Let’s face it: We humans produce a whole lot of waste. Even if we’re quite environmentally conscious, it’s really hard to completely eliminate trash from our daily lives.
So, whether it’s food waste, glass bottles, scrap metals, or single-use plastic bags, finding a way to deal with all of this garbage is of the utmost importance.
Being able to reuse and repurpose your garbage can make a big difference if you’re cut off from the supply chain and don’t have access to consumer products for an extended period of time.
Plus, managing waste becomes even more critical in a SHTF situation where municipal sanitation services aren’t up and running.
Unfortunately, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there on how to properly recycle, particularly in a long-term emergency situation. So, to get you started, here’s your ultimate guide to recycling for preppers, complete with top tips for dealing with trash when SHTF.
Table of Contents
Recycling And Waste Management during SHTF
During an emergency, recycling probably isn’t the most important thing on your mind. Instead, food, water, shelter, and medical supplies are probably at the top of your list.
But, once you deal with your family’s immediate needs and ensure that you have enough food to survive, it’s time to start looking at your long-term living situation.
Unless your current living situation is entirely self-sufficient, chances are pretty high that you rely on your town’s sanitation services to take away your trash and recycling.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this (that’s what these services are for!), but in a long-term SHTF scenario, it’s unlikely that your local garbage truck is going to swing by your neighborhood on recycling day.
But, just because your local infrastructure has collapsed doesn’t mean you’re no longer producing waste.
In fact, according to the EPA, the average American produces around 4.51lbs (2.05kg) of solid waste per day. So, if you have to bug into your house for 30 days with a family of 5, you can expect to produce a whopping 676.5lbs (306.86kg) of waste during that time.
As you can imagine, managing nearly 700 lbs of solid waste is no simple feat. Thankfully, there’s a way to reduce the amount of trash we produce, and convert it into something that’s actually useful from a survival perspective.
The answer? Recycling.
What Is Recycling?
Simply put, recycling is the process of taking trash and turning it into a new product. When an item gets recycled, its raw materials are used to create something entirely different.
This helps to minimize the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills and reduces the amount of raw materials that we need to extract from the Earth to produce new items.
Who Invented Recycling?
It turns out that recycling has been around for millennia. As far back as the ancient Greeks (if not longer), humans have recycled their trash, particularly during tough times. Recycling allowed our ancestors to reuse materials to create new items when they didn’t have the resources to acquire raw materials.
During the Middle Ages, people were known to take scrap metals and melt them down for continuous reuse. Plus, as early as 1031, people in Japan were recycling paper in an attempt to conserve raw materials.
This trend continued, even throughout the start of the Industrial Revolution. In 1813, Benjamin Law created a way to turn rags into new wool textiles by reclaiming recycled fibers from old fabrics.
Indeed, as the world became more industrialized, more affordable, recycled materials became increasingly important.
Schweppes was actually one of the first companies to start an unofficial recycling program, offering a refundable deposit on returned containers as early as 1800 as a way to save money on bottle production.
Recycling or “salvaging” later became even more important during World War II when governments struggled to get enough materials to supply their militaries.
However, modern recycling got its start in the 1970s as a result of ever-rising energy costs. For example, recycling a metal like aluminum uses just 5% of the energy that would be needed to create it from bauxite – its raw material.
These rising energy costs spurred a wave of new recycling efforts, including a competition held by the Container Corporation of America in 1970 to design a logo for recycled paper.
The winning logo – that green 3 arrow triangle – is still in use to this day and has been instrumental in getting more people to recycle in their daily lives.
The Benefits of Recycling
As we can see, humans have understood the importance of recycling for thousands of years, and for good reason. Recycling provides a whole host of benefits, including:
- Reducing the amount of trash that ends up in landfills
- Saving energy in the extraction of raw materials
- Conserving our natural resources for long-term use
For preppers, recycling is even more important. In a long-term disaster scenario, recycling will allow you to:
- More easily manage the amount of waste you produce
- Reuse valuable raw materials to create other essential items
- Turn organic matter and food waste into a way to grow crops
- Keep your home and living spaces clean, even without access to modern sanitation
How To Recycle At Home
Knowing how to recycle is critical for surviving off-the-grid for weeks, months, or years on end. However, there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what you can and can’t recycle.
So, up next, I’ll discuss some of the basics of recycling different materials and offer some advice for managing your waste production when SHTF.
