Resources for Hard-to-Recycle Materials and Clarifying Recycling Misconceptions

(With Special Guest Writer, Leticia Socal)

I decided to put a decently comprehensive list of recycling resources for hard-to-recycle materials that cannot be recycled through residential, municipal, or commercial recycling services. There are a lot of hard-to-recycle centers, including in Colorado, which is where I’m primarily going to focus on. I will also make some notes about misconceptions and materials that people would normally think (or wish) could go into the curbside bin but cannot.

First, in recent news, TerraCycle (which my guest writer recently contributed some words for an article) was given a lawsuit back in July of 2021. I was avidly recycling personal beauty items, office supplies, wrappers, and some other materials that were offered through their zero waste boxes at my local zero waste market (and collecting these materials from people to recycle them). I have stopped using TerraCycle, will not be using their services until a legitimate claim can be settled and made that they do indeed recycle everything they collect, and will urge anyone reading this to avoid them. It’s a shame, as I don’t want anything going to a landfill, but for right now, we have to lower our carbon emissions that are created by shipping these zero waste boxes (the company is headquartered in New Jersey) and not supporting a company that isn’t fully transparent and continues to encourage large corporations to pollute.

My comprehensive list will be categorized, to make it easy to follow along.

Metals:

The beauty about metals is that they are all recyclable. Also, the more you recycle them, less mining is needed to make new metal (iron for steel, bauxite for aluminum). Less mining also means less deforestation, soil erosion, and protection against child labor (a topic for another post). They can be melted down and reused infinitely. Aluminum cans, steel cans, aluminum bottles, and steel bottles are just about the only metals accepted in most curbside programs (Denver area specifically), however, any other metals can go to your local scrap yard. Note: Cans CANNOT be flattened as they need volume for shipping bales and 3D recognition; if a can is flattened or crushed, you can recycle it at your local scrap yard.

Scrap metal yards will usually pay you for your metals. You won’t make more than a couple of bucks for most metals like steel and aluminum, but rest assured, these precious metals will be reused. If you have copper materials, those are typically worth more money. The Denver area has over 10-20 scrap yards where you can take your metals and recycle them (some yards might require a certain percentage of metals on any given item, but you can also have plastic, etc. as that will get separated when it’s sent to a smelter). In Boulder and Atlanta, the CHaRM (Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials) will take all scrap metals that are at least 50% metal, but they won’t pay you for it.

Once metals are sorted, they are sent to smelters, where they are crushed and compacted, ready to be melted and turned into new materials. Any plastics or non-metal parts are removed. Metals are precious and always necessary, and in some places illegal to trash, so they are pretty easy to recycle. There are scrap yards in every state and major city.

Plastics:

Different from metals, plastics degrade when recycled, losing their original properties. That’s the so called “downcycling.” Currently in the US, there is only a market for 2 recycled plastics: PET (your water bottle) and HDPE (milk jugs). Also, you can only recycle these plastics in the form of bottles, jars, jugs, and tubs. Non-bottle PET and non-jug HDPE have no value for recyclers. All other plastics (#3-7, with the exception of some #5) have no value either. When you throw them in your recycling bin, you are actually wish cycling because they will most likely end up in the landfill or incinerated.

The best thing you can do is to bring all non-bottle PET, non-jug HDPE, and plastics #3-7 to your local recycling center, as they work with partners that will accept those rinsed, pre-sorted, low volume materials. When sending bottles and jugs to curbside recycling, don’t forget to keep caps on and do not flatten them, as that will help 3D sorting later in the process (refer to NATU for more information).

Plastic Bags:

Plastic bags are not accepted in most curbside collections because they tangle in the sorting machines, adding downtime and consequently, cost to the process.

Fortunately, many local grocery chains will recycle plastic bags. Plastic bags are used to make benches, playground equipment, pallets, etc. that usually use virgin woods. Trex partners with a lot of grocery chains across the country to recycle plastic film, which is then produced into decking and industrial packaging. This saves a lot of virgin wood typically used to make these materials, reducing deforestation.

Check your local grocery chains for recycling, but here are some stores that collect plastic bags, nationwide:

Whole Foods

Publix / Greenwise

Walmart

Target

Lowe’s (they also recycle other items like lightbulbs)

Albertsons

-Sprouts Farmer’s Market (select locations)

Safeway

Here’s some more information and what type of plastic film to recycle (be aware of some greenwashing put out by Walmart): https://how2recycle.info/sdo

Textiles:

Unfortunately, textiles are NOT recycled in any residential, municipal, or commercial recycling program. You cannot send textiles, no matter what kind, to any MRF (materials recovery facility). Luckily, there are a few programs (listed below) that will recycle textiles and not just donate them to local thrift stores or ship them to third world countries.

Knickeys: An underwear company based in New York City. They will recycle ANY old underwear (women’s, men’s, and children’s), bras and bralettes, face cloth masks, socks, and stockings. These undergarments can be made of any material, from polyester to cotton. All of these garments will be turned into insulation.

