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7 items you didn’t know you could recycle

No more excuses! There are ways to recycle even the most unlikely household items, like old sneakers, mattresses and outdated VCR players. Chip Giller and Katharine Wroth from environmental magazine “Grist” provide tips and resources.
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Sure, you know how to recycle newspapers and soda bottles. But what about that old stuff that’s cluttering up your closets and your basement — is there an eco-friendly way to get rid of some of that? Yes, say Chip Giller and Katharine Wroth from environmental magazine “Grist.” They’ve got tips and resources for green ways to get rid of everyday items you no longer need.

1. Athletic shoes

Got a pair (or a pile) of old sneakers that are too worn out to give to charity? Nike will recycle any brand of athletic shoe through its Reuse-a-Shoe program. You can drop shoes off at any Niketown store or Nike Factory store; the company also has other drop-off spots, and if there’s not one near you, you can mail shoes in. (Get details on the .) The company processes and recycles the footwear to make sports surfaces for basketball courts, tennis courts, running tracks and playgrounds. Right now they’re collecting shoes to make athletic surfaces for New Orleans, to help bring youth sports back to the city as it rebuilds. To date, about 20 million pairs of athletic shoes worldwide have been recycled through the Reuse-A-Shoe program.

2. “Techno-trash”

As you upgrade your technology, you find yourself saddled with outdated items: VHS tapes, game cartridges, digital cameras, MP3 players, cords, cables, cassettes — not to mention bigger items like VCRs and computer monitors. Fortunately, there’s a company that will take it all from you and reprocess it in an eco-friendly way: GreenDisk. Mail your “techno-trash” to the company and they’ll take care of the disposal. The cost starts at $6.95 for 20 pounds of equipment — a small price to pay to relieve your conscience (and your closet!).

3. Computers

Computers contain a number of harmful chemicals, so it’s important to make sure they’re properly recycled.  Most major computer manufacturers now offer some type of recycling program. Dell will recycle any Dell product for free, and if you buy a new Dell, they’ll recycle any other brand of computer for free. Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, Apple and Toshiba also have recycling programs — check their Web sites for details.

You can also find independent recyclers who meet high standards for eco-friendliness and safe labor conditions through the Computer TakeBack Campaign. The campaign also has a detailed analysis of manufacturers’ recycling programs, explaining how all they all work and what the costs are. 

4. Mattresses

In most areas of the country, you can’t recycle your mattresses, and they’re even hard to give away — charities like Goodwill often refuse to take them. But remember that “recycle” has another R-word counterpart: “reuse.” If your mattress is in usable condition, you can probably find it a good home through the Freecycle Network. It’s an Internet community with chapters all over the country, in which people offer up items they no longer want and other people happily take them. The online bulletin board Craigslist also has a section where you can offer things for free to people in your area. In fact, you can get rid of just about any usable item (and some items you didn’t even think were usable) via Freecycle and Craigslist, and you can find some great free stuff for yourself, too.

5. Handheld devices

If you feel the need to get a new gizmo (and remember, an upgrade isn’t always necessary), don’t just chuck the old one. Small electronics are full of big toxics. Instead, drop off your old cell phones, pagers and PDAs at Staples stores around the country. The company has partnered with nonprofit CollectiveGood, which collects and recycles the phones. When possible, CollectiveGood refurbishes them and puts them to use in developing countries. Otherwise, the phones and other items are broken down in an eco-friendly process and the metals are separated out for reuse or proper disposal. If there’s not a Staples store near you, you can mail your phone to the CollectiveGood — and even get a tax credit for the donation. 

6. Dry-cleaning hangers and plastic

Wondering how to get rid of all those wire hangers from the dry cleaner? Some dry cleaners will take them back and reuse them, and some tailors and alteration shops will take them as well — so just ask. And what about all that plastic that comes back from the dry cleaner? In some cities, you can recycle it right along with other plastic bags. And some dry cleaners will take the plastic back and make sure it’s recycled. So yes, there are solutions, but here’s a note of caution to all you dry-cleaning fans: The process uses a harmful chemical known as “perc” that is a suspected carcinogen and has been outlawed in some areas. What to do? Look for cleaners who offer “wet cleaning,” consider hand-washing some garments, or better yet, avoid buying clothes labeled “dry clean only.”

7. Soiled glass and plastic

It seems like a silly question, but it’s one people wonder about: Can you recycle a beer bottle even if a lime wedge is stuck in the bottom? What about those last bits of peanut butter in the jar? The answer to both is a qualified yes: Put the items in with your regular recycling, and the recycling plant should be able to remove most contaminants. Paper recycling, however, is a more delicate process (which is why pizza boxes are a no-no). And in general, the cleaner your recyclables are, the less energy it’ll take to process them. We’ll drink to that.

Chip Giller is president of and Katharine Wroth is the magazine's story editor.