USAFA Recycles: Busting Recycling Myths

Myth 1: I don’t need to worry about separating anything; I can throw everything I want into a recycling bin, and it will get sorted out.
False. Recyclables with the greatest impact are aluminum cans, clean cardboard, plastic and glass bottles. Contaminants such as food waste, banana peels, plastic/trash bags, and food-stained items like pizza boxes etc. are not recyclable. They inhibit the recycling process when the bins are collected and sorted or make the materials unusable. Such materials waste hauling space and fuel, jam up machinery, contaminate valuable materials, and pose hazards to workers.

At USAFA, our CLEAN cardboard must be kept separate from other recyclables and we insist on no plastics (except at the Community Center’s recycling hub), and no food waste. Those items make that whole batch of recyclables worthless unfortunately.

Myth 2: Most Americans recycle as much as they can.
Research shows that convenience and commitment are required for maximum recycling. It is best to make recycling a collaborative effort where everyone participates to make it as convenient and easy as possible to place the correct recyclables in the bin.

Myth 3: Containers must be squeaky clean and free of residue in order to be recycled.
Containers should be relatively clean, but do not need to be completely free of residue. While all bottles, cans and containers should be clean, dry and free of most food waste before you place them in your recycling container, they don’t need to be spotless. The goal is to make sure they are clean enough to avoid contaminating other materials, like paper, or your un-lined kitchen recycling bin.

Myth 4: Recycling takes more energy than making something new.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new ones from raw materials. Recycling steel and tin cans saves 60 to 74 percent , recycling paper saves about 60 percent, and recycling plastic and glass saves about one-third of the energy compared with making those products from virgin materials. The energy saved from recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours.

Myth 5: Recyclables just end up in the trash anyway.
25% of material collected do not end up being recycled at their endpoint. Almost all of this is due to contamination with material that is not recyclable (See Myth number 1). The market for recyclables is very competitive which means there are consistently buyers investing in recyclables to create new products. The amount which is going to the landfill is insignificant.

The views expressed in this article, book, or presentation are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited. PA Number: USAFA-DF-2023-589.