Published 4 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
Image: Gervyn Louis
Many people think because they’re recycling, they’re being earth-friendly, but the reality is that over one-third of what people in the US try to recycle can’t be recycled. So, before you start trying to reduce your personal footprint by throwing everything into your recycling bin, be sure you’re up to speed on what — and how — to recycle.
Many people think because they’re recycling, they’re being earth-friendly, but
the reality is that over one-third of what people in the US try to recycle can’t
This means facilities are bombarded with items such as greasy pizza boxes,
unemptied cleaning products, take-out food containers and plastic utensils —
items either soiled by food or liquid, or that aren’t recyclable in the first
Some items are placed in the bin with the hope that they’ll be recycled or
reused. This is known as “wish-cycling.” Examples include wire coat hangers, old
clothes and plastic toys — all of these items could be reused if donated, but
they won’t find a new home if you put them in your recycling bin.
So, before you start trying to reduce your personal footprint by throwing
everything into your recycling bin, be sure you’re up to speed and know what —
and how — to recycle.
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What does belong in the recycling bin? There are four main categories of
Paper and cardboard
Metal cans including aluminum
Plastic bottles and jugs (leave the caps on or throw them away — they’re too
small to recycle by themselves)
Glass (not always — check your local provider)
The next thing to remember is that recyclables should be empty, clean
and dry. Recyclables should be rinsed out and dried, so they don’t
contaminate other items. Don’t allow more than one teaspoon of liquid to remain
in a recyclable container.
Even when an item is recyclable, such as a soup can or plastic ketchup bottle,
any remaining food or liquid becomes a problem. When those items come into
contact with clean recyclables, that leftover chicken noodle soup will saturate
otherwise good paper and cardboard. This is known as contamination, and once it
happens, perfectly recyclable items become trash and wind up in the landfill.
Also, be sure to keep those recyclables loose. Never bag or bundle — items
should be placed in the bin individually. The sorting process at a recycling
center happens quickly, and most of what is bagged or bundled ends up in the
garbage because sorters cannot see the contents. And plastic bags should never
go in household recycling. They can get caught in the machinery, which causes
delays or even damage.
Finally, remember that materials are recyclable when they’re by themselves.
Paper envelopes are recyclable, but padded envelopes — which are paper lined
with plastic bubble wrap — are not. Likewise, cardboard is recyclable, but
cardboard toy packaging with a plastic window is not — unless you separate the
Here are the best ways to handle some common household items:
Diapers: Clean or dirty, diapers don’t belong in the recycling bin. Throw
Electronics: These items require special handling (and ideally, a
fundamental shift in product
to make them more easily recyclable) and shouldn’t go in your curbside bin. More
and more phone carriers — including Apple and Sprint — are offering recycling
for smartphones, and Goodwill offers free
for any brand of used computer equipment at nearly 2,000 locations across the
US, but getting rid of end-of-life electronics in an environmentally friendly
way can still be confounding. Find more information at
If they’re still working, donate them for reuse.
Foam packing material: Reuse foam packing peanuts in your own shipments, or
be more eco-friendly by using shredded or crumpled paper. Some shipping stores
will accept foam packing peanuts for reuse.
Food scraps and yard waste: Food and yard clippings can be composted at home
or where commercial or municipal composting
service is available.
They don’t belong in the recycling container.
Paper coffee cups: Those paper cups are coated with
so they’re not recyclable. The cardboard sleeve can be recycled, though. Better
yet, reduce waste by bringing your own cup.
Plastic bags: Plastic bags never belong in curbside recycling – they can
tangle and jam the sorting equipment. Reuse them or take them back to the store
to be commercially recycled — or shop with your own reusable bags.
Teach your kids, teach a friend and remember — by following these basic
guidelines, we can do our part to reduce waste and protect our environment. For more simple recycling tips, visit
Published Apr 26, 2019 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 1pm BST / 2pm CEST
Pete Keller is VP of Recycling and Sustainability at Republic Services, based in Arizona.