The Sherlock Holmes Method for Raising Your Recycling Savvy

silhouette of detective examining box of recyclables through a magnifying glass
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I try to work recycling into my daily routine, but sometimes, the answer to “what do I do with this?” is less than obvious and some sleuthing is required. Like today’s detectives, those of us pursuing a green, sustainable lifestyle have a variety of answer-finding tools and techniques available, including:

  1. The internet
  2. Email (to offices, to lists, to people)
  3. Phone (to appropriate office/person)
  4. “Shoe leather” — walk (or drive) to people and places

I’ve been applying these detecting tools over the past few weeks to find a definitive answer to the test question, “What do I do with whipped-cream aerosol cans?” (The back of the can says, basically, “Consult your town’s recycling policies.”)

Here’s what I found out.

On the Internet

One good place to start is the website for your local recycling provider. You can start with Earth911 Recycling Search. Try your city or county’s website, as well. If you can’t find an entry that’s relevant to your query, try the website’s search tool. If the site doesn’t have a search tool, try a search using your favorite web browser.

My city’s recycling website includes a searchable/alphabetized list.

The alphabetic list does not have an entry for “whipped cream cans,” but the entry under A, “Aerosol can (empty),” tells me that these are recyclable, either in the curbside-pickup green cart or for drop-off at the recycling depot. The entry, “Aerosol can (full or partially full),” tells me that “there is no curbside collection for this household hazardous waste,” so I know that non-empty aerosol cans are considered hazardous waste.

By Email

Check the city, county, or waste hauler’s website (or whatever related email or document you have), for what sounds like the right department, or even an individual. If you can’t find a specific email address, there should at least be a general one, like info@name.com — although your email may not get routed to the appropriate department or person.

By Phone

Like with emailing, look for the department’s or contact person’s number or extension. If you can’t find one (or figure out which one is it), call the main number, and try to get a human being to ask, “Who do I talk to and what’s their number?”

I called City Hall and spoke to customer service (they answer the main number). Their answer to my aerosol question: “blue bin,” which is the same as saying “throw it in the trash” in my town.

 

In Person, On-Site

The person at the front desk at City Hall gave the same answer as when I called. I didn’t see them consult a notebook or the computer before answering me.

At the local recycling depot, one of the people working there said, “Throw it out.”

My Conclusion

I decided to simply throw out the aerosol cans. I may change my mind and add them to my “for hazardous waste collection” box. (Note that your city or county may provide you with different answers for disposal of aerosol cans.)

Bonus Discoveries Thanks to Simply Showing Up

Sometimes, just by showing up in person I find answers to questions I wasn’t asking. Here are two examples.

vegetable oil recycling drop off sign

Image: Daniel Dern

Used Cooking Oil

This can be used to generate electricity, but finding a place to donate it has historically been near-impossible. (One year, I was able to drop it off at the local high school, but that project didn’t last.)

On my recent research trip to our town’s recycling center, I noticed a sign saying they were accepting used home cooking oil. While our household doesn’t have a lot of this to dispose of — typically, one to two quarts late in December — I’ve always been unhappy about simply putting it in the trash. So, I’m excited to have learned this!

Bicycles

We still have a few bikes, acquired via friends and family, that we won’t use again — and trying to find and coordinate with local organizations to take them has been tricky. I could, I see from the city’s online database, bring them to the recycling depot, but I’d hate for usable bikes to simply get crushed or recycled.

So, I asked the person staffing the Good Will collections truck during a recent visit, and yes, they take bicycles! Conveniently, our car’s back seat folds down, making it easier to bring a bike or two text time I’m driving in that direction.

So those are some good wins for my effort — wins I wasn’t even looking for on my original quest.

And here’s one more tip to help you figure out “what do I do with this?”: Use the Earth911 Recycling Search, one of North America’s most extensive recycling databases, to find out how to responsibly dispose of items in your area.

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Daniel Dern

Freelance Writer at Trying Technology
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.