A Self-Sorting Home Recycling System

I was looking for a convenient way to sort recyclables that was easy to access from my kitchen, but didn’t take up a lot of valuable space. Nothing seemed to fit the bill, so I decided to give it a go and see if I could come up with a clever solution that would make this task seem more like play than work. Spoiler alert – it worked!

There’s probably a zillion variations on this theme, but for everyone who has bins littering their entryways, mudrooms and back porches, these ideas might come in handy.

OK – a little context. We live in a semi-rural community where sorted recycling is a requirement. It takes a little more mindfulness up front, but in the big picture makes a whole lot of sense. Co-mingling goods results in a lot of contamination and makes it hard to process. The industry as a whole is struggling with this fact and one of the best ways we can keep our resources in circulation is by keeping them organized and clean. I’ve chosen to write about this topic now, because China (the primary global purchaser of recyclables) has recently increased its requirements for clean waste. Without a buyer, many of our municipalities are being forced to send their ‘low-grade’ recyclables to the landfill.

How does it work? We used two different methods for sorting our waste into separate bins. Both work by transporting the items through a wall into a small utility room that is accessed from the outside. Therefore, the bins don’t take up any room in the living space and can be easily loaded into a nearby vehicle when needed. For bulky items, we used a series of magnetic flaps that open when pressure is applied and then snap closed to provide an air seal. For smaller items we used a series of sloping tubes for conveying metals and glass into their respective bins. In all, we needed (8) different bins for glass, metal, plastic and paper products.

Here’s a diagram of the bin layout:

Because our utility room was only 3 feet wide, we stacked the bins in an undulating pattern vertically. The long tubes (made out of 4″ PVC pipe) feed the top and bottom containers while flaps feed bulkier items into the middle row. We used standard ‘Rubbermaid’ containers as they are both cheap and really tough. By using ones that were all the same size, we didn’t need to worry about labeling which is which. Each time we do the recycling, we just shuffle them around.

For the tubes, I experimented with a few different angles and found that 20 degrees was the right slope for items to slide down, but slowly enough to keep glass from shattering at the bottom end. Believe it or not, a 4″ pipe can handle most containers. Pictured below, you can see a large juice jar just fits. Cans and wine bottles are no problem… There’s something childishly satisfying about putting things into the right slot and seeing them woosh away.

To help visitors (and the absent-minded) I put some magnetic label holders on the fridge next to the bins. These are easy to come by if you know to look for them and make it easy to adjust your sorting over time. We just printed out paper labels to slip into the label sleeves.

Here’s a few of the labels clustered together for context.

The magnetic flaps are made from 1/8″ x 1 1/4″ steel flat bar that I welded into a simple frame and painted black. The magnet flaps are made from ‘sign magnet’ material (the stuff that is used for applying advertising to the side of your car). It’s pretty inexpensive and can easily be cut by a razor to the right dimension. The material is white on one side and black on the other. The black side is the magnetic surface and virtually disappears under the shadow of the upper cabinet where we have it installed. This solution is low-tech. The material is screwed to the front face at the top of the opening and covered by the metal frame. The flexibility of the material provides the hinging action when the flap is opened. After a while (in my case a few years), the material cracks at the top and needs to be replaced. So, I recommend buying some extra magnet material when you order it.

Operable magnetic flaps in action

Here again, you’ll see the same magnetic labels applied to the steel framework. The center opening is the width of the bin so that the three flaps align to containers below.

Staggering the rows of bins saves space

Above is an image of how the bin stacking works. Some scrap OSB serves as support ledges for the row of bins above and the three layers all support one another. That allows us to easily unload the whole room without any shelving or supports getting in our way.

Aligning the bins with a wall bracket

When building the system, I needed an easy way to support the bins AND make sure that they were properly aligned to the drop points feeding them. The solution was to weld two pieces of steel angle together and mount them on the wall. The metal tabs fit nicely into the underside of the bins’ handles and serve as both a means of support and alignment. Gravity holds them in place, so it’s an easy thing to remove and replace them when needed.

Other tips: For the tubes, I bought a hole saw slightly larger than the diameter of the pipe. It made the construction really clean and simple to do. As we have (9) bins and only (8) different kinds of recycling, we use the extra bin for mixed paper (it fills up twice as fast as the others). That allows me to swap out the full bin for the spare when needed and extend the time between disposal trips. Occasionally something will get stuck in a tube (usually, it’s the flat end of a metal can). I found a cleaning tool that looks like a canon plunger. It clears the passage in a few seconds.

If you’re up for spending a little bit of time up front to create a system that is easy to maintain then this solution works really well.