A Nature-Lover’s Guide to Recycling

We Leave No Trace on the trail… But what about after?

by Hailey Hirst

This article includes affiliate links, which help to support She Explores.

Many of us who spend time outdoors pride ourselves on being friends with the environment. We do our best to follow Leave No Trace principles, support conservation efforts, and probably think we know how to recycle. But it’s time to ask — As much as we love the planet, are we really doing this right? And what does that even mean anyway?

In learning more about recycling and thinking about greater systems at play, we’re reconsidering a lot of our habits, assumptions, and the biases we hold so close to our love for nature. Because one thing is true: being a modern outdoors person means also living in a world of plastic. We eat packaged bars, wear synthetic clothing, carry technical packs, and pack ultra-light in sandwich bags. 

If we want to do better, that means we need to understand some of the nuances when it comes to recycling and outdoor recreation. Whether you’re backpacking or cleaning out your gear closet, here are some recycling tips to keep in mind:

Editor’s note: This guide is a jumping off point for further education. While we are not experts, we believe we all can and should dig in to learn more for ourselves.

Packing out your waste is good, but making sure it ends up in the right place is even more important.

Even if you aren’t leaving any trash on the trail, it’s worth knowing that it could still end up in the environment if it’s not disposed of properly. Whether a bird scatters trailhead trash or a recycling bin gets ‘contaminated’ by styrofoam or spoiled food and sent to a landfill rather than recycling facility, it’s worth knowing some best practices. 

  • First, learn your local recycling capabilities.

    Not every city or locality is equipped to recycle all types of plastic, and different waste management systems handle foam, food scraps, and other debris differently. Whether you are at home or traveling in the U.S., BeRecycled.org is a great resource to get recycling info by zip code and by material type. 

  • Know the codes of plastic recycling.

    Type 1 (PET) plastic is the most universally accepted and easiest type of plastic to recycle. Other types… not so much. This guide is helpful in understanding what all the numbers inside the recycling logo mean.

  • Clean your containers.

    No, really clean them. Unless you’re recycling a water bottle, you’ll need to rinse or even scrub out plastic containers to make sure they’re clean from food and beverage residue or other gunk to be sure it’s accepted at a recycling facility.

Choosing products that are recycled and recyclable helps our systems get more circular.

Closing the loop and making all our systems as circular as possible makes everything more sustainable by using less resources and reducing waste along the way. The idea of circular economies is to reuse materials and transform waste into a real resource. While recycling isn’t the be all, end all solution to plastic and waste management issues, changes towards circularity are a very good thing

Aluminum cans are a great example of circular recycling. Recycling aluminum saves about 90% of the energy it takes to make new, and it’s one of the most-recycled materials in the U.S. Nearly 75% off all aluminum ever produced is still in use today.

Plastic recycling is different in that the materials degrade over time differently than metals, but we could still go a long way in closing the loop. Recycling rates of plastic bottles in the U.S. are below 30% so encouraging more recycling could greatly impact how much new plastic is produced.

How do you know what you’re buying is recycled? It probably will say somewhere on the label. A lot of companies that are making changes in this direction are communicative about it.

Remember that clothing and gear are part of this, too, and understand the life cycle of what you wear and use.

Clothing and gear might not be top of mind when you think about plastics and recycling, but technical apparel and other items are often highly (if not completely) made of synthetic materials. It’s positive that some of our gear—especially fleece—might be made of recycled plastics, but it’s worth considering the whole life cycle of gear that gets washed and ages over time. Some things to know:

  • Synthetic clothing sheds microplastics.

    And the loss of these particles when washing laundry is the largest contributor to microplastic pollution in the ocean and other watersheds. Wash bags and filters can help keep those particles out of the environment. (We like this Guppyfriend bag and this Fitrol microfiber filter)

  • It’s easy to extend the life cycle of gear by participating in the circular economy.

    Within the outdoor industry, this could look like… 

    • Buying used gear from exchanges, consignment, or swap programs
    • Choosing to buy gear & clothes that are durable
    • Repairing gear so it lasts as long as possible
    • Donating items that you no longer use to friends, organizations, or gear exchanges 

Consider how packaged foods fit into the plastics picture.

It’s easy to villainize a water bottle, but not think twice about a granola bar wrapper, deli salad box, or a bag of chips. Living with plastic is a 5,000 piece puzzle. When’s the last time you looked around a grocery store or gas station and thought about how almost every single item you can buy is wrapped in plastic? This is especially true at convenience stores and budget stores. It can be cost prohibitive to shop at natural markets that are organic and low-waste. 

Photo by Damien Dufour via Unsplash

The plastics used in food wrappers also can’t be recycled the same way that PET bottles can be. Instead of just tossing in a bin, plastic film and wrappings might need to be dropped off at a specific location depending on where you are, and many wrappers that combine materials or end up greasy are destined only for the landfill. 

The key here is examining our relationship with these materials and trying to find ways to either recycle where we can, or getting more comfortable with alternatives that are less likely to have excess packaging, like:

  • Shopping at bulk stores or the bulk-bin aisle at your local grocery store
  • Re-using or re-purposing the containers you already have, or investing in quality ones that will last a long time (We like Stasher and Zip Top bags!)
  • Making your own bars or backpacking meals

Going more low-waste might be easier than you think!

Shame shouldn’t have a place in the recycling conversation.

We all want to call a healthy Earth home. We’ve sometimes noticed that, in outdoor communities specifically, folks are so eager for change that they shame others who may not have the same level of awareness or education about best practices when it comes to recycling, sustainability, stewardship, and so much more.

We all have had times in our lives where we haven’t had access to recycling or we need to make an accomodation in the moment. None of us are perfect environmentalists. There’s no such thing! And to hold someone else to that standard is unfair and counterproductive. 

Do your best, but remember that it’s not all on you.

We have great power as consumers to advocate for change and invest in companies who are addressing issues we care about, but the responsibility shouldn’t all be on us as individuals to create the change we want to see in the outdoor products, food, and beverages we love. Just as coming together to hold bigger companies and governments accountable can make a collective impact, it is equally the obligation of these larger organizations with power to work towards change for the health of people and the planet.

Photo by Tobias Tullius via Unsplash

Additional resources to check out:

Episode 109: Teaching by Example – Low Waste Garden Ranger Cindy Villaseñor

Episode 153: Embracing Intersectional Environmentalism

A Guide to Low Waste Backpacking

Outfit Your Next Adventures with Used Gear


Banner image by Damien Dufour via Unsplash

  1. Excellent resourceful article! Thanks for sharing and spreading awareness!

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