7 Surprising Ways to Recycle Plastic

Recycling plastic keeps trash out of landfills and decreases our reliance on polluting fossil fuels.

July 3, 2012

You may never have thought about where your plastic grocery bags came from or how your yoga mat was made. But all that plastic that makes our lives more convenient is made from either oil or natural gas. And with the Gulf of Mexico oil spill still harming southern beaches and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas threatening water supplies nationwide, reducing our dependence on plastic is more important than ever, to reduce our dependence on these fossil fuels. According to the Stanford Recycling Center, recycling one ton of plastic saves 16.3 barrels of oil and 30 cubic yards of landfill space. And the good news is, along with your curbside recycling program, there are more ecofriendly options for ways to getting rid of your plastic than ever before. (Option number 1, of course, is to try to use as little plastic as possible in the first place.)

Here are a few of the more creative recycling programs we found: 


1. "Reverse" Vending Machines

Thirsty? The PepsiCo Dream Machine won’t be able to help. But it will collect empty plastic bottles and aluminum cans and, in return, give you points that you can redeem at Pepsi’s online partner in the project, Greenopolis.com, for discounts and coupons at various retailers, such as movie theaters and hotels. This recycling program is slowly expanding across the country, in grocery stores, gas stations, and parks, but at the moment, most machines are concentrated in Southern California and North Carolina, with a few locations in Florida, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania; click here to find the locations of Dream Machines and similar recycling kiosks operated by Greenopolis near you. If there isn't one nearby and you don’t have a municipal recycling program, check out Earth911.org to find other places near you that recycle bottles and cans.

2. Re-Gift Card Kiosk

The next time your birthday comes and goes and you find yourself with a wallet full of spent gift cards, take them to Best Buy, where you can drop them at one of their new gift-card-recycling kiosks. That's much better than tossing them into the trash; though they seem little, those cards are made from one of the most toxic plastics: PVC, or polyvinyl chloride. The production of PVC releases cancer-causing dioxin into the atmosphere, where it builds up in our food supply, and according to EarthWorks, a company that manufactures biodegradable plastics, more than 75 million pounds of PVC from these cards enters our waste stream each year, rather than being recycled into new cards.


3. Recycle on the Road

We’ve all been there: Three days (or three hours) into a road trip, your car’s filled to the windows with plastic bottles, cups, fast-food wrappers, and other detritus. To help weary but conscientious travelers, Speedway SuperAmerica started a recycling program, installing recycling bins at most of its gas stations in the Lexington, Kentucky, area. But if you don’t anticipate passing through that area, hold on to your recyclables. You could always dispose of them in one of the aforementioned Dream Machines or take them to a nearby highway rest stop. And some states, such as California and Wisconsin, have instituted new recycling programs that mean you could find recycling bins at state-operated rest areas. If all else fails, bring an extra bag with you to store all of your recyclables until you get home—that’s what back seats and trunks are for!

4. Return to Sender

Want to recycle electronics but don’t live near any responsible e-waste recyclers? Stop by your local post office. The U.S. Postal Service teamed up with Clover Technologies Group in order to create a recycling program that allows free recycling of inkjet cartridges, PDAs, BlackBerries, digital cameras, iPods, and MP3 players (all made with plastic). About 1,500 post offices in the United States are participating. You pick up free envelopes from the post office and mail in whatever item you want to recycle; postage is paid for. Clover Technologies dismantles all the equipment in the United States, so there’s no risk of it winding up in the hands of a child combing through trash in a developing country.


5. Get Rewarded for Recycling

One man's recyclable garbage is another man’s path to free stuff. Using special ID tags affixed to your recycling bin, Recyclebank tracks how much you’re recycling and gives you rewards points that you can use at stores, including Origins, CVS, and Whole Foods. Your municipal recycling program has to work with RecycleBank in order for you to benefit (you can find a list of all the municipalities that Recyclebank currently works with here). If your community is not on the list, try to get it on board. Recyclebank has a form that you can fill out in order to try to convince your municipality to join.


6. Keep Sporting Goods in Play 

Don’t throw out those old cleats, baseballs, and yoga mats. They all contain plastic components that can be recycled or reused by other athletes. You might be surprised to find that there is probably a recycling program to fit every athlete’s needs. If you need to get rid of old swim caps, send them to Ecoathlete so they can be made into flip-flops. The Sterling Rope Company turns old climbing rope into dog collars and key chains, and Nike's Reuse-A-Shoe program grinds up old athletic shoes, collected through the mail or at Nike stores, and turns them into new sneakers or athletic surfaces such as running tracks. Yoga mats, regardless of what they’re made from, can be sent to Recycle Your Mat, where you can get a discount on a new one. If old mats aren’t turned into new mats, they’re donated to various nonprofits, including one that uses yoga to help children overcome early life trauma. And, of course, there are always reliable standbys where you can find new homes for old sporting gear, such as Play It Again Sports or Freecyle.

7. Precycle!

The best way to avoid any hassles associated with recycling is to precycle—find new uses for stuff you’d normally toss out. There are many websites that show you how to craftily turn used cartons, old T-shirts, wine bottles, and other bric-a-brac into beautiful art projects and handy tools. Find ways to reuse hard-to-recycle items like milk cartons and aseptic cartons (which contain plastic coatings and layers that make them hard to recycle) at lifehacker.com, which provides instructions on converting them into CD mailers, or Disney's familyfun.go.com, where you can learn to turn them into change purses like the one pictured at right. Know a bookworm? Old seed packets make great bookmarks. If you’re up for more of a challenge, turn newspapers into gift baskets, or make notepads out of recycled cardboard, paper, cartons, or whatever else you have around the house, all found here.

Read More: 5 Key Strategies to Become Plastic-Free