How To Recycle Better

Recycling being sorted. Plastic in blue bin, glass in paper bags.
Image by GreenStar from Pixabay

Recycling is a flawed and tricky system. It’s important that we do our part so that our recycling doesn’t get landfilled. Please don’t be overwhelmed by this list. It is meant to help and educate – not stress you out.

While recycling is not the answer and our recycling systems must be improved, we can help by improving our own practices. Remember, that just because a product is made with recycled materials, does not necessarily mean it is recyclable. The number with the chasing arrows – called a resin code – is misleading. Items that are put in the recycling bin but that are not recyclable, such as food remnants, trash, and other debris, contaminate the recycling. Contamination makes all of the recycling collected together less likely to be actually recycled and it can end up landfilled. You can usually find a list of what is acceptable and not in your area by going to your municipality’s website.

Here’s how you can prevent recycling contamination:

    1. Do not bag your recyclables.
    2. Don’t put in plastic bags or films. (Note: Supermarkets often collect bags.)
    3. Empty and rinse the containers. Food contamination, especially as it rots, reduces the value of the recyclables and causes some recycling to go straight to the landfill.

      Empty cans of food, not cleaned or rinsed.
      Please rinse all food containers. Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay
    4. Don’t crush plastic recyclables. This is so that the MRF can read the resin codes (plastic #) on the bottom of the containers.
    5. Separate the caps and only recycle them if they have a proper resin code that is accepted in your area. Most of the time, you will be throwing these away.

      Colored plastic bottle caps in a loose fish shape.
      Plastic bottle caps, often made of #4 or #5 plastic, are not usually recyclable. Photo by me
    6. Do not recycle candy wrappers, paper cups, receipts, plastic straws and utensils, polystyrene or Styrofoam, shredded paper, complex cartons (milk cartons, broth, soup, etc.), large plastic items (chairs, laundry baskets, etc), electronics, or batteries.
    7. Certain types of glass cannot be recycled: window, mirror, crystal, or Pyrex.
    8. Do not put in take-out containers, especially foam ones, unless they are plastic #1 or #2 and are completely clean.
    9. Pizza boxes depend on your area, but most of the time the grease on the cardboard contaminates recycling. You can tear off the bottom and recycle the top if it is free of grease and food.

      Open white pizza box with partially eaten pizza, shows grease stains on box.
      Image by mac231 from Pixabay
    10. Remove shrinkwraps from #1 and #2 bottles, especially full-body shrinkwrap, like those on coffee creamer, beverages, and household cleaner containers. Shrinkwrap makes the bottles unsortable by optical scanners at Material Recovery Facilities, because the camera can’t read the container’s resin.1

      Large bottle of plain Coffeemate non-dairy coffee creamer.
      Coffeemate shrinkwraps all of their containers, for both liquid and powdered non-dairy creamer.
    11. Frozen food boxes are usually not recyclable because they contain a layer of plastic coating to protect the package from moisture.
    12. Flatten cardboard boxes.
    13. Other items that you should put in the garbage, and not the recycling, include applesauce/juice packets, milk or broth cartons (or any multi-layer packaging), and paper napkins/towels.

Some of the items listed above are accepted through separate recycling streams. Elizabeth Royte wrote, “A common motto is ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’ but I prefer the alternative ‘When in doubt, go find out’ to build better habits rather than giving up on confusing items.”2 Do your best and teach others how to recycle better as well.

Thank you for reading. Please message me if you have questions, and don’t forget to share and subscribe!

  • Footnotes:
  1. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin, New York, 2021.
  2. Book, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water, by Elizabeth Royte, Bloomsbury: New York, 2008.