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As someone who aspires to produce “zero” waste, I can find myself relying on my recycling bin more than I should. 

While my household trash has dwindled, my blue bin is almost always full. And when I do have something to toss, and it seems like it should be recyclable but am unsure, I most often will add it to recycling and hope for the best. In my mind, it’s better to send the item in question to a place where it might be recycled or composted versus straight to landfill...right?! 

With the growing spotlight on recycling, and especially recycling contamination, it got me to wonder—am I doing it right, or am I part of the problem? According to the Waste Management, one out of every four items that ends up in the blue bin doesn’t belong. And China, previously one of the world’s largest importers of recycling waste, recently set strict limits on what they will accept to reduce “yang laji,” or foreign trash—throwing a major curve ball at the U.S. recycling industry

“Wishful” or “aspirational recycling” happens when people mean well, but actually do more harm than good. Your household trash might be near empty, but placing the wrong item in recycling can contaminate the entire pile, and potentially an entire truckload, sending it straight to landfill. Recycling contamination also can break recycling equipment, slow down operations, create unsafe work conditions (especially when sharp or hazardous materials are involved), and can increase service costs.  

For this reason, many municipalities have pleaded with customers—"when in doubt, throw it out." I decided to look into some of the most common offenders contributing to recycling contamination, and admit that I found more than a few I was guilty of. 

So, learn from my mistakes and stop wishful recycling by avoiding these 11 common offenders:

1. Plastic Bags: You’d be surprised how many people add soft plastic bags to their recycling bin, or even bag their recyclables in plastic before adding them to their cart. The problem with soft plastic bags is that they can clog machines and slow down operations while workers remove the bags by hand. Bring your own reusable tote with you when you’re out shopping to eliminate the need for a plastic bag. You can also recycle soft plastic at many grocery stores. Plastic Film Recycling provides a handy directory by zip code to find a drop-off location near you. 

2. Pizza Boxes: If it’s got food stains or grease on it, it doesn’t belong in recycling. Lucky for us pizza lovers, cardboard boxes can be composted as can other food-soiled paper, so long as they’re not lined with plastic. A good example is take-out boxes—check the bottom of the box to see if it is labeled as compostable. Boxes with a shiny interior are most often lined with plastic and cannot be recycled or composted, unless your local municipality accepts them. Napkins and paper towels should always go in the compost.  

3. Gift Wrap: Shiny, metallic wrapping paper and decorative ribbons do not belong in recycling. Glittery cards are also non-recyclable and can contaminate an entire bin of paper. When wrapping a gift, opt for an unlaminated paper like newspaper, paper bags or butcher paper. A good way to test if your gift paper is recyclable is to crumple it into a ball—if it stays bunched up, it’s most likely recyclable. If not, re-use it or throw it away. 

4. Small metal bits: While bits of metal like soda can tabs and aluminum candy wrappers are technically recyclable, their small size makes them hard to detect and they often jam recycling machinery. To avoid this issue, keep soda tabs attached to the can or drop them inside the can when you’re done. Save bits of aluminum foil until it forms a large ball or place them inside an aluminum can and crimp the top shut before you place the entire can into recycling. 

5. Receipts: While the thermal cash register receipts you receive from a grocery store or boutique are made from paper, they also contain Bisphenol A, aka BPA, the nasty cancer causing chemical. When you recycle receipts, the BPA that they contain gets processed with other paper pulp and contaminates the recycled paper products that are being produced. It’s best to ask for no receipt when you’re shopping, or throw it away and wash your hands. 

6. Food Residue: Cleaning out food and beverage containers before you recycle them is just as important as placing them in the right bin. Food residue and liquids left in take out containers, peanut butter jars and even wine bottles can contaminate an entire truckload of recyclables. Containers don’t have to be perfectly clean, but they should be rinsed and washed with soap if they’re greasy. 

7. Broken Crockery: We’re all prone to breaking things. Unfortunately, broken plates, ceramics, porcelain, mirrors, light bulbs, cups, wine glasses and pyrex have different melting points and chemical compositions compared to recyclable glass and belong in the trash. Donate plates, cups and glasses in good working condition, and reuse broken crockery for another purpose at home or a craft project. 

8. Diapers: Yuck, and no! Hopefully, it’s no surprise that dirty diapers and sanitary products have no place in the recycling bin. Whether they are clean or dirty, they go in the trash. There are some compostable diapers, but most municipalities do not accept them in municipal compost bins. Look into a compostable diaper service that drops off clean diapers and picks up dirty diapers to compost at a dedicated facility, or switch to reusable cloth diapers and reusable pads or a menstrual cup

9. Shredded Paper: This one surprised me. Shredded documents and small bits of paper are too small to be valuable to recyclers and fall through the cracks or can even clog equipment. The good news is shredded paper can be composted! If composting isn’t an option, you can collect shreds in a paper bag, staple it closed and place it into recycling. 

