Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
No, it’s not just you—it really is very confusing.
Conscious city dwellers hear time and time again that recycling is a virtue, that the path to environmental civic do-goodery is as easy as throwing reusables in the right bin. But this is much, much easier said than done. Are pizza boxes recyclable? They’re cardboard, right? What about yogurt containers? Batteries? And if you’ve got it figured out and then find yourself moving cities, the recycling rules might totally change. Plastic coat hangers, for example, can be dropped in the recycling bin in Austin, but they’re verboten in Houston.
Recycle By City is the answer to all those thorny recycling questions. Since 2014, the former advertising executive Tracy Bugh and her small, L.A.-based team has partnered with local governments in Los Angeles, Santa Monica, West Hollywood, Austin, Houston, Philadelphia, and—as of December—Chicago. For an annual fee, the group organizes each city’s localized recycling information into cute, straightforward, and well-designed guides, which are constantly updated as cities inevitably change their systems. Then it then tests users’ comprehension with fun quizzes.
The organization also creates shareable graphics that cities can push out via social media. These quick bites of information not only tell users what is and isn’t recyclable, but why. “It’s very visual stuff, and explaining ‘why’ helps them remember,” Bugh says.
Being hip to the newest recycling trivia might make you a hit at (some?) dinner parties, but more importantly, contamination is actually pretty devastating for recycling systems across the country. In September, the country’s largest trash hauler told Fortune that contamination in its recycling stream has doubled in the past decade. Today, one in six items tossed in blue bins are not actually recyclable. “Some recycling facilities have to shut down once an hour so that workers can cut layers of plastic bags off the machinery,” Fortune reported.
But if people are getting it right, Bugh says, many cities’ recycling systems have some cool things to offer. L.A. has a number of community electronics recycling facilities—you can find them from Recycle By City’s L.A. “Tips and Tricks” page. You can book a presentation from a Philadelphia composting or recycling expert—discover how in on that city’s page.
There’s a real delicious smugness to being the smartest recycler on your block, and Bugh hopes Recycle By City can bring the indelible feeling to 30 million people—around 50 cities—in the next five years.
And that pizza box? It’s too soaked with grease to be recyclable, Bugh says. But you, the savvy and dedicated recycler, can rip off the clean bits and dump them wherever you dump cardboard. Of course, where you dump cardboard depends on your city.