In a world full of choices it's often hard to know what's right. Frankly this applies to recycling too and surprisingly there are lots of options, so no wonder confusion is often cited as one of the biggest challenges people face. Here's a list (or hierarchy) that will hopefully help you make better choices next time you have an empty bottle or can:
[Ordered from worst to best, recognizing some aren't options everywhere]:
Litter - Obviously just tossing your garbage onto the street is not only illegal in most places but also really bad for our planet. It can end up, fairly quickly in our rivers and oceans, and ultimately break down to micro-plastics integrating into our biosphere and even our food chain. Litter also makes communities unsightly and is proven to lower real estate values
Landfill - Your next, slightly better, option is to throw that bottle in the garbage, which in most areas in the US ends up in a landfill. Unfortunately, you're wasting valuable resources and using more energy to bury them in the ground
Incineration - Some towns in the US ultimately incinerate their garbage, which at least recovers some energy from burning the materials. Most modern facilities use efficient, clean processes and reduce harmful emissions to levels comparable to fossil fuel generation
Composting - Some materials used in food packaging can be composted, such as PLA based plastics (made from corn) or special paper containers. Composting begins to close the loop on material reuse, but it can be hard to manage and packaging materials require higher temperatures only found in industrial scale compost operations which are often located at long distances from collection points
Curbside recycling - Putting your containers into your municipal recycling bins is where we start to see the better options. In nearly all markets recycled beverage bottles (usually #1 PET plastic) and aluminum cans are valuable materials and get recycled well. Unfortunately, contamination occurs and awareness about recycling is low, so residual materials do end up in landfills and some programs are struggling to remain open due to poor quality and yields
Curbside Recycling with Incentives & Education - Incentives are proven to significantly improve recycling rates and adoption ("yield") and better education, particularly at the "point of toss", can also improve the quality of materials and reduce contamination. At MeCycle we're focused on implementing these higher yield, higher quality solutions to dramatically improve recycling rates in the US.
Bottle deposit schemes - These create an incentive for consumers to return their beverage containers and have been quite effective since they were implemented in the late 70's and 80's. "Bottle Bill" recycling rates are nearly 2-3 x those seen in states without incentives but the programs are costly to manage, create "icky" storefront experiences at return areas and require extra energy use. New programs face huge resistance from bottlers as well as retailers due to the costs and even municipalities lobby against them because they divert the most valuable materials away from curbside programs
Bottle refills - One of the best options that effectively eliminates any waste is to reuse and refill the containers you buy your beverages in. In many parts of the world you bring your soda ("pop" as we called it) or beer bottles back to the store and they get returned to the bottlers to be cleaned and refilled. In Ontario, where I grew up, beer bottles are a bit heavier, so they break much less and usually have two scratched rings; one at the base, one below the neck; from years of grinding in "two four" cases or along bottling lines. This highlights some of the drawbacks however: more material use is costly and drives up energy use in distribution and return transport, while chipping is a growing concern as we become more sensitive around germs on surfaces. These programs also require significant infrastructure and logistical investment
At MeCycle we like to emphasize that the best solutions are the ones that create positive results while still being easy and cost effective to implement.