Standard Recycling Best Practices
Before I dive into advice on managing waste when you’re bugging in for the long term, I want to talk a bit about best practices for recycling in our regular day-to-day lives.
Unfortunately, recycling is one of those things that’s often misunderstood and underutilized, even when we have access to municipal waste management services.
In fact, in the United States, we recycle and compost only 35% of our waste. This means that 65% of our trash ends up sitting in a landfill or dump, wasting raw materials that could be used for something else.
However, recycling systems vary widely from place to place, so it’s impossible to give you specific information about how the process works in your location. But, there are some general guidelines that we can all follow, regardless of where we live.
Here’s what you need to know to recycle responsibly…
Look For The Recycling Symbol
If an item (other than office paper and mail) is recyclable, it will almost certainly have the recycling symbol on it. Check with your local waste management service to see what kinds of materials they accept so you know what to put in your recycling bin.
Everything Needs To Be Clean
Most recycling centers can’t accept dirty containers or anything with food inside. In fact, one dirty container can contaminate an entire truckload of recyclable materials, causing the whole batch to end up in a landfill. So, please rinse out all of your containers.
Dry All Containers
In general, recyclable materials need to be dry before they’re sent to a waste management center. Additionally, most locations can’t accept wet paper or cardboard, so ensure everything is dry before putting it in the recycling bin.
Don’t Bag Your Recyclables
Although there are a few exceptions to this rule, depending on where you live, your recyclables generally shouldn’t be put in a bag.
Plus, every item needs to be placed in the container individually and not packed together. This is because packing together items makes it difficult for machines to sort them out and send them to the right place for processing.
Mixed Materials Are Trash
Unfortunately, mixed materials (such as shipping envelopes with bubble wrap or cardboard boxes) can’t be recycled. But, if you have an envelope with one of those little plastic windows, you can simply remove the plastic and recycle the paper as you normally would.
Flatten Your Boxes
Although it takes a bit of time, it’s important to flatten out all cardboard boxes. Doing so is better for transportation, and allows more items to fit in a single container.
Plastic Bags And Styrofoam Require Special Care
Most municipal recycling services can’t accept plastic bags or styrofoam through curbside pick-up. However, these materials are recyclable if your town has the right equipment.
Check with your local waste management organization to see if they’ll accept drop-offs of styrofoam and plastic bags at their warehouse. Additionally, many grocery stores now accept plastic bags for recycling, which might be more convenient.
Motor Oil Is Recyclable
Whenever a car gets an oil change, it produces a lot of waste. But, it is possible to recycle motor oil. In fact, one gallon of used motor oil can be turned into 2.5 quarts of new oil while it takes 42 gallons of crude oil to get the same results. Most garages and auto-supply stores will accept oil for recycling, so get in touch to see what they offer.
Glass Is One Of The Best Recyclables
Unlike other materials, like plastic and metal, glass can be recycled over and over again. Plus, it’s generally cheaper to make new glass from recycled materials than it is to start from scratch.
If your town doesn’t offer curbside glass pick-up, you can usually drop your bottles off at a grocery store and get a 5 cent refund back per item.
Don’t Forget To Compost!
These days, quite a few municipalities offer composting programs for food scraps. However, even if your town doesn’t accept food waste, they probably accept yard waste through curbside pick-up.
Alternatively, you can start your own compost pile (more on that in a bit) to turn your biodegradable scraps into an organic fertilizer for your garden.
Recycling During (Long-Term) Emergencies
When disaster strikes, being able to reuse and recycle trash is essential. If our regular supply chains are disrupted, we just won’t have access to many of the products that we’re so accustomed to using in our daily lives, so it’s important that we find a use for every item in our possession.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t a lot of information out there to help preppers recycle and repurpose garbage during a long-term emergency.
Having the skills to reuse your trash can make a huge difference in your ability to survive if the economy collapses, war breaks out, or if you’re stuck at home for months on end.
So, here are some of the ways that you can recycle and repurpose garbage when SHTF…
As I’ve mentioned, glass is a great material for recycling because it can be created into new items over and over again without any loss of quality. But, if you’re bugging in, curbside glass recycling isn’t very likely.
Thankfully, there are a lot of great uses for glass jars and bottles. These are some of your options:
- Reuse Them As Containers. The most obvious use for a glass jar is to reuse it as a storage container, candle holder, or drinking glass. Doing so requires little effort beyond simply cleaning out the container, so it’s a good all-around option for reusing a jar.
