Recycling: This Earth Day, Let’s Get Back to Basics

By Sophia Nicholas, Guest Blogger

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community.

Big pile of plastic bags
Plastic bags cause expensive and damaging delays in processing our waste streams.

Recycling is one of the most common sense practices to conserve resources and care for the Earth.

So this Earth Day—let’s get back to basics and take a deep dive on what’s going on with recycling these days and what you as an environmentally-conscious person should do to “recycle right.”

Did you know that most of the items you put in the recycling bin get sent to Asia to be processed into new material? Those water bottles get turned into fleece, cardboard into paper bags, and milk jugs into . . . new milk jugs.

A large majority of this material is processed in China.  Or, I should say, was.

You may have heard that China is no longer accepting the world’s waste as of January 2018. They were previously processing roughly half of the world’s plastic, metal, and paper recyclables. Their ban is part of an effort to clean up their environment and not become the home of “foreign garbage.” We applaud China’s strengthening of their environmental laws, policies, and procedures.

However, in the short term, the Chinese ban is causing recycling vendors and processors worldwide to search for new markets for some of the material China no longer wants. This includes lower-quality plastics and paper. China also doesn’t want “contamination”—which refers to non-recyclable items being mixed up with recyclable items, as well as dirty and unwashed recyclables.

Giant cube of aluminum cans
Aluminum cans ready for recycling

Other countries are picking up some of the slack, but the Chinese ban is having an impact worldwide.

Thankfully recycling is a dynamic commodity market. It’s full of enterprising entrepreneurs and businesses who are finding solutions.

Salt Lake City, because of our size and market influence, has not yet seen a meaningful impact from the Chinese ban. Our processors are finding alternatives. We’ll continue to do everything in our power to recycle as much as we can, ensuring we have the most comprehensive and robust recycling operation possible.

But the changes in the recycling world should be a wake-up call to all of us.

Ultimately we need to return to the “Three R’s,” especially the first two—Reduce and Reuse. Then we have a modified third: “Recycle Right.”

Reduce our consumption of disposable items, reuse what we can, and then recycle, but in the right way.

Big pile of plastic waste
Reusable water bottles cut down on plastic waste

First, using durable goods is always a better option than solely relying on the recycling bin.

This is certainly the case with plastic bags. Salt Lake City, like many other cities nationwide, recently announced that plastic bags can no longer be recycled in our blue curbside recycling containers. The reasons are simple—plastic bags and film (which includes grocery bags, produce bags, sandwich bags, cling film, air pockets, and the plastic bags used to bag recyclables) are a nuisance. They cause expensive and damaging delays in the processing of our waste stream.

So some quick tips on the first “two R’s”:

  • Use reusable. Whether that’s a water bottle, grocery bag, coffee cup, or straw—choose the durable option.
  • Say no to disposable dishes and cutlery.
  • Ask your favorite grocery stores to offer special recycling receptacles for their plastic bags if they don’t already. Learn more about plastic film and find a directory of stores which offer dedicated recycling at
  • Opt for washable storage containers instead of plastic snack bags.
  • Bring your own to-go boxes rather than using disposable ones.
  • Shop in bulk and purposely buy products with less packaging.
Infographic: Curbside Recycling
Click on image for a larger view

Still—it’s difficult to remove plastic and packaging from our lives entirely. This is where we ask you to not be a practitioner of “aspirational recycling.”

Aspirational recycling is putting something in the recycling bin with a quick shrug, thinking that it will all end up in the right place. (I’m guilty too). Aspirational recycling can cause expensive delays and can contaminate entire bales of recycling.

I admit—it’s challenging to know what is and isn’t recyclable because recycling rules do change from time to time (case in point: plastic bags).

So in this day and age, it’s all about getting back to basics and “recycling right.”

  • Recycle the important stuff: paper, plastic, and metal.
  • Take the time to learn what your municipality, workplace, or multi-family property accepts in your recycling containers. It varies from location to location and changes occasionally.
  • If it’s not on the recycling list (here’s Salt Lake City’s), it doesn’t go in the recycling container.
  • Give your recycling a quick rinse to ensure it’s reasonably clean.
Most importantly, get back to basics by reducing and reusing. We as consumers have that in our power, whether it’s Earth Day or every day!
Sophia Nicholas

I am the Communications Manager for the Salt Lake City Sustainability Department, where I’ve had the pleasure of working for two years. I previously worked for the environmental non-profit HEAL Utah and am proud to now serve on their Board of Directors. I’m a Utah native and alumna of Olympus High School. I spent four years in Massachusetts at Wellesley College where I got my degree in political science and got a taste for travel during my study abroad. I couldn’t wait to come back, however, and have enjoyed working to protect our environment here in Utah ever since. In my spare time you can find me mountain biking, skiing, gardening, being the steady first mate on river trips, and getting involved in too many house projects with my partner Paul.