Sustainability 101: Recycling

I never knew how much I truly didn’t understand about recycling until I began research for this week’s column. Of course, I know what recycling is. I know how to use the little blue bins and I’ve seen the celebrity public service announcements. However, I did not understand how much of an industry recycling is or how there are so many different facilities, organizations, and movements that exist within it, even in my relatively small community of Champaign-Urbana. This week’s deep dive will include the basics of recycling, a short profile of an interesting aspect of recycling I hadn’t previously heard of, and local organizations that can help people in Champaign-Urbana reach their most eco-friendly potential. Let’s get started.  

Image Courtesy of City of Mercedes

Recycling Basics

What can you recycle?  

According to the North London Waste Authority, up to 70% of your waste could be recycled or reused in some way. All plastic bottles minus the caps (that includes salad dressings ), metals (tins, aluminum, steel cans), and paper/cardboard can all be recycled. In Champaign-Urbana, recycle your yard waste at the City of Urbana Landscape Recycling Center. You can even recycle old electronics including TVs, monitors, ink cartridges, and cell phones. See the City of Champaign and City of Urbana guidelines for what you can put in your curbside recycling bin.

And as for what to avoid? Plastic bottle caps, Styrofoam, and take-out food containers (that greasy box of Saturday night Chinese food could potentially damage and/or contaminate other materials that are to be recycled) should all be on your don’t-recycle list. Although plastic bags aren’t always accepted in curbside recycling bins, Champaign-Urbana area retailers that have bag recycling bins include County Market, Lowe’s, Meijer, Schnucks, and Walmart. If you’re wondering where to recycle a specific type of item in Champaign-Urbana, check out the City of Champaign’s Where Do I Recycle It? Guide.

Sidenote: If you consider yourself a recycling expert and feel that this is just remedial information for you, there are a lot of informative webinars that explore some less-baseline recycling methods. One of those webinars is The Sustainable City Network’s Hot-in-Place-Asphalt Recycling, which takes on the little-known but extremely cost-efficient and eco-friendly technique of advanced pavement resurfacing. 

 What are the benefits?  

Who can tell you the benefits of recycling better than The United States Environmental Protection Agency itself?


  • Reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators
  • Conserves natural resources such as timber, water, and minerals
  • Increases economic security by tapping a domestic source of materials
  • Prevents pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials
  • Saves energy
  • Supports American manufacturing and conserves valuable resources
  • Helps create jobs in the recycling and manufacturing industries in the United States

Recycling is a win-win-win situation. It’s a social win for the person doing it, it’s a sustainability win for the environment, and it’s an economic win for the job sector.

How can I take it further?

It’s all about creating a system that works. That means it has to be attainable and easy to achieve. Stay simple.

  • Place a recycling bin (with pictures of recyclable materials attached to it) next to your garbage can at home.
  • Buy products that have been made with recycled goods.
  • Compost green cutting and food scraps for gardening.
  • Get a reusable shopping bag for the grocery store made of cotton or polyester instead of plastic.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle or coffee mug to work with you.
  • Donate old furniture, tires, crayons, puzzle pieces, and other unexpected, reusable items you no longer need to a community thrift store or local charity.

See the Environmental News Bits C-U Donation Guide for a list of places to donate your used stuff in Champaign-Urbana. 

Image courtesy of Firstar Recycling

Post-Consumer Recycling

Beyond the basics that I mentioned above, I want to briefly touch on post-consumer recycling. I didn’t know that post-consumer recycling even existed until recently, and it’s been fun familiarizing myself with the concept. Pre-consumer recycled content is made from materials that have not reached the consumer (scraps, rejects, trimmings.) Post-consumer recycled content is composed of waste that a consumer has used, disposed of, and diverted from landfills (aluminum cans, newspapers).  Fences, playground equipment, carpet, and even roofing shingles can be made from post-consumer recycled content.

If you have to have a choice, post-consumer recycled content is more eco-friendly than pre-consumed. It keeps our landfills from filling up any further, because it’s “waste made from waste” rather than from material on the factory floor that’s never been used before. Buying products made from post-consumer recycled content creates markets for the plastics and paper that you’re putting into your curbside recycling bin, which diverts it from the landfill. As for day-to-day practices, items in the store are typically marked with a pre-consumer or post-consumer recycled label. So if you’re in the mood to go a little greener, post-consumer recycled product is a good choice.

The Bottom Line

I briefly mentioned in a previous post that sometimes environmental awareness is packaged and promoted in ways that can be overwhelming and foster a sense of hopeless. It’s intimidating to see those articles that tell you “101 Ways” in which you can be greener, because who has time to read 101 things? You have to take it one step at a time. Find what works for you. Make some time in your schedule to read up on recycling topics so you can take your environmental education to the next level. And most importantly, recycle because you genuinely want to make a difference and help the environment, not because you feel like you have to. The more you feel obligated and less truly passionate about doing something, the less likely it will be permanently ingrained into your routine. Be the person who makes an effort to do some good.