- Turn Jars Into Planting Pots. Glass jars actually make pretty decent planting pots, particularly for herbs and succulents. However, the main drawback of glass containers is that they don’t have drainage holes at the bottom. That being said, herbs like lavender, sage, basil, cilantro, and thyme are all great options for growing in jars. Just be sure to fill the container with stones to stop your herbs from drowning if you over-water them.
- Melt The Glass And Create Something New. One of the best aspects of glass is that it’s endlessly recyclable. In fact, you can even melt glass at home to create new items like floor tiles or windows. To melt large quantities of glass, you will need a kiln. But, if you already have one for pottery, then the possibilities are truly endless for what you can make when you start working with glass.
- Use Glass As An Alarm System. Finally, you can create perimeter alarms with glass containers to alert you to any trespassers or intruders. You can even cement broken glass to the top of a brick wall as an alternative to barbed wire.
These days, plastic containers are everywhere, so finding a way to reuse them for survival is a good idea. Here are some ideas:
- Reuse Them As Containers. Just like glass bottles, plastic jars and containers can easily be reused to hold something else. If you have a lot of food-grade plastic containers, these can be washed out, dried, and then reused for long-term food storage.
- Make A Planter Garden. One of the main advantages of plastic is that you can poke holes into it. So, while glass jars are best for herbs and succulents, you can make a large planter garden using pretty much any plastic container, from a large soda bottle to a milk jug. Some particularly large plastic containers, like 5 gallon buckets, can also be used to grow crops like potatoes and tomatoes.
- Create A Basket. Larger hard plastic containers, like those used for laundry detergent, can be cut open and turned into a basket. All you need to do is create straps out of webbing or wire, and then you have an easy-to-use carrying system.
- Use Containers To Gather Water. If you’re running low on drinking water, you can leave out a collection of large plastic containers to try and catch rainwater during a storm.
- Make Eco-Bricks. Plastic bottles can actually be used in construction. If you have a lot of those large soda bottles, you can fill them up with clean, dry plastic wrappers. Once the bottle is tightly packed, it can be sealed up with its cap, and then used to make walls and buildings. For more detailed information on making eco-bricks, check out this guide from WasteAid.
- Create Fishing Traps. A large plastic bottle can be turned into a fish trap in just a few minutes. All you need to do is cut a small window into the side of the bottle, punch a few holes to allow water to drain, and place bait into the container. Tie string or fishing line around the mouth of the bottle and place it in the water. Wait 5-10 minutes, then reel in the bottle to retrieve any fish you may have caught inside!
- Make Grow Bags For Crops. If you don’t have a lot of farmable outdoor space, you can make your own portable garden using grow bags. Grow bags are basically large plastic bags that are used for growing plants. Tomatoes, potatoes, and salad greens all tend to grow well in them. Large Ikea bags or other heavy-duty reusable shopping bags are ideal. Just don’t forget to poke a few holes in the bag to allow the soil to drain and breathe.
Paper is one of the most commonly used materials in our day to day lives. It’s also one of the most useful in a survival situation. These are some of the things you can do with any spare paper or cardboard you might have lying around:
Start A Fire
Perhaps the most obvious option is to use the paper or cardboard as kindling to start a fire. This is very useful if your wood is wet, but be sure not to go overboard and burn all of your valuable paper in one go.
Use It For Insulation
Flattening out and taping thick cardboard boxes to the walls of a room can really help with insulation.
Cardboard is especially effective as insulation if you sandwich aluminum foil in-between to help trap in heat. This can also be used to cover up windows in your home to stop heat from leaking out.
People have been turning paper into concrete for over a century because it’s one of the easiest ways to make durable building materials. Plus, papercrete is a great insulator against the cold.
Newspapers are the material of choice for papercrete, but pretty much any form of paper will work.
To make papercrete bricks, you tear up paper into thin strips, soak it in water for a couple of days, and then mix it with a paint mixer to turn it into a pulp.
This pulp can then be combined with Portland cement, and set into molds to create bricks. Once the bricks have dried, they can be used for nearly any building project around your home.
Create Seed-Starting Pots
Paper is a great material for making seed-starting pots because it biodegrades quickly. Making seed-starting pots out of newspaper takes just a few minutes, and is a great way to improve the likelihood that you’ll see a good yield from your crops.