The way it works is you ship the garments to the New York address. The garments are placed on a conveyor belt and shredded. The shredded materials get compacted into sheets, which are later used for insulation. To see how this process works, you can watch a video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8nfswWm6B4E.

The company will give you a free shipping label, and in return you can claim a free pair of underwear. If you do end up recycling more than purchasing, just be aware that you’ll have to pay for shipping. They give everyone free shipping a couple of times to ensure that recycling costs can be covered, and everyone can get access to their recycling. Overall, this is the best way to keep undergarments out of landfills and incinerators.

Marine Layer: This clothing company recycles t-shirts, any brand. You can recycle short- and long-sleeved t-shirts of polyester, nylon, cotton, hemp, bamboo, or other plastics, except spandex. They prefer organic materials like cotton, but most of the t-shirts will be shipped off to Spain to be recycled. The shirts are either used back into some of the clothing that the company makes or turned into insulation for buildings. There are drop boxes to drop off your old t-shirts at stores or you can mail them in if you don’t live near one of their stores. You can also get store credit for recycling shirts.

Madewell: Although Madewell’s clothes isn’t known for being sustainable, the clothing brand partners with a company that makes insulation materials and industrial rags out of recycled denim. You can drop off any denim in any shape at their stores and they will collect and ship the denim to this company. You can also get store credit for recycling denim.

Patagonia: Patagonia recycles and resells any used Patagonia gear. Items that are too worn out and hard to sell are recycled back into their products. Patagonia’s Worn Wear program sells Patagonia items second-hand. You can drop off Patagonia gear at local stores or mail them in. They only take their own gear back.

Eileen Fisher: This clothing company recycles their used clothing. Those items either go to their secondhand store (similar to Patagonia) or get recycled back into the company’s clothing products. You can drop off clothing at a local store and they will only take back their own items.

Levi’s: Levi’s will recycle old denim. You can drop off your denim, of any brand at local stores and outlets. The denim will get recycled into insulation (same organization that Madewell uses).

The North Face: You can recycle used clothing and shoes (as far as I’m aware, any brand) and they’ll send it to Souls4Soles, a non-profit. Drop off the items at a local store or outlet (select locations).

Nike: Nike recycles old sneakers and recycles them through their program, Nike Grind, which uses these old shoes to make turfs and surfaces (for courts and such) by turning the shoes into granules. They will take any brand, but only sneakers, at local stores and outlets.

REI: REI recycles in two ways: taking back old gear that’s no older than six years and returning items within a year and getting a full refund (only if you are a member). They will resell the items in their garage sell, a perk for REI members, or send them to brand partners for recycling.

For Days: For Days will send you a shipping bag for $10 (called the “Take Back Bag”), to fill up your unwanted clothing. They will take any textiles except undergarments. All of these items will be resold or recycled, but nothing will go to the landfill.

Retold Recycling: Similar to For Days, they have bags of different sizes and prices that they will ship to you. Send any textiles, including undergarments, and items will be sent to thrift stores, donation centers, recyclers, resellers and up-cyclers. Nothing will go to landfills.

ThredUp: ThredUp is a secondhand online retailer. They also offer Clean Out Kits where you can send textiles back to either resell on their website, donate to charity, or recycle/upcycle.

Thrift Stores: When you donate clothes to stores like Goodwill and The Salvation Army, some of the clothes will be sold and reused. However, it is estimated that thrift operations only sell about 20% of the textiles they receive within their retail space  (Chobrak, 2021). What they do with the unwearable items will really depend on the store you’re dropping off at. Many thrift stores have relationships with so-called “sorter/grader” operations that haul unwanted textiles away. Those clothes may be too worn out to sell or are simply part of a category that the store already has enough of. At sorter/grader operations, workers separate clothing by quality and type of materials. Clothing is compacted into bales—think separate stacks of polyester, cotton, and silk items. From there, brokers find buyers for the various categories. Clothing is then sold by the pound to resale markets and to recycling facilities. Only about 5% of the material from the sorter/grader is sent to the landfill. If you live in a city, chances are that thrift stores in your area can divert clothes they can’t sell in-store to other facilities.

Furthermore, some thrift stores will ship clothing overseas, which is a major economic problem for local artisans and causes more pollution in countries that don’t have the technology to recycle these clothes (third world nations get an overwhelming amount of textiles from Western countries, including Europe and the United States). For more on this subject, you can check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bOOI5LbQ9B8.

Our best advice is to call the store beforehand and ask if they have a recycling partner for unwearable stuff and if they ship anything overseas.


Electronics:

Since 2013, it is illegal to throw electronics away in the state of Colorado. There are other states and municipalities that have similar laws.

Best Buy: They will recycle most electronics for free (usually a fee for heavier items) and they have a limit of 4 items per day per person. Most of the recycled electronics get refurbished or recycled. You can also do a trade in of old electronics, such as an Apple watch, and get a store credit; if the watch is in good condition, they will refurbish it and send it to an electronics reseller.