10. Coffee Cups: Most to-go coffee cups are lined with a plastic film that makes them liquid proof, and difficult to recycle. The plastic lid might be recyclable, but it will depend on what type of plastic is accepted your local municipality. The paper heat sleeve that goes around the cup to protect your hand is really the only part of a to-go coffee cup that is likely recyclable or compostable. Better yet, say no to disposable cups and bring your own reusable coffee cup with you when you’re on the go. 

11. Paperboard Boxes: Freezer food boxes and ice cream cartons contain a plastic polymer to prevent freezer burn. Unfortunately, this plastic coating prevents the box or carton from breaking down in the recycling process. Gable-topped milk and juice cartons are also made from a paper/plastic hybrid to prevent leaks and shelf stable cartons (sold in a rectangular box) contain additional plastic and aluminum layers, making them even more difficult to recycle. While some municipalities accept cartons for recycling, many do not, so it is best to check. 

Hopefully, this list of recycling offenders has provided some clarity about what does and does not belong in your blue bin. With this new awareness, I’m committed to throw things in the trash when it’s unclear where it belongs, as much as it may pain me.

I do want to emphasize that there can be huge variations in recycling policies between cities, even within a few miles. The best thing to do is check your local public works website or give them a call. Some cities also offer tours of their recycling facilities, which sounds like good “clean” family fun to me! 

October 10, 2019 translation missing: en.blogs.article.author

Comments

Clare

Clare said:

Thank you so much for this list it helps a lot. We live on an island so we do our sorting by hand each week, then take it to the drop off location.

Ania

Ania said:

Great post! Especially the piece about small pieces of metal. Thx so much for sharing this knowledge.

Joshua Howard

Joshua Howard said:

Thank you for this useful post! I live the eco-friendly lifestyle and try to use only reusable things but it’s not always possible

cd

cd said:

BLACK plastic containers don’t recycle well; if they were white they would be ok.

Deb

Deb said:

I’d add one more…dark glass of any kind…including wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, etc bottles are NOT recyclable :-( Thanks for this list !!!

Maurice Gallaway

Maurice Gallaway said:

Wow! Thanks for this great post! 💗

Cheryl

Cheryl said:

I learned a lot from this article. I wish it could be circulated better, so that everyone could read it

Gordo

Gordo said:

What about paper envelopes with see through address windows?

Amy Buttery

Amy Buttery said:

These guidelines are great for considering what belongs in your all-materials recycling bin. But as the article points out, SOME things ARE recyclable, but just do not belong in that bin. It helps to be more precise with our language. There are things you can “recycle” but it takes a bit more planning, so if you aren’t going to do that, throw it out. But if you are, you should!
For example, I don’t put my plastic bags in the recycle bin but I DO take them to the store each month or so (mostlly we use reuseable bags, but it’s hard to avoid the occasional plastic film bags.) Also, I put clear glass in my recycling bin, but I also recycle dark glass – I just save it up and take it to our local recycling center which has sections specifically designated for each color or glass (amber, green, etc.) If you are not likely to recycle them in this way, then throw them out. BUT there are alternatives that take a little more work but do not contaminate the all-purpose recycling bin. (My kids’ FAVORITE job when we took them to the recycling center as youngsters – taking the colored glass and putting it in the proper bins. They probably enjoyed the sound of breaking glass – it seems so transgressive.)

Amy

Amy said:

I’m shouting a big no in your direction on this one: “ keep soda tabs attached to the can or drop them inside the can when you’re done.“

You should collect them and deliver them to your local Ronald McDonald House. Houses earn thousands of dollars a year recycling can tabs. These funds provide lodging for families of sick kids. Please consider updating this information!

Billy

Billy said:

That Ronald McDonald House factoid is false.

Suzanne Reynolds

Suzanne Reynolds said:

Very interesting!!!!!

Jen

Jen said:

Billy…….check your facts before you post. https://www.rmhccoastalempire.org/get-involved/pop-tabs/

Ryan

Ryan said:

Every area is different with capabilities please check with whoever your local recycling company is and obtain a list from them don’t assume anything or believe any crap.posted to Facebook or anywhere on the internet

Mic

Mic said:

Wow, it seems as though very little is really recyclable and no burning is mentioned for things like freezer boxes.

Sharon

Sharon said:

This is good but could be better if the triangle recycling symbol was dark and large enough for most to see. Also all containers must have the triangle and recyclables have no or yes to recycling. This should be mandatory on all packaging.

Education is key, , but it needs to be convenient as well or most wont do it.

Sharon

Sharon said:

This is good but could be better if the triangle recycling symbol was dark and large enough for most to see. Also all containers must have the triangle and recyclables have no or yes to recycling. This should be mandatory on all packaging.

Education is key, , but it needs to be convenient as well or most wont do it.

