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Hennepin County’s guide to reducing, reusing and recycling household plastic

When plastics were first invented, America embraced the products for their flexibility, durability and low manufacturing cost. “Plastics are the future!” we were told.

That statement turned out to be truer than anyone imagined. Because even if all manufacturing were to cease today, plastics will be with us far, far into the future.

Even single-use bags and plastic packaging can remain in landfills for centuries. And what about “degradable” plastics? Instead of breaking down into harmless component molecules, often they simply break apart into smaller and smaller pieces known as “micro-plastics” and “nano-plastics.” Those are the terms for very small plastic particles that collect in bodies of water and enter the food chain with health effects we’re only beginning to understand.

We need to change the future

The fact is, people and industry are using more plastic than ever – 20 times more than we were using in the 1960’s. Why? Because plastics’ low manufacturing cost, durability and versatility make it easy for manufacturers and consumers to overlook their environmental problems. Sure, we’ve made advances in recycling. But it’s still less costly to make virgin plastic versus post-consumer recycled plastics. And that undercuts investment in creating a plastic recycling infrastructure.

So what are the main environmental problems with plastic? They come down to issues surrounding manufacturing and disposal.

The hard truth is that even before they’re thrown out, disposable plastics have already damaged the environment because most of them are made from nonrenewable gas and oil. The use of fossil fuels generates greenhouse gases and often creates hazardous chemicals as byproducts.

Since less than half of plastics are recycled, they accumulate in the earth and in bodies of water. Maybe you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Floating between Hawaii and California, it’s an accumulation of plastic covering an estimated 1.6 million square kilometers – roughly three times the size of France.

Pile of garbage

The way forward

You may be familiar with the term, “Reduce, reuse, and recycle.” All three actions are essential because they not only keep plastic out of landfills and incinerators, they reduce demand for new plastics. Says Reid Lifset, associate director of industrial environmental management at the Yale School of the Environment: “The value of recycling is displacing virgin production, because the amount of pollution generated when producing virgin materials is much greater than that generated when using recovered materials.”

The people of Hennepin County care about reducing waste and preserving the environment. In fact, we have a goal of sending zero waste to landfills by 2030. And we can get there – if we reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Let’s talk about how that translates into specific actions.

Man putting recycling in bin

Recycling plastic

Not all plastics are recyclable. And those we can recycle often need to be sent to highly specialized facilities. To know whether an item is recyclable, refer to the guides provided by the recycling services. Don’t go by the numbers imprinted on plastics. They indicate the type of plastic an item is made of. Recyclability varies, however, even among the same kinds of plastic.

Plastic bags and wrap. Plastic bags and wrap belong to a category known as “plastic film,” which includes plastic less than 10 millimeters thick. Usually made from polyethylene resin, plastic film includes things like zip-top bags, grocery bags, bubble wrap and plastic wrap. Curbside recyclers refuse these products because they get tangled up with other plastics at the material recovery facilities, damaging the equipment and ending up in the landfill. Instead of putting these products into your curbside recycling bin, do the following:

Bring plastic bags and wrap to retailers that offer plastic bag recycling. For plastic bag recycling locations in the Twin Cities, check  the Green Disposal Guide.

Bring plastic film products to specially designed Hennepin County drop-off facilities.

Materials that are accepted include: plastic bread bags, plastic bubble wrap, plastic cereal bags, plastic dry cleaning bags, plastic grocery bags, plastic newspaper sleeves, plastic produce bags, plastic product wrap, plastic resealable food bags, plastic retail bags, plastic stretch/shrink wrap, salt bags (without handles or residue).

Plastic materials that are NOT accepted: six-pack holders, black plastic bags, boat wrap, wet film plastic (including bags), film plastic with residue (including bags), large plastic items like plastic lawn furniture, laundry baskets, storage tubs and plastic toys, plastic utensils and straws (because they’re often contaminated with food).

Materials prep: Plastic bags must be clean of debris and food, and all materials must be clean and dry.

Hennepin County drop-off facilities*

Brooklyn Park
Hennepin County Recycling Center and Transfer Station
8100 Jefferson Highway, Brooklyn Park, MN 55445
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 9am to 5pm

South Hennepin Recycling and Problem Waste Drop-Off Center
1400 West 96th Street, Bloomington, MN 55431
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday, 9am to 5pm

*Note that there is no drop-off fee for plastic film products, but there is a limit of 4 full 13-gallon white kitchen bags per drop-off.

