I went dumpster diving for the first time in Boston in September 2021, around the time when many of the city’s leases start and end. As I was walking around, I noticed a residential alleyway with overflowing trash bins and items strewn all over the ground. The amount of usable furniture, food, clothing and household items I saw was exciting and sobering at the same time. I ended up going home with a drawer cart, a shelf, Adidas sneakers, a pair of clogs and several containers of unopened nonperishable food.
I wasn’t necessarily surprised by this haul. The average American throws away 4.9 pounds of trash every day, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—that’s nearly 1,800 pounds over the course of a year. In the United States, 108 billion pounds of food alone is wasted each year, which is an estimated $408 billion thrown away. After several more dumpster-diving excursions, I’ve observed how so much of that waste is preventable, or at least recyclable.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of literacy around proper waste disposal, and there are many complicated rules to follow. Here’s a simple guide to help you get started.
Only 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, so I’d avoid buying it altogether, at least when possible. That said, it’s not always realistic, especially if you’re on a budget.
Let’s first get the unrecyclable plastics out of the way. Soft or filmy plastics are not recyclable residentially. This includes plastic bags, snack bags, bread bags and cling wrap—basically any plastic you can scrunch up. Many grocery stores have drop-off spots for film plastics though, and you can find one near you at plasticfilmrecycling.org. Black plastics, even if they’re solid and not filmy (think takeout containers), are also usually not recyclable residentially. This is because sorting machines can’t recognize the color.
On the other hand, solid plastics like drink bottles, laundry detergent bottles and shampoo bottles are usually recyclable, but you should check the specific guidelines of your curbside program first. For example, small plastic items (like caps) that are about 3 inches or smaller usually can’t pass through the sorting machines, and plastic clamshells aren’t always recyclable either.
See if your curbside recycling program has an online visual aid of what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Paper is easy to recycle, but I personally always try to reuse it. Keep in mind that receipts should not be recycled, as they’re printed on thermal paper that contains hormone disruptors. If the paper is soiled, such as greasy pizza boxes, then it shouldn’t be recycled and should be composted instead (though you can still rip off the clean part and recycle it).
Remember that paper towels aren’t recyclable either, as their fibers are too short and they’re often dirty. They can be composted, however, as long as they don’t have harsh cleaning products on them. When in doubt, it’s always better to trash them, as “wishcycling” can contaminate a whole batch of recyclables.
A common misconception is that food will biodegrade in landfills so there’s no reason to compost it. But food in landfills releases methane, which has 84 to 86 times more global warming potential than CO2 when measured over 20 years.
Needless to say, instead of trashing your food, try at least composting plant-based food scraps. If your city doesn’t offer free compost pickup, check whether there are free public drop-offs, which are often located at community gardens, universities or farmer’s markets. You can also sign up with a private compost company or start your own in your backyard.
To help reduce food waste in the first place, plan your meals out and remember that many foods are good well beyond their expiration dates.
While dropping off clothing at thrift stores or donation bins is convenient, it’s not doing as much good as we think. Only 20% of clothing donated to thrift stores gets resold, according to sustainability site Treehugger. The rest ends up trashed or dumped in the “Global South,” that is, in developing countries in Africa and Asia.
Instead of donating, try upcycling your clothing into new looks. If that’s not possible, give it away directly through local Buy Nothing Facebook groups. If there isn’t a group in your area, try Facebook Marketplace, freecycle.org or NextDoor. Charities such as foster care programs, refugee programs and homeless shelters often accept clothing donations too.
If your clothing is too worn to give away, don’t throw it away. Synthetics are one of the most popular clothing materials, and they can take 20 to 200 years to decompose. I like to save old clothes for patches or rags, but if you accumulate too much, you can also look for local textile recycling programs or use the take-back bags by sustainable brands like For Days and Knickey. While some fast fashion brands have recycling programs, they aren’t always transparent about what happens to the clothing once you give it back.
My advice? Find your own style and stick to it. Don’t fall prey to the “trend cycle.” It’s also helpful to learn proper clothing care and mending tricks to keep your stuff alive longer.
Miscellaneous Household Items
You won’t be able to use curbside recycling for more complex household items like electronics, medications and mattresses. That said, there are usually local drop-off or pickup programs you can use. For example, CVS has a medication disposal program and Best Buy recycles a wide variety of e-waste. You can check Earth911’s extensive recycling database to find programs near you. TerraCycle also has several mail-in programs you should check out.
These rules can be overwhelming, so take them step by step. Do a one-week trash audit to determine the category where you create the most waste, then learn about low-waste alternatives or other disposal methods. You don’t need to be perfectly zero-waste to help the environment. It’s all about doing your best individually and advocating for systemic changes.
Millie content is licensed from Dotdash Meredith, publisher of Millie, Real Simple, InStyle, Investopedia, The Balance and more.
Lily Fang is an advocate for the planet and a sustainability blogger based in Boston. Follow:@imperfectidealist.