Stan

Stan said:

Fortunately, where we recycle, the coffee cups, the paperboard milk containers, and even aseptic containers are collected and recycled. They need to be cleaned, separated, and placed in a separate bin. Our recycling company also takes styrofoam cups.

What they aren’t taking that isn’t mentioned here is certain types of plastic. The only plastics our recycler takes now are #‘s 2 and 5. All others, even #1’s, go in the trash.

The key here, (as mentioned in the article), is that China used to take a lot of this stuff, but they don’t want to be the world’s garbage dump, so they stopped. Most of the facilities that recycled the “stuff” not being taken now are in China. The United States needs to get more serious about recycling, and build plants to deal with these items, or start making containers out of items that are more easily recycled. The entire world needs to find a better replacement for plastics. Plastics are everywhere, and they take forever to degrade. Their residue is killing us.

Dan

Dan said:

I think if industry cannot recycle plastic because it is not “cost effective” maybe we need to ban non-recyclable plastics and switch to aluminum. All drinks that are in 2 liter and smaller plastic bottles will do just fine in aluminum and it is recyclable . Thins could happen very quickly. Switch away from plastics to aluminum and glass.

MAC

MAC said:

Good reminders. They need to redesign recycling containers in townhome developments minus the lifting lid to a spout type opening engineered to avert depositing plastic bags from being deposited.

Valerie

Valerie said:

We should all be like Sevier County, Tennessee.
https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2014/08/28/sevier-county-composting

annie smart

annie smart said:

Recycling should be handled by and in the community that produces the waste. America’s trash problem was only enabled by China, rather than solved. Even if we all learn to compost, use our own cloth shopping bags, ceramic refill bottles and cups, and ask for no receipts and unwrapped veg at the store we are still going to produce waste. I would rather pay a higher tax and know that my city takes full and environment-friendly responsibility for every waste item than the current system of hotch-potch sorting and transporting. Full recycling should be part of our local infrastructure. Sweden and Finland have done this almost 100% effectively. There is no reason why the bay area should not be investing in the right plant and pick-up services too. The money is certainly out there. Even plastic bags can be put to secondary use if you have the will to provide the right plant. Banning them is the first step only, it will not eradicate the problem. Only comprehensive, local and scientifically sophisticated recycling will. This whole post makes me feel like Pollyanna, and it shouldn’t!

Todd

Todd said:

This is insane. Most people will not take the time to recycle if they have to follow all these rules. I’ve been recycling 75% of these items because I didn’t know better. You would think after 20-30 years of recycling they’d come up with the machinery that could eliminate these obstacles.

Andrew

Andrew said:

If No.5 was a problem then shop workers would be getting cancer of the hands. Is there any evidence of this?

DK Holland

DK Holland said:

NYC, where I live, recycles almost everything that is recyclable. This includes compost. We have curbside compost pickup. The problem is confusion about what is recyclable. And another problem is you aren’t home a lot of the time.

A good way to understand the source of confusion is to look at receptacles. I have been taking photos of recycling and trash cans for years. When one says ‘plastic and glass’ that explains nothing. And in a public place stuff is NOT cleaned before its tossed. Trash cans should be very small in regions where recycling is being promoted..

Restaurants could compost. I don’t know of one that does.

Greene Hill Food Co-op composts. BKRot is a local business picks up spoilage on trikes. They are paid a small fee. They create new soil. We need new soil. So much is still going to waste.

Art

Art said:

Sorry to hear this about so many things one should not recycle? I live in Sweden and yes we can and do recycle most all of what this article said you can’t recycle.

Tam

Tam said:

The recycling pick up company in our small town DOES take shredded paper. Our business has a cross-cut shredder, and he said we can put the shreds out in a closed garbage bag beside our bin on pickup day and he will take them

Anita

Anita said:

I agree with several of the commentators above. Consumers need better information. Also, I simply can’t understand why there aren’t more companies developing plants to recycle specific materials. I guess it’s not a priority or not cost effective. Americans should be recycling 80% of their trash. Here in Florida, my recycling/trash company used to recycle glass jars and bottles until recently. Now they don’t take them.

Elaine

Elaine said:

Considering the weight of recycling loads and how stuff gets tossed around, I am skeptical that placing shredded paper in a bag that’s stapled shut will effectively contain it. (Point 9)

Jordan

Jordan said:

The MOST important thing is to know your own local recycling guidelines, and understand what can be taken at curbside (if you have that service) and what is accepted at the depot. Usually the depot accepts a much wider range of things. You just need to take a few minutes to sort your materials. Better off to purchase less to start with, but it’s not rocket surgery to dispose of it properly.

David

David said:

I never know what to do with cat food cans. Does anybody know if they are recyclable?

Craig Windsome

Craig Windsome said:

Please cite your sources.