Plastic bottles, jugs, cups, containers and packaging

These categories of products are accepted by curbside recycling services and Hennepin County drop-off locations alike. But it’s important to know specifically which products recyclers will accept, and which they’ll reject. When people attempt to recycle the wrong kinds of products, disruption and even equipment breakdowns can occur. So be sure to check with your local curbside recycler for details before you begin recycling.

Curbside recyclers

Each recycler may have its own special restrictions, but curbside recycling services typically accept the following categories of items:

Plastic bottles and jugs: Recyclables include water, soda and juice bottles, as well as milk and juice jugs. Ketchup and salad dressing bottles are accepted. Dishwashing liquid bottles and laundry detergent jugs can also be recycled, along with shampoo, soap and lotion bottles.

Plastic cups and containers: Curbside recyclers accept yogurt, pudding and fruit cups, along with clear disposable cups and bowls. Margarine, cottage cheese and other food containers are also accepted, as well as produce, deli, and take-out containers.

What to do about lids: Leave them on plastic bottles, jugs, cups, containers and cartons to prevent them from falling through the gaps at the recycling sorting facility. For glass bottles and jars, you should remove the caps and lids. We suggest collecting metal caps in a metal can, such as a soup can, and then squeezing the can shut before recycling. This prevents the caps from falling through the gaps at the sorting facility.

Plastic packaging: While most plastic packaging should be brought to a drop-off location for recycling, curbside recyclers will accept clear plastic packaging from toys and electronics.

Materials prep: Empty and rinse containers. Leave caps and tops on plastic bottles, jugs and containers.

Products that curbside recyclers do not recycle: In addition to plastic bags, film, and most wraps, curbside recycling services do not accept large plastic items like laundry baskets, storage tubs, toys, plastic furniture, plastic landscaping pots, landscape edging, kiddie pools or landscape pond liners. Plastic foam (Styrofoam™) is not accepted either, nor are plastic utensils and straws, hoses, cords and string lights, or containers that held hazardous chemicals. 

Hennepin County drop-off facilities: Plastic jugs, cups, containers and packaging are accepted at Hennepin County drop-off facilities.

Plastic materials that are not accepted: Styrofoam, microwaveable food trays, black plastic, and containers that held hazardous materials.

Materials Prep: Empty and rinse containers. Leave caps and tops on plastic bottles, jugs and containers.

Hennepin County drop-off facilities do not charge fees for disposal of the above items.

Blurred photo of conveyor belt in recycling facility

Reusing plastic and reducing your use of plastic products

A huge amount of plastics waste comes in the form of packaging and single-use plastics. As these items are used for a short time and then thrown away, they’re big contributors to the amount of plastic we discard, bury and incinerate.

The good news is that there are many actions we can take to address the problem – most of them centering around reducing our demand for plastic. When we reuse plastic and adopt habits that bypass plastic altogether, we reduce pollution and preserve natural resources.

Here are some actions you can take in various areas of your life.

Woman shopping with reusable bag

Actions you can take at home

Plastics pervade our life at home, but there are many ways to reduce our dependence on them through reuse, recycling, and reduction.

  • Ditch plastic bags. According to National Geographic, Americans use an average of 365 plastic bags per person, per year, whereas people in Denmark use an average of four plastic bags per year. We can make headway by reusing plastic bags and using alternatives to them. Bring reusable bags to the supermarket or drug store. Bring a garment bag to the dry cleaners and take your clothes home in that vs. a plastic covering provided by the cleaners. Instead of buying new bags to line your trash containers, reuse existing bags such as pet food bags, grocery bags or online shopping bags.
  • Avoid buying products that come in plastic containers. Buy detergent or kitty litter in boxes (or bulk!) vs. plastic containers. Use matches instead of disposable plastic lighters (or invest in a refillable metal lighter). When you do have to bring plastic into the house, avoid harmful plastics like polyvinyl, polystyrene, and polycarbonate (#3, #6 and #7).
  • Clean without plastic. Instead of buying spray cleaner in plastic bottles, use a reusable bottle and make your own (try 1 part vinegar to 3 parts water for a great all-purpose spray cleaner). Ditch disposable cleaning wipes. Swap sponges for longer lasting reusable options like brushes, scrubbers and dish rags. Skip the dryer sheets or replace them with reusable alternatives.
  • Other actions to take. Shop used whenever possible. Secondhand stores abound with a wide range of plastic household items. Choose natural clothing fibers (avoiding synthetics like polyester, nylon, acrylic or spandex, whose fibers can make their way into the food chain). Extend the life of electronics by resisting manufacturers’ call to replace them every year, and instead updating or repairing them. Want to learn more about plastic-free living and why it’s so important? Watch a documentary film about plastic waste and share what you’ve learned with others. Some suggestions include “The Plastic Problem,” a PBS NewsHour Documentary; “Plastic Wars” on Frontline; the “Minimalism” documentary; and the “Bag It” documentary.

