accepts rigid plastic lids. Please click the link for more details. They use the lids as material to produce their own lids - this is actually great because it saves them money on virgin material and gives them an incentive to continue offering this resource. They've been doing this since 2007. 

Styrofoam - While some regions, like Philadelphia, do offer curbside recycling for styrofoam, most do not. Pittsburgh does not. You have three choices: find some new use for it, add it to the landfill or don't buy it. Patronize shippers who use sustainable packing materials - even paper and cardboard are better. 

Batteries - technology has made recycling batteries expensive. At this point, you should touch base with the Pennsylvania Resources Council and save your batteries for a hard to recycle event. Batteries Plus still accepts your batteries. 

Everything Else - Earth911.com has a nifty search feature you can use to find a recycling center for pretty much anything, anywhere. I use this on vacations to find out what they recycle. 

General Resources, Calendars, Tips, etc.


  • Advocating in your municipality for more recycling. Or asking a local business to collect one specific item. Does your local coffee house recycle newspapers and magazines? If they offered to do that, would you volunteer to sort and transport them? 
  • Combining trips. I collect plastic bags in a sturdy 13 gallon bag and lids in a 5 gallon bucket. When I have a full load, I put them in my car to include on a planned trip to the store/mall. I also ask my neighbors to collect these items and offer to transport them. 
  • Contamination is a BAG thing. Recycling generates revenue, but there are many costs that we don't see - labor, machinery, sorting time, etc. If you put something in your local recycling that is a "maybe" item ("maybe they'll take the lid off my bottle and recycle it") you are probably wrong. They will just toss the entire item and the environment loses. Some places do sort very carefully - others don't have the staff and time to do that or they have such a quantity of items to sort, that's its not cost effective. 
  • There's no such thing as a free lunch. Don't be lulled by offer to recycle technology, paint or building supplies for "free" -- be sure that the organization is reputable and being a good neighbor. There are modest fees for local groups to recycle your items and that's because they are being responsible. 
  • Buy Recycled. Look for goods and items that are made from recycled material - from copier paper to deck materials to furniture. There has to be a demand for these products in order for "the industry" to continue developing technologies to recycle. Yes, it may cost more, but there are benefits. 

Recycling is a good step in the "three R" process, but it is not an end solution. Recycling is about diverting an object from the landfill - not merely delaying its arrival. It requires some effort because we are a consumption culture and there are lots of rules and regulations. 

In future columns, we'll explore local resources for reuse and the very intimidating idea of reducing. Please feel free to share your recycling tips, tricks, and suggestions. We encourage you to ask questions - if we don't know the answer, we'll ask our partners. 

The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project collects new and gently used tote bags for distribution to the region's food pantries. To "recycle" our tweets, we have a feature called "Links you can (re)Use" every Friday on our blog. 

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

NE12Ukid September 28, 2012 at 04:18 AM
“reupcypuruse” I think this is a very odd and mostly unpronouncable faux word, but it really does not matter whether its recycling, reusing, reducing......as long as we are wasting less. Some other good info in the article too, just that strange word....oh well. We did pay 4-5x more for recycled deck materials. Actually made from sawdust and plastic bags. The benefit is also that it needs no staining, painting, has no splinters, does not fade. So we cut down on time, work, and chemicals, plus the cost of those.
Sue Kerr September 29, 2012 at 11:20 PM
Great comment. Yes, its a mouthful! Gets you thinking and that's the plan. You are spot on about reducing waste. I'm not sure that the words we use don't "matter" at all ... we have a tendency to skip from consumption to recycle,but it will be interesting to explore. Kudos to you for investing in the decking. That's putting your money where your values are. Are you happy with it?
NE12Ukid September 30, 2012 at 04:51 AM
Extremely happy, thanks for asking, Sue Kerr. Adds much value to the property, as well as providing a great outdoor living space, with virtually NO MAINTENANCE required! As well as helping the environmental effort in yet another way. I don't know that we go right from consumption to recycling, at least for me, there's lots of 'reusing', but sometimes we just use the term "recycle" sort of generically. Ned
Sue Kerr September 30, 2012 at 12:33 PM
Ned - That sounds great. We are going to have to replace our deck soon so I hope that's a viable option for us, too. Between washing, warping boards, etc - no maintenance sounds great. Again, good point - its the terminology that is a bit misused and I'm not trying to be the "green lingo" police. If someone is "recycling" an orange juice jug as a bird feeder, awesome. But the thorny question is what about their next orange juice jug? Does the "recycling" inspire reducing future packaging? Just points to ponder, not discourage. Getting more stories out there about using recycled building materials like yours is a great example of how to have an impact. Sue
NE12Ukid September 30, 2012 at 01:06 PM
Right, Sue. Sometimes I think it's the little things that, if everyone did them, would make great impact. One is paper towels. As kids we never had paper towels in the house, we had "rags". Rags came from old towels or other clothing (some was better for messy jobs, some for polishing, etc). with all the buttons cut off the clothing first and the zippers carefully cut out for future use. Rags! There was a shelf of neatly folded rags near the cleaning products. A bag of rags in the basement for various cleanups, as well as for washing the cars. Now it seems folks rarely have a rag handy, they instantly grab a paper towel, which they have to keep buying and which has those lovely cardboard tubes leftover when they're done. Then someone thinks that using that cardboard tube for a Christmas decoration makes them a recycling genius. {grin} Young adults of today mostly have grown up in homes where everyone grabbed quickly for those paper towels, for so many kinds of jobs where an old rag that used to be an old bath towel or old tee shirt, would have done the job. One load of laundry every week or two would be the "cost" factor, and of course, some rags do get tossed when they've served to clean up something extremely messy. It's a mindset that can become a way of life. Othes did it because they couldn't afford new things, now some do the same to help preserve the environment.


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