Recycling 101

Recycling center featuring trash, recycling and compost waste

Why is Recycling Beneficial?

Recycling – or the conversion of waste into reusable material – has a number of social and environmental benefits. Reusing and recycling materials means fewer resources will be extracted and less energy will be used to make new products. When materials are recycled rather than ending up in the landfill, the process is called waste diversion. Preventing waste from unnecessarily building up in our landfills by diverting materials to recycling facilities reduces incineration and associated air and water pollution. All of this drives down resource extraction and manufacturing costs, keeping products and associated materials in a closed-loop life cycle that greatly reduces the environmental impacts of those products.

What is Recyclable?

Newspaper, paperboard, paper towels, and other wood-based products are generally considered some of the easiest items to recycle. A big exception is oil-drenched pizza boxes, as the oil prevents the cardboard from breaking down properly. Aluminum and glass, such as those found in soda cans and beer bottles, are also highly recyclable. Even batteries, bulbs, and electronics are recyclable, however, these are specialized products that require specific processes to recycle properly. Plastics can be extremely harmful to the environment if not recycled, but most recycling programs accept many types of plastic. One way to determine the recyclability of plastics is to look at the number enclosed in the three-arrow recycling symbol. Numbers range from 1-7, with lower numbers signifying higher recyclability, and higher numbers signifying lower recyclability.

One recyclable item that may come as a surprise to some is cigarette butts. In fact, the NPS has started to make that a reality. Collected butts are especially useful in the oil industry, as many of the ingredients can be used to prevent corrosion in rusting oil production pipes. Another use for cigarette butts is in the shipping industry, by using the cellulose acetate in the filters for the industrial production of shipping pallets. Furthermore, residual tobacco can be composted. If you are interested in more information about recycling cigarette butts, see our previous GreenLine Article posted here.

In general, items that are more difficult or take longer to disassemble are considered harder to recycle. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) based items such as plastic water bottles are huge offenders – they take extra-long to decompose in nature, even with the help of sunlight. Styrofoam – a polystyrene petroleum-based plastic – might be the worst of them all. This is mainly because Styrofoam is not biodegradable. That is, it is extremely resistant to photosynthesis, the process that utilizes sunlight to break down materials into a form that can be reused by nature to feed new life. Because of this, polystyrene has accumulated along coasts and waterways, and has become the largest component of marine debris. Additionally, Styrofoam is manufactured using hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a greenhouse gas that contributes to the breakdown of ozone. As a rule of thumb, best practice is to avoid using hard plastics, Styrofoam, and items with many hard-to-disassemble parts whenever possible.

Streamlining Recycling Operations

Like most initiatives, an efficient recycling program depends on the ability of staff to work together. Teamwork and good communication is key. Starting a Green Team is a great way for park and concessions staff to get involved in waste minimization efforts, especially if initiated and encouraged from upper management. Appointing a volunteer recycling coordinator will help ensure these efforts do not get overlooked. During events, for example, the coordinator would be responsible for recruiting, training, and organizing all help. Additionally, the coordinator can educate guests on proper recycling techniques and be available for questions if guests are unsure in what bin an item belongs.

Co-mingled – or 'single stream' – recycling is a system where all recyclable materials are placed in a single bin. This shifts the responsibility of separating recycled items from the customer to the waste management entity, making the customer’s recycling experience simpler and faster. Single stream recycling, does not, however, address the issue of contamination. That is, making the recycling process easier does not reduce the risk of having trash put in the recycling bin. And if it does, it’s a lot more material that is contaminated.


Contamination – or the mixing of recyclables and trash – is inevitable because it is unlikely that all guests are aware of proper recycling techniques. Optimizing recycling efforts will therefore involve educating guests and making it as easy as possible for them to recycle correctly and streamline overall waste minimization efforts.

Particularly when hosting an event, clear and prominent signage will help maximize collection efforts and reduce the contamination that can occur when trash is accidentally thrown into recycling bins. In some cases the trash can be easily removed, but in others, it can affect the whole bin. Signage should be large enough that guests know where items go well before reaching the bins.

Consolidating all bins into one structure and highlighting each disposal type with specific items is another way to help reduce the confusion of where to put what item. Lone trash cans are easy targets for throwing out otherwise recyclable items. Shadow boxes – transparent boxes on top of each bin that contain examples of actual concession items – prevent guests from having to compare and contrast generic pictures with the in-hand item they are looking to dispose of. Guests can easily tell where their item goes if they are looking at a replica right in front of them. The photo above is an example of what these shadow boxes might look like.

Streamlining recycling operations, educating staff and guests, and mitigating contamination will go a long way towards waste diversion and waste management optimization. Whether it’s getting park and concession staff involved through the creation of a Green Team or the introduction of shadow boxes to facilitate recycling efforts, parks and concessions can help reduce resource dependency and divert solid waste from landfills.