Find more ideas on the “At Home” page of the Plastic-Free Challenge.

Actions you can take regarding food

By changing our habits around buying, storing and preparing food, we can dramatically reduce our use of plastics. Here are some ideas to get you started.

  • Avoid plastic at the grocery store. Use a reusable bag for produce, shop for products that aren’t packaged in plastic (check the bulk bins!), and bring your groceries home in reusable bags. Buy milk in returnable glass bottles. Make coffee with reusable filters, avoiding disposable K-cups and single-use coffee filters. Another smart strategy is to buy fresh instead of frozen. Even eco-friendly packaged frozen items made from cardboard are actually coated in a thin layer of plastic.
  • Cook meals without plastic. The Zero-Waste Chef and the Plastic-Free Chef offer great pointers for making your own food vs. buying plastic-wrapped food.
  • Store food without plastic. Skip single use plastic for freezing food by using reusable containers. Ditch plastic wrap and choose reusable wrap instead. For example, beeswax wraps are a great replacement for cling wrap.
  • Stop buying water. Plastic bottles can take hundreds of years to degrade. If you don’t like the way your tap water tastes, here are some filtering options.

Find more ideas on the “Food” page of the Plastic-Free Challenge.

Actions you can take on the go

Convenience is important when we’re on the move, but there are easy actions to take that can help us reduce plastic consumption while going about our daily lives.

  • Eat without plastic. Assemble an eating-out bag with cloth napkins and reusable utensils, containers, and cups and use it to avoid disposable to-go containers and cutlery. You can make a DIY cutlery pouch. Carry your lunch in a reusable bag. At work, use reusable containers, dishes and silverware.
  • Drink without plastic. Skip the straw, first of all – or use a reusable straw of your own. Bring your own thermos or mug to the coffee shop. Disposable coffee cups might look like paper, but they’re usually lined with polyethylene, a type of plastic resin. Reusable cups also work great for sodas at the convenience store. And, of course, use a reusable bottle and stop purchasing bottled water. The plastic bottle it comes in can take 450 years to decompose if littered.
  • Recycle at work. Recycle your plastic containers at the office or plant, and if you can’t find a recycling bin there, bring the item home with you.

Find more ideas on the “On the Go” page of the Plastic-Free Challenge.

Girl refilling reusable water bottle

Actions you can take regarding personal care

Many personal care items are made from, and packed in, plastic. But there’s a price we pay for that convenience. Good thing there are plenty of actions we can take to reduce our use of plastics.

  • Care for your teeth without plastic. Replace your toothbrushes with recycled plastic, wood or bamboo toothbrushes. Purchase plastic-free tooth care products, or make your own toothpaste. Switch to compostable floss that comes in reusable containers.
  • Clean and groom yourself without plastic. Buy reusable bathroom products, including cups, makeup wipes and soap dispensers. Switch to bar soap instead of using liquid soap. And replace your synthetic loofah with a natural loofah or wash cloth. When it comes to shaving, use a steel safety razor instead of a disposable plastic one (nearly 160 million Americans used disposable razors in 2020 according to Consumer Reports). It’s also important to check labels of personal care items. Some facial scrubs contain tiny plastic beads, which are not filtered out of our waste systems. If “polyethylene” is an ingredient, don’t buy it. When it comes to hair care, replace soaps, shampoos and conditioners with a bar, refillable options, or a homemade product.
  • Other actions to take. Use a menstrual cup and/or cloth pads instead of a disposable option. Switch to a zero-waste natural deodorant that is a plastic-free bar, in a tin or a jar, or make your own. Switch to zero-waste makeup brands that come in plastic-free packaging, refillable packaging, or make your own. You can also recycle used contact lenses and packaging. Bausch + Lomb and TerraCycle® joined together to create the ONE by ONE Recycling Program, the only sponsored contact lens recycling program in the U.S. Learn more here.

