a group of adults with sorted items for recycling

Like any household (particularly those with a home office), my home generates a stream of outgoing “stuff” that can be recycled rather than consigned to the trash bin … and that stuff doesn’t sort or recycle itself automatically.

One of the challenges is that there’s a lot that our town’s curbside recycling program (currently single-stream, “one bin for all recycling”) won’t take, which means that we have to bring other recyclables somewhere — or arrange a pickup. (Alas, there isn’t — yet — a “reverse Amazon” or “UberRecycle.”)

The best way to handle the “bring stuff somewhere” problem, I find, is to build recycling into my daily routine, both as I move around the house (I work from home) and when I’m out running errands.

Here are some tips to help you build recycling into your daily routine, based on what I’ve done and continue to do.

1. Learn What’s Recyclable

Begin identifying items you’re accumulating or throwing into the trash that might be recyclable.

Odds are, you’re already recycling paper, glass, plastic, and metal — but since the definitions and rules change frequently, it can’t hurt to review what you can recycle in your community. Also, be sure to familiarize yourself with what’s not allowed in the recycling bin where you live. Recycling rules are different in each community.

2. Confirm What Curbside Pickup Will Accept

Next, confirm the “low-hanging fruit”: What will your town (city, county, organization, or community) pick up from curbside as part of regular or scheduled pickups? You might need to do a bit of web research, visit the library, or call your local waste hauler. Odds are, brochures are available to provide you with guidance.

My town, for example, currently provides households with wheeled green containers for all curbside recycling, non-green containers for bagged trash, and information on what we can and can’t recycle.

For information on recycling specific materials, see Earth911’s recycling guides.

3. Who Else Takes What, and When and Where?

As you do your various out-of-house/office chores, be on the lookout for signs, posters, boxes, and bins indicating recycling and donation opportunities.

The “best” is likely to be your town’s recycling center. (Make a quick look-and-see visit; that will tell you more than any handout or web page.) Ours, for example, accepts paper, plastic, metal, appliances, oil, clothes, books, Styrofoam, car and other batteries, fluorescent/CFL light bulbs, paint, and even compost. But that’s hardly the only game in town.

Many businesses, and also educational, charitable, and other organizations, also accept specific kinds of items for recycling if you drop them off.

  • Plastic bags: Whole Foods and many other supermarkets accept clean bags.
  • Electronics: Staples, Best Buy, and other stores will take different types of electronics. (Most will charge a fee for TVs and monitors.) Some towns will schedule curbside pickups — worth any extra fee for any heavy or bulky stuff like that last big-tube TV.
  • Lightly used supplies like clothes, bags, and backpacks (usually they can’t have company logos on them), office supplies, art supplies: Schools, religious institutions, community centers, and others will — selectively — accept these items. (Ask before you bring things.)
  • Eyeglasses: Optometrists will take your old glasses (although I’m told all they can use is the frames).
  • Household goods: Good Will, Salvation Army, and other charitable organizations accept a fair range of items. You can even schedule pickups with some of them. (Conveniently, both of these organizations have a staffed long truck, and/or drop bins, at my town’s recycling center.)
  • Toiletries: Religious and community organizations often collect items for shelters.
  • Shredded paper: Got documents that need shredding? You can get a shredder — or label a box “Shred us!” and periodically bag’n’bring the pile to Staples or other copy/ship stores that partner with shredding companies. Typically, you pay by the pound. (See How to Recycle Shredded Paper).
  • Corks: The “green” table at our town’s farmers’ market collects these, as do some Whole Food stores.
  • Foam packing peanuts: Some of The UPS Store locations (and other shipping stores) accept (and reuse) packing peanuts. Review the Earth 911 packing peanuts recycling guide for more information.
  • CDs and DVDs: My grandchildren’s elementary school collected these for recycling, but alas, I don’t know whether this is still the case. Check out the Earth911 recycling guide for CDs and tapes.

Some of the places that accept these items are on my regular chore routes; others are only a few blocks out of the way.

Unfortunately, some places that used to take stuff have stopped. Our library, for example, used to have a take some/leave some magazines area and a small collection box for tiny batteries. And our city hall used to have a box for recycling old eyeglasses.

Don’t see a taker for what you have? Search Earth911’s Recycling Database for a drop-off location near you.

And keep your eyes open when you are out and about; you never know which programs will suddenly be recycling different materials. Also, keep an eye out for periodic recycling events where you can drop off hard-to-recycle things, like e-waste or problematic plastics.

4. Organize a Staging Area

Create “recycling zones” in your home for gathering each type of thing you recycle.

For example, an old bookcase on the porch where you can keep an empty pill bottle for those tiny lithium-ion batteries, a box each for CDs/DVDs, fluorescent/CFL lightbulbs, electronics, and hard plastics.

5. Think Before You Head Out

Before you go out for chores, glance at your “recycling zone” to see whether there’s enough of anything to bring — and to justify making a special detour or stop. For example, our local recycling center is quite close to one of my near-weekly chore routes … but I don’t tend to have enough to make the detour worth doing more than about every other month. I make a run for tech recycling at Best Buy even less often.

None of this is hard or time-consuming. But integrating it into your existing routines makes it easier — and closer to automatic: I know we are recycling, where I’m aggregating things to recycle, and where I’ll be bringing them. That’s how I’ve built a recycling routine into my life. I hope I’ve given you some useful tips — perhaps even inspiration — for making your own efforts easier.

Originally published on June 18, 2018, this article was updated in September 2021.

By Daniel Dern

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.