Techno Rescue: Similar to Best Buy, this company refurbishes and recycles electronics. Their primary goal is to keep electronics in use and refurbish and resell them, but some electronics are just too old and don’t function anymore; in that case, they will recycle those items with a partnered recycler. The organization is also a non-profit that supports and hires veterans.

Target: Any Target location will recycle small device electronics, such as MP3 players, GPS devices, old phones, and smart tablets. They will also recycle ink cartridges and plastic bags.

*The CHaRM center in Boulder and Atlanta will also recycle electronics (most centers like these usually do).

Medicine:

Walgreens will collect old Rx medications as long as they are in a bottle or sealed. They won’t take anything with needles or recreational drugs but will collect all other medications. This is better than flushing old pills down the toilet; the medications will be disposed of safely and properly. Check locations because not every Walgreens has this drop off service.

A lot of medical campuses and health non-profits will take non-expired and unopened medications that you may not need anymore. They will also take medical equipment that is also unused.

Miscellaneous:

Here are some organizations in the Denver and Boulder (and Atlanta) areas that recycle a variety of items.

Eco-Cycle / Live Thrive (Also known as the CHaRM Center):

The center is considered a CHaRM facility and there are a few others in the country. We are familiar with the ones in Boulder, CO and Atlanta, GA.

In Boulder, they collect all sorts of materials that are assured to get recycled through partnership programs. They are a non-profit, so they also get some funding for their recycling efforts. There is a $3 entry fee to cover recycling and workers’ costs, plus fees for some of their items. All extra fees are to cover recycling costs and employers’ wages.

For a comprehensive list of what to recycle, go to: https://www.ecocycle.org/charm#guidelines

(There are some single-stream recycling items that only Boulder accepts, such as plastic clamshells, and can be found on the website too).

What Eco-Cycle does with all of the items they collect can be found here: https://www.ecocycle.org/charm/where-do-they-go

Similar to Eco-Cycle, Live Thrive is the “CHaRM of Atlanta.” They are also a non-profit and work closely with their partners. For a list of materials currently accepted and to where they go, consult https://livethrive.org.

Other CHaRM facilities are in Athens GA, Bellefontaine OH.

SustainAbility:

Located in Arvada, Colorado, this organization is similar to Eco-Cycle. They recycle a variety of materials too and employ workers with intellectual disabilities. There is a $3 entry fee to cover costs, plus fees for some of their items. All extra fees are to cover recycling costs and employers’ wages.

For a comprehensive list of what to recycle, go to: https://www.sustainability-recycling.com/hard-to-recycle

The Happy Beetle:

This organization serves the Denver area and is a door-to-door recycling service. You pay a subscription fee depending on how often you need materials picked up. This subscription service partners with different organizations to recycle what they collect.

Their partners are: https://www.thehappybeetle.com/partners

For a comprehensive list of what they collect, go to: https://www.thehappybeetle.com/whatwetake

Wee Cycle:

They are also one of The Happy Beetle’s sponsors. They collect used baby clothing and items and give them to families in need.

The Alliance Center:

The Alliance Center has partnered with Blue Star Recyclers, as well as Recycle Across America, (disclosure, they partner with Terracycle on some of their items, but avoid if you can) to recycle batteries, lightbulbs, and electronics.

GreenDisk:

GreenDisk will recycle CDs, jewel cases, and other tech waste. You pack the items in a box and ship them; you can purchase a shipping label directly from their website. The CDs are sent to the National Industries for the Blind, where they are ground into polycarbonate flakes and made into 3-D printing filament.

Other CD and case recyclers are Back Thru The Future Technology Disposal and the CD Recycling Center of America (temporarily closed due to COVID).

PaintCare:

PaintCare is a program of the American Coatings Association that recycles leftover/used paint and other supplies. They are located in Colorado, California, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Washington D.C., New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Rhode Island, and Maine.

Here is a full list of what they accept and do not accept: https://www.paintcare.org/products/

Batteries Plus Bulbs:

You can recycle used batteries and light bulbs at any location.

For a full list of what is accepted, you can go here: https://www.batteriesplus.com/t/recycling


About Leticia Socal


Leticia is a chemist by training with a PhD in Materials Science. She worked for 15 years in the plastic industry in different roles in R&D, innovation, and strategy. She made a shift in her career in 2019 when she moved to Atlanta, finding her mission in educating consumers about packaging and waste management. She does her best when she’s working in environmental impact assessments. She also runs a sustainability blog (www.natu.org), advises sustainability-focused startups and accelerators globally, and organizes environmental education activities in her kid’s school. Leticia is interested in leveraging her skills to drive real change in consumption patterns, helping to create a zero or lower-waste economy.

References

Chrobak, U. (2021). What actually happens to the clothes you donate depends on where you live. Popular Science. https://www.popsci.com/environment/how-to-recycle-clothes/.

Published by theecoconsciousginger

Sustainability professional and advocate. Environmentalist. Outdoor enthusiast. Sports fanatic.

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