Find more ideas on the “Personal Care” page of the Plastic-Free Challenge.

Actions you can take in your community

By banding together with others in our community, we can have a significant impact on changing the habits that contribute to plastic waste. Consider these ideas.

  • Change the way you think about plastics. To get an idea of just how much plastic we use, estimate your plastic footprint by completing a plastic consumption calculator. Shift away from thinking of gifts as things, and instead give people memorable experiences. Consider supporting plastic ban legislation and petitions. Advocate for alternatives to single-use packaging at local grocery stores, markets or at work. Oh, and be sure to share your low-waste actions by posting about them to social media networks.
  • Support the sharing economy. Join a community tool library or toy library. If you need a new mower, consider going in on one with some neighbors so that each household doesn’t have to purchase a mower of its own. Lots of businesses will also rent you items that you need to use only occasionally.
  • Other actions to take. Ditch the use of disposable decorations such as balloons and plastic table coverings for special occasions. Donate zero waste menstrual products to local support organizations in order to reduce the financial burden for the needy. Avoid using glitter, a micro-plastic that can end up in our food chain because plankton and shellfish ingest it. And if you see plastic litter, take a moment to pick it up and dispose of it.

Find more ideas on the “Community” page of the Plastic-Free Challenge.

Father and son picking up garbage

Actions you can take with your kids

The future depends on the young, so help instill a plastic-free mentality in your kids. You’ll find that they’ll be eager to help.

  • Start with a conversation. Talk to your kids about plastic pollution and how to move toward a plastic-free life. And extend that conversation to your partner. Talk about how you can avoid items marketed to first-time parents and instead use or refurbish items you already have, or get them from friends or family.
  • Provide daily plastic-free alternatives for your kids. From straws to cutlery, bar soap, bamboo toothbrushes and more, many plastic items can easily be replaced. For example, instead of using plastic bottles, replace them with glass or stainless steel alternatives. Switch to reusable squeeze pouches vs. disposable plastic pouches. Use cloth diapers instead of single-use plastic ones.
  • Change how you think about toys. Make thoughtful toy purchases – buy cloth, wooden or plant-based natural rubber toys, or make your own from repurposed items found in the home. You might also consider borrowing toys for your kids instead of buying new. The Minneapolis Toy Library and the Lending Closet of Hopkins, Minnesota provide great options.
  • Adopt plastic-free school routines. Reuse school supplies for back to school, or shop secondhand before buying new. Pack waste-free lunches with reusable cutlery, drinkware and reusable containers to reduce plastic waste.

Find more ideas on the “Kids” page of the Plastic-Free Challenge.

Baby wearing cloth diaper

Actions you can take regarding your pets

Our pets bring a lot of joy into our lives – and quite a bit of plastic into our homes. Here’s what you can do about that.

  • Feed without plastic. Buy pet food in bulk, and store it in reusable containers. Prepare homemade treats – avoid buying ones that come in plastic packaging.
  • Treat pet waste responsibly. Invest in a pooper scooper, replacing single-use plastic bags to clean up your yard. Buy bulk kitty litter from area pet stores.
  • Clean and groom without plastic. Replace your plastic bottle of pet shampoo with a shampoo bar. Clean up pet hair with reusable lint brushes or a vacuum to remove pet hair from clothes, carpets and furniture.
  • Choose all-natural pet toys. Instead of using cheap plastic toys, find ones made from wool, hemp or cotton. Or make your own toys from repurposed items found in your home.
  • Buy used pet supplies. Purchase secondhand water/food dishes, collars or leashes and other pet supplies. Many former pet owners have unused, perfectly useable pet supplies just sitting around their homes, which your pet will gladly put to use.

Find more ideas on the “Pets” page of the Plastic-Free Challenge.

Puppy with toy

The time to act is now

Plastic isn’t bad. It provides various benefits for society. But in order to achieve a sustainable future, we need to reduce our use of plastic. Each of us has a part to play in this effort.

Don’t feel bad if you can’t follow every recommendation in this guide. The important thing is to start taking positive actions right away and to turn those actions into habits. Working together to reduce our use of plastic, we’ll help to prevent pollution by lessening the amount of new raw materials used to manufacture plastic. We’ll save energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from manufacturing and disposing of plastics. In the process, we as individuals can also save money by adopting low-waste habits.

Remember, you’re not alone. We’re here to help. Learn more at Choose to Reuse.