To make these mini biodegradable pots, do the following:
- Gather some newspaper. You’ll need one sheet of newspaper for each pot that you want to create. You will also need a can, moistened soil, and a tray.
- Fold the piece of newspaper lengthwise (the long way). Press down along the folded edge to get a good seam.
- Take the can and set it down on its side at one end of the piece of newspaper. Make sure there is a distance of about 2 inches (5cm) from the cut edge of the newspaper to the base of the can. This excess newspaper will eventually form the bottom of the can.
- Roll the newspaper around the can. This should create a cylinder.
- Flip over the can and the newspaper so the cut edge is facing upward. Then, fold the newspaper inward to create the base of the pot. This process is similar to what you’d do when sealing off the bottom of a roll of coins.
- Remove the can and fold over the upper edges of the newspaper to form a stable pot rim.
- Fill the pot with moistened soil.
- Repeat steps 2-7 for every pot you want to make.
- Place your seed pots on a tray with holes at the bottom. An old plastic take-out container with holes poked into it works well for this.
- Plant your seeds, water frequently, and transfer them to your garden when they’re ready.
Depending on the tools you have at your disposal, metal can be one of the most versatile materials in a survival situation. Here are some ideas:
- Create Animal Traps. Wire coat hangers can be turned into improvised snares or traps for hunting small game.
- Build A Grill. You can weave the wire from metal coat hangers together with minimal equipment to build yourself a grill that can be used over a campfire to cook your food.
- Melt Down Metal To Create Something New. If you have a foundry at home and some experience working with metals, you can turn scrap materials into blades and other useful tools for use around your home. In the long-term, you can even trade these products with others to get other essential items.
- Make A Small Stove. Beer and soda cans can be converted into a tiny stove that can burn alcohol and spirits to prepare food. “Beer can stoves” are really popular among ultralight backpackers but are also useful for cooking when SHTF:
As I’ve mentioned, styrofoam isn’t very easy to recycle because many waste management centers won’t accept it. But, styrofoam has many other uses that can be really helpful in a disaster situation. These are some options:
- Start A Fire. When mixed with a bit of gasoline, styrofoam turns into a sticky, highly flammable material that will burn very slowly. This makes it a good option for a fire starter, especially in wet conditions.
- Insulation. One of the main uses of styrofoam is as an insulator. If you’re looking to better insulate your home during a wintertime emergency, you can sandwich styrofoam between two large pieces of cardboard and then tape it against windows and walls for added heat retention.
- Make Knee Pads. Styrofoam is quite strong, so it can be used to insulate and pad your knees if you’re going to do a lot of gardening or kneeling on the ground. You can create straps for these knee pads, or just strap them to your pants using duct tape.
- Use It To Cast Metal. You can build a mold for knives, tools, or other objects using styrofoam that can later be turned into metal. Once you have your mold, you bury it in a bucket of sand and then melt down aluminum cans in your foundry. The molten aluminum is poured into the sand, where it liquefies the styrofoam, and creates a perfectly casted metal object in just a few minutes.
The last major category of garbage that we can recycle is organic waste. If you’re looking to live off of the grid or start a garden, you’re probably already quite familiar with the concept of composting.
Composting organic matter can help you make your soil more fertile for gardening and growing crops. Most home composting bins and systems can handle organic waste such as:
- Fruit and vegetable scraps
- Coffee grounds
- Wood chips and shredded newspaper
- Grass clippings
- Sawdust (from untreated food)
However, most basic home composting systems aren’t ideal for meat and bones because they can attract animals and slow down the composting process. But, you can build yourself a solar digester, which is capable of breaking down meat scraps into useable fertilizer.
Alternatively, buying a composting kit is a good way to compost any organic material (including meat and bones) if you live in a small home or apartment.
Recycling For Survival
Recycling might not be high on your list of things to do when SHTF, but it’s a critical skill to have if you want to make the most of limited resources in an emergency. This is particularly true if a disaster turns into a long-term survival scenario where you’re cut off from the supply chain.
Learning how to recycle properly as well as how to rebuild, repair, and repurpose materials can make a huge difference when you need to bug in for an extended period of time.
Ultimately, recycling has been part of human survival for millenia and is an essential tool for living off the grid for months or years on end.
Gaby is a wilderness survival expert, mountaineering guide, and professional outdoor educator, with specialties that include firearms handling and wilderness medicine. She is also a freelance writer for a variety of outdoor and survival publications.