You may be sorting your paper from plastics and opting out of single-use straws, but even an environmentally conscious person might be recycling wrong. Here's exactly what to know to make sure you're making the most out of your waste.

By Alex Apatoff
April 22, 2019 07:59 AM
Activist sorting paper waste
Credit: Getty

Whether you’ve always been diligent about separating your recycling or horrifying photos of the effects global warming is having on our planet have recently spurred you to start carrying your own stainless-steel straw, there’s still a lot more all of us can do to recycle more efficiently. But there’s also a lot that can feel confusing about what can – and can’t – be recycled, and getting it wrong can result in contaminating a whole batch and sending it to a landfill.

So where to begin? Start simply, says Brent Bell, VP of Recycling for Waste Management. “The recycling rate for soda and water bottles is only 30 percent today, so let’s increase the rate of how we’re recycling the right items,” he says. “If you simplified it and did [just] paper, cardboard, bottles, and cans, but increased the recycling rate for those materials, that would be a great start.”

Ready to go a step further and really green your routine? We spoke to Bell, as well as Brett Stevens, Terracycle‘s Global VP, Material Sales & Procurement, and the press office for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to get the honest answers to some of the most asked-questions about recycling. (We asked for general guidelines that apply to much of the United States, but it’s important to check with your local municipality for any specific guidelines or restrictions; check or to get started.)

Can you recycle boxes with tape or labels on them?

Short answer: It’s not mandatory to remove the tape, but if you can, you should.

Many of us throw Amazon boxes in the recycling without a second thought – but is the packing tape creating a problem when it gets to a recycling plant? “One great way to help ensure materials are recycled is to remove any potentially non-recyclable materials, like plastic tape and labels from boxes,” says the EPA. “Many types of boxes are recyclable, but if it’s difficult to separate the different material types, the chances that it will be recycled are greatly reduced.”

Bell advises breaking boxes down just to save space in bins and encourage more cardboard recycling, and while he advises removing tape, he says it generally can still be processed: “We’d much rather get tape on a cardboard box than we would a slice of pizza.”

Can you recycle plastic food clamshells, like the ones berries and spinach come in?

Short answer: Usually not, but check your local specifications and remove labels and stickers.

“Food clamshells come in a variety of different material formats,” such as Styrofoam, “biodegradable” PLA plastic and more, says Terracycle’s Stevens. “The clear PET version can be put into your curbside bin only if it doesn’t have stickers and labels on it. The others cannot go into curbside recycling bins.”

Adds Bell, “Most programs don’t allow for food containers [like takeout dishes or tomato packaging] because those are both overall what we would classify as ‘hard to recycle’ material … The food becomes problematic with just the residue left over that could cause contamination with good recycling materials that are in that same bin.”

Credit: Getty

What about plastic bottles with caps on them?

Short answer: Yes, recycle away!

Even though the bottle and its cap are made out of two different kinds of plastic, “it is perfectly fine to leave plastic caps on your plastic bottles, as modern sorting facilities have the equipment needed to sort this material out of the stream and into its own supply chain,” advises Stevens. The EPA recommends separating the bottle from the cap to expedite the process, as long as you know your local recycling agency can process the loose caps safely.

Can I recycle plastic grocery bags, plastic wrap or packing material?

Short answer: Not in your standard recycling bin, but they can be recycled.

The EPA estimates Americans use more than 380 billion plastic bags annually, and many of them are ending up in the ocean and harming marine life. They’re made of plastic, though, so shouldn’t you be able to toss them in your recycling bin?

Unfortunately, no. The EPA says the first step is eliminating plastic (bags, wrap, bottles, and so on) as much as possible from your routine. For those single-use bags you do consume (as well as many other kinds of plastic film products, including plastic wrap, sandwich bags, dry cleaning bags and many more), drop them off at a local collection facility. Many Targets, Whole Foods and drugstores have designated drop-off points where plastic bags will be collected to be recycled correctly, which you can find via a zip code look-up here. Otherwise, the EPA says, “Loose plastic bags [are] a contaminant to the recycling stream and can also can harm recycling processing machinery.”

Should I remove my recycling from the bag I collect it in before disposing of it?

Short answer: Correct. If you collect recycling in a plastic bag, dump it directly into the bin and leave the bag in your home receptacle. The EPA says “Recyclable items like cans should never be placed in a film grocery bag, and then into the bin.”

Credit: Getty

What do I really need to know about recycling plastics? I know the numbers on the bottom of plastics mean something, but it’s confusing.

Short answer: Focus on the 1s and 2s.

Ignore the “recycling arrow” icon seen on many plastic items – it doesn’t necessarily mean the item itself can go right in the recycling bin.

“I think one of the biggest confusing parts is the resin identification codes – those are the numbers on the bottom of these plastics. It looks like the recycling logo is on there, so I think people look at that and they think, ‘Oh, that’s a recycling logo, I can recycle this’,” Bell explains. “In reality, a lot of those numbers outside of 1s and 2s are not accepted in a lot of programs and so there’s a lot of confusion and misconceptions around assuming that, just because it has that resin identification code, it can be put in the curbside program.”

Anything not labeled 1 or 2, check first to see how your municipality recycles it. Even if the package itself has a 1 or a 2, eliminate any nonrecyclable components – like a soap dispenser pump, for instance – before cleaning it and tossing it in the bin.

How empty must containers be to qualify to be recycled?

Short answer: Rinse as much as you can out before tossing anything in the bin.

Halfway finished with your shampoo and ready to toss it? Do you have a peanut butter jar with stubborn remnants you don’t want to clean? It’s worth expending the extra effort, the EPA says, as clean items help ensure higher quality recycling and avoid contamination down the road. “If your bottles have anything more than trace amounts (i.e. more than 3-5 percent by weight) of residual product remaining in them, the bottle containing the residual content can act as a contaminant to the rest of the recycling stream,” Stevens says.

