Lessons Learned from a Recycling Expert


Refuse…reduce…reuse…then recycle, right?  If recycle doesn’t even medal in the Zero Waste alliteration, why did I devote an entire tab on this website to it?  And why is my recycle bin full every week?  Probably because I’m still not very good at the first three.

But after two hours of talking to Jessi Just of the New Mexico Recycling Coalition, I’m starting to change my attitude towards recycling.  Sure, it feels good.  It’s a tangible sensation – tossing that red Solo cup into the green bin.  But there’s so much we amateurs don’t know about the recycling industry.  After our conversation, I’m starting to want to shoot for gold and refuse that trash in the first place.

Here are the lasting impressions from the interview:

Too many stickers = trash.

Paper:  You can recycle way more paper than I thought.*  Not just white paper and cardboard boxes, but colored papers, used envelopes, old Gap shopping bags, even donut boxes provided they don’t have a bunch of grease on them.  Your kid’s art?  Throw it in with this caveat:  make sure it’s more paper than contamination, which in this case is glitter, glue, stickers, fake, plastic jewels, etc.  Also, don’t recycle wet paper.  It’s no good.

That lid may not be a big deal now.

Plastic:  We’re talking laundry soap and shampoo containers, that old plastic, faded water table your kids played with in the backyard five years ago.  Berry containers, soda bottles, occasionally plastic coffee cup lids.  Many recycling centers don’t require you to wash your containers or remove the lids.*  Now, they’d prefer it because they  might end up throwing the lids in the trash.  And when you don’t wash out your containers they make this nasty sludge at the recycle center that someone has to eventually clean.  But this is a huge step forward.

Slow down there smug Buckian.

Albuquerque has a large, national company handling its recycled material and therefore they accept plastic #1 – #7.  But just remember, the further away you get from #1, #2 and #5, the lower the quality plastic and the less people can actually do with it.  So just because you can recycle that #6 Starbuck’s frappuccino cup doesn’t mean you get to feel smug – bringing your own cup would be better.



That plastic that wraps around the front of your new pack of batteries for your kiddo’s latest noisy toy from Grandma?  Total crap-plastic (Jessi’s words that I will officially adopt as my own from here on out).  You can toss it in the recycle bin, the center will accept it, but they’ll probably just toss it out.  Like plastic bottle caps, sometimes it’s just easier to take them and let everyone else just assume it’s all going to be turned into a jungle gym in Central America.  That said, those Grandma toys aren’t going to stop coming and I don’t know where you can get batteries outside crap-plastic so we’re stuck with this one for awhile.

Don’t even think about it.

Plastic Bags:  Oh, just avoid them please.  Seriously, they aren’t good.  You can’t put any plastic bags in curbside bins here in Albuquerque.  You can take some to special collection sites around town but it’s limited.  The rule of thumb I use–is actually my thumb.  If I can tear a hole in it with my digits (think apple bag but not a shredded cheese bag) I can probably recycle it.  I’ll post on this topic later.


Probably worth it? Maybe?

Glass:  I’m starting to reconsider glass.  We can recycle glass in Albuquerque at a few places around town – separate from other recyclables.  But this isn’t the issue.  The problem is, glass is expensive to transport.  If you aren’t making new bottles locally, you’re paying to send them elsewhere – and a lot more than to ship, say, a bale of cardboard.  So maybe we’ll stick to growlers (or homebrew!) instead of bottles.

So….here’s what I changed after the interview:

  • I buy spaghetti in cardboard, not plastic.
  • I no longer buy shredded cheese.
  • Chocolate chips come from bulk, not bags.
  • I buy natural, made-on-the-spot peanut butter in my mason jar.  The plastic jars are recyclable but so hard to clean.  Glass is easier and I can reuse it.
  • I bring my own container to buy meat from the butcher, not from the cooler.

What I’m thinking about changing:

  • Finding bulk shampoo
  • Making homemade toothpaste
  • Finding a better sandwich bread recipe
  • Toilet paper and paper towels not sold in plastic bags
  • Disposable razors and a better shaving cream.

Things I’d like to replace but haven’t found a source:  

  • Cheerios (seriously, would someone please start selling generic Cheerios in bulk?)
  • Butter sticks and spreadable butter
  • Deodorant

Things I know I should quit but can’t:  

  • Diapers
  • Fruit bags (ie grapes)
  • Boxed wine.  Because unlike a box of See’s candy, my husband and I can’t go through one in a night and boxed wine keeps it fresher a little longer.

*Remember – this is Albuquerque I’m taking about.  Not all places take lids or even plastics beyond #1 and #2.  Santa Fe, 45 minutes north of my house exactly, won’t even take #3-7.  So check with your local center.

June 6, 2014

About Me

About Me

I’ve been passionate about combatting blind consumerism since 2008 and joined the Zero Waste movement by starting this blog in 2013, soon after my second child was born. I think it might have been trying to unwrap a toy or someone’s attempt to sell me a butt-wipe warmer that put me over the edge… read more



  1. IronMike

    Read "Junkyard Planet" by Adam Minter. It'll change your opinion on recycling, junk, trash, etc.

  2. zerowastemommy

    From the LA Review of Books: "The trip back to China is essentially already paid for, which means, as Minter explains, that to ship a container full of scrap paper from Los Angeles to Shenzhen costs a quarter of what it would to truck it to Chicago." Whoa! I can already see where this is going. I reserved it at the library. Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. Jason

    What's the deal with shredded cheese? Do you just shred block cheese?


  4. zerowastemommy

    Well I can't recycle the bag that the shredded cheese comes so now, yes, I shred block cheese. Cheese I either get from the deli dude or in the cooler outside the deli – wrapped in the cellophane-type plastic. That, I can recycle.

  5. Anonymous

    Dang! You throwing up those plastic #s like we should know 'em. It's all #2 to me, you know what I'm saying? My buddy told me it all ends up in a current vortex in the middle of the Indian Ocean, anyway. Dumped by a WM garbage ship!

    Just kidding honey. I like the Marble Red bottle. xoxo

  6. zerowastemommy

    Lucky for you I'll post on "those plastic numbers" sometime in the future. Can you watch the kids for me though?

  7. Emadresh

    Making butter is super easy and you can get the cream In returnable glass bottles at the coop. Safety razors are. Good alternative to disposable. I'm trying them out soon…single toilet paper usually comes wrapped in paper. Deodorant can be bought as a paste in a small glass jar. I make my own toothpaste and love it.

  8. zerowastemommy

    I'm sorry I took so long to reply! How are the safety razors working out now? I see that Preserve makes razors from recycled material now and you send them back in when you are finished (where ostensibly they turn them into a park bench?) I have found a lovely deodorant replacement (Lush) that I buy without wrapping. But the homemade toothpaste still have gotten much traction in this house. So I use Tom's and TerraCycle for now. Oh, and TP, I'm still searching for my favorite source of paper-wrapped non-bleached. For us it also needs to be somewhat economical. We'll see what I land this year. Thanks for the comment!

  9. Rachel Brinks

    I never thought about *buying* cream to make my own butter! Guess I've always associated homemade butter with owning my own cow, ha. Which is actually ridiculous, because I made butter from store-bought cream when I was a kid and on a bit of a pioneer kick… 🙂 I'll look into this again!

  10. Rachel Brinks

    Thanks for mentioning this book, Mike. I've been looking for more books on this sort of topic!

  11. zerowastemommy

    By all means, please share if you have any insight. Though I've gone easy on the dairy lately, I still LOVE to bake with it and can't find an unwrapped source.


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