Do you know the 3 inch rule of recycling?

Why small plastics are a problem and smart solutions

5 minute read

Do you know the 3 inch rule of recycling?

We’ve all been guilty of discarding the wrong items into the recycling bin either because we didn’t have the time to research it beforehand or we simply thought it was the right thing to do. But like everything in the recycling world these days, it’s often difficult to know exactly what can and cannot be recycled, especially since rules are different in each community and what’s recyclable in one could be garbage in another. 

Did you know that small plastics measuring 3 inches or less in diameter should not be recycled?

This includes plastic bottle caps that are found on shampoo containers, soda bottles, milk, and water containers; some deodorant cap containers; caps on tubes such as toothpaste and condiments; lids that cover products like peanut butter and pickles; dental floss picks; laundry detergent covers; bread bag clips, and pill container caps. 

Bottle caps are a particular problem for the environment

There are a few reasons that the under-3-inch pieces are a problem:

  1. The items, because of their size, can get lost in between the belts and gears of the recycling equipment and end up in the landfill anyway.
  1. These smaller parts are made from a different type of plastic called polypropylene or PP (plastic #5), which has a different melting point and can only be recycled in a specialized facility that many municipalities do not have access to.
  1. Non-biodegradable bottle caps pose a real danger to animal life, especially marine animals, such as fish, sea turtles, sea birds, dolphins, sharks, and others, who look on a floating cap as an easy meal.

On beaches in Hawaii, plastic caps have been among the top 10 items washed up from ocean, prompting the state to step up its beach debris awareness campaign.

Even in landfills, caps can be a problem for passing seagulls that typically scavenge through the trash heaps looking for food.

What to do with small plastics and other items that are 3 inches or less

It doesn’t have to be a hopeless situation. There are guilt-free ways to discard these and other similar small plastic items, or even reuse them in our homes. Here are some ideas that we think you’ll love.

Used bottle caps can be turned into fridge magnets and bulletin board pins. Given their universal nature, they can also be used on empty bottles around the house that need a top.

Kids might also want to incorporate them into cool arts and crafts projects at home.

Purchasing products from companies that run their own free recycling programs is a great move toward zero waste.

Participating companies like Arm & Hammer, Aussie, Barilla, Bausch & Lomb, BIC Stationery, Burt’s Bees, Colgate, Dial, and Gatorade work with TerraCycle, a global leader in dealing with hard-to-recycle waste streams. Free shipping is available.

Order a Zero Waste Box from TerraCycle, a paid recycling solution that is perfect for recycling bottle caps and other #5 small plastics products.

Small plastics like disposable pens can be recycled safely using BIC’s recycling program or by sending them to The Pen Guy Recycling Program.

There are many clever ways to reuse hard-to-recycle small plastic lids.

We really love the idea of using soda lids as homemade checkers or Bingo markers. Plus, there are numerous ways to use them around the house too — try removing dried food from your non-stick skillet, scraping ice off your car windows, or using them as sink stoppers in your kitchen or bath.

Pumps and droppers that are used widely for essential oils are both small and difficult to recycle because they are made from different materials. TerraCycle has partnered with a variety of beauty brands like Dermalogica, The Body Shop, Burt’s Bees, Jurlique and others to handle these hard-to-recycle small plastics.

When it comes to disposable tea bags, many of them contain a combination of paper and plastic (polypropylene), which makes them hard to recycle. The wrappers they come in are also problematic. However, you can put them to good use around your home by emptying out the tea and combining it with baking soda to deodorize carpet, fridge, and shoe odors; combining the old tea with warm water and applying to wood floors and furniture for a brilliant-looking shine, even using them as beauty fixes. 

Preventative measures to reduce small plastics and other small-sized waste from our homes

Reducing small plastics in our everyday lives is a good first step toward establishing an eco-friendlier environment close to home. Here are some ideas that we like and try to use ourselves.  

  • Using reusable drinking bottles eliminates the need to purchase a plastic bottle of water or soda, thereby eliminating the unwanted waste.
  • Getting a three-month supply of pills as opposed to a monthly subscription is a great way to cut back on the number of prescription bottles in our medicine cabinets. Plus, it reduces the number of small lids that end up in the waste heap.
  • Eliminating shampoo containers and purchasing shampoo bars is a novel way to rid our homes of the plastic bottles and their hard-to-recycle caps.
  • Considering cardboard deodorant sticks or deodorant bars instead of the traditional containers that they come in is a good way to avoid unwanted waste.  
  • Ditching the commonly found plastic dental floss picks and choosing a plant-based option instead. 

We’re all trying to do our best for the environment, and we’re always learning and adopting new ways as to how we can help.