Adds Bell, “We classify that most of our material needs to be clean and dry, but if you can’t get that last drop of soap out, it’s not a big deal. Food’s not so great, especially when it’s old and has a smell to it; I would take leftover shampoo or soap any day over the food remnants.”

What does it mean to “contaminate” the other recycling – and how bad is it, really?

Short answer: It depends, but it’s best to be avoided.

“I can give you the worst case,” Bell says. “Someone put used motor oil in their bin – that’s gonna ruin, not only their whole container, but your neighbor’s container and could even cause some problems with the trucks that are collecting them. If you had one or two strawberries left over, yeah, that’s gonna cause a little bit of an issue – but not as bad as the motor oil.”

It’s important to remember that recycling is a business with a supply chain like any other, so it needs to be operated efficiently in order to be cost-effective and sustainable. That means when things get “aspirationally recycled” (a nicer term for put in a bin without checking whether it can be recycled), it can damage the machinery and slow everything down.

So what should I never put in the recycling bin?

Short answer: Pizza boxes, diapers (c’mon, people) and anything hazardous or that can affect the machinery.

“Pizza boxes are the most common item that everyday people put into their recycling bins, but shouldn’t,” says Stevens. “The oil and grease on the boxes cause major problems for paper recycling plants.”

The EPA also notes compostable/degradable items and dirty diapers should never be put in a recycling bin, while Stevens would recommend anyone eliminate the following from their recycling bin immediately: “Straws, multi-layer food and beverage pouches, blister packs, coated paper, and broken glass bottles.”

Some other commonly recycled items that are more dangerous: Bowling balls, garden hoses and Christmas lights, all of which appear frequently and can damage equipment by getting caught in the machinery.

Additionally, propane tanks (which “can and do start fires”), batteries, electronics and hazardous materials like paint all frequently go in curbside bins when they shouldn’t. Bell notes that many of these things are recyclable when done correctly, so check out a website like Terracycle (which spearheads many mail-in recycling programs) or the EPA’s site to see how to discard items like these safely – both for the people processing your recycling and the environment.

Finally, it’s important to remember that a recycling bin is not a donation bin – items like clothing, sports equipment, furniture and stuffed animals can’t be recycled, and they end up in landfills when the intention was to donate it for someone else to use. Avoid “aspirational recycling” and donate the items or unload them via Craigslist or Freecycle instead.

Credit: Getty

What items can be recycled that many people don’t know about?

Short answer: Electronics, textiles and food waste (when done properly) – plus, there are plenty of options to get creative!

First and foremost, the EPA says, electronics and batteries are easier than ever to recycle (check here for a local facility): “Due to the increasing and diverse amount of material used to manufacture our electronics, recycling them is a great way to help conserve resources and natural materials.” (It also keeps hazardous materials like lithium out of landfills and our water supply.)

Many cities now offer textile recycling for unwanted clothing and shoes (check here for a program near you), and it’s also becoming much more common to find local composting hubs to drop off food scraps, keeping tons of food waste out of landfills where it won’t biodegrade (get more information on that here).

Stevens advises that “consumers should search for alternatives to traditional curbside recycling whenever possible” and notes that Terracycle processes nearly 250 “traditionally non-recyclable materials” alone. Many of them are free thanks to corporate partnerships; check out their Brigade page to see how to easily recycle items including beauty empties, razors, detergent bottles, classroom supplies, water filters and more. And check corporate sites to see if they offer a program; Crayola, for instance, accepts back used markers, while H&M collects used clothing from any brand in-stores to be recycled.

Is there any way to recycle items like plastic straws, utensils and takeout containers?

Short answer: No.

“These items should be avoided whenever possible as traditional collection bins do not accept them and traditional material recovery facilities do not have the equipment to properly identify and sort them,” says Stevens. The EPA notes that some municipalities have regulations that disposable utensils must be compostable or biodegradable; if that’s the case where you live, there are specifications for how to properly dispose of them.

I’m ready to get reusable utensils. Anything I should be aware of?

Short answer: Great! Just make sure you read up.

“Pay attention to whether a brand is using recycled content to make its packaging, and whether that package has a practical recycling solution at the end of its life,” Stevens says. “In other words, it’s great if a product is made from recycled content, but can you actually recycle it when you are done consuming it? If you can’t put that product into your curbside recycling bin, does a reasonable alternative exist for how you can keep that package from being landfilled, incinerated, or ending up in our ocean one day?”

What’s the biggest danger of not recycling properly?

Short answer: There will be no incentive to do better for our planet.

As noted above, recycling is an industry that needs to be profitable to be sustainable. In the past, much of our recycling was being bought and processed by China; in recent years they’ve cut down on their purchasing, leading to increased domestic processing costs and often, items headed for recycling will end up in landfills instead.

“You may be a great recycler, but if you’re not purchasing products that are made out of recycled content, then you’re only doing half of your job,” Bell says. “That’s a big piece of the equation … the economic and environmental aspect of it is we have to support the industries and encourage industries to use recycled content.”

“Everyday consumers can make more mindful choices when it comes to their purchases,” Stevens agrees. “I’d encourage them to consider durable and reusable containers above all else, and if they must buy single-use plastics, it would benefit our generation to buy content that is both made from recycled content and can be recycled again.”

He adds, “The biggest danger of people not recycling properly is continued anti-recycling sentiment from private industry and government. While I do not believe that recycling is the only way out of the current mess that we’re in globally, I do think that it is an important factor and must continue at increased levels. Consumers should take pride in the small role they can play to eliminate the need for oil extraction needed for new plastic production.”