Tabitha

Tabitha said:

All non-recyclable paper products should be compostable (depending on your city’s compost program), as long as there is no plastic coating on them.

K BUSH

K BUSH said:

https://swa.org/174/Hazardous-Products-in-Your-Home

GOOD INFO IF YOU LIVE IN NORTH OR MIDDLE PALM BEACH COUNTY FL.
INFO AND DROP OFF LOCATION

Cactus

Cactus said:

Our refuse pick up service recently stopped accepting glass! Our garbage amount doubled! 🍾🍾🍾

Steve

Steve said:

I didn’t know about receipts. But doesn’t seem like a good idea to compost them since they contain BPA…?
Which then makes shredding more difficult…guess should keep receipts with signature separate and shred separately.

Leave a comment

Comments

Clare

Clare said:

Thank you so much for this list it helps a lot. We live on an island so we do our sorting by hand each week, then take it to the drop off location.

Ania

Ania said:

Great post! Especially the piece about small pieces of metal. Thx so much for sharing this knowledge.

Joshua Howard

Joshua Howard said:

Thank you for this useful post! I live the eco-friendly lifestyle and try to use only reusable things but it’s not always possible

cd

cd said:

BLACK plastic containers don’t recycle well; if they were white they would be ok.

Deb

Deb said:

I’d add one more…dark glass of any kind…including wine, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, etc bottles are NOT recyclable :-( Thanks for this list !!!

Maurice Gallaway

Maurice Gallaway said:

Wow! Thanks for this great post! 💗

Cheryl

Cheryl said:

I learned a lot from this article. I wish it could be circulated better, so that everyone could read it

Gordo

Gordo said:

What about paper envelopes with see through address windows?

Amy Buttery

Amy Buttery said:

These guidelines are great for considering what belongs in your all-materials recycling bin. But as the article points out, SOME things ARE recyclable, but just do not belong in that bin. It helps to be more precise with our language. There are things you can “recycle” but it takes a bit more planning, so if you aren’t going to do that, throw it out. But if you are, you should!
For example, I don’t put my plastic bags in the recycle bin but I DO take them to the store each month or so (mostlly we use reuseable bags, but it’s hard to avoid the occasional plastic film bags.) Also, I put clear glass in my recycling bin, but I also recycle dark glass – I just save it up and take it to our local recycling center which has sections specifically designated for each color or glass (amber, green, etc.) If you are not likely to recycle them in this way, then throw them out. BUT there are alternatives that take a little more work but do not contaminate the all-purpose recycling bin. (My kids’ FAVORITE job when we took them to the recycling center as youngsters – taking the colored glass and putting it in the proper bins. They probably enjoyed the sound of breaking glass – it seems so transgressive.)

Amy

Amy said:

I’m shouting a big no in your direction on this one: “ keep soda tabs attached to the can or drop them inside the can when you’re done.“

You should collect them and deliver them to your local Ronald McDonald House. Houses earn thousands of dollars a year recycling can tabs. These funds provide lodging for families of sick kids. Please consider updating this information!

Billy

Billy said:

That Ronald McDonald House factoid is false.

Suzanne Reynolds

Suzanne Reynolds said:

Very interesting!!!!!

Jen

Jen said:

Billy…….check your facts before you post. https://www.rmhccoastalempire.org/get-involved/pop-tabs/

Ryan

Ryan said:

Every area is different with capabilities please check with whoever your local recycling company is and obtain a list from them don’t assume anything or believe any crap.posted to Facebook or anywhere on the internet

Mic

Mic said:

Wow, it seems as though very little is really recyclable and no burning is mentioned for things like freezer boxes.

Sharon

Sharon said:

This is good but could be better if the triangle recycling symbol was dark and large enough for most to see. Also all containers must have the triangle and recyclables have no or yes to recycling. This should be mandatory on all packaging.

Education is key, , but it needs to be convenient as well or most wont do it.

Sharon

Sharon said:

This is good but could be better if the triangle recycling symbol was dark and large enough for most to see. Also all containers must have the triangle and recyclables have no or yes to recycling. This should be mandatory on all packaging.

Education is key, , but it needs to be convenient as well or most wont do it.

Stan

Stan said:

Fortunately, where we recycle, the coffee cups, the paperboard milk containers, and even aseptic containers are collected and recycled. They need to be cleaned, separated, and placed in a separate bin. Our recycling company also takes styrofoam cups.

What they aren’t taking that isn’t mentioned here is certain types of plastic. The only plastics our recycler takes now are #‘s 2 and 5. All others, even #1’s, go in the trash.

The key here, (as mentioned in the article), is that China used to take a lot of this stuff, but they don’t want to be the world’s garbage dump, so they stopped. Most of the facilities that recycled the “stuff” not being taken now are in China. The United States needs to get more serious about recycling, and build plants to deal with these items, or start making containers out of items that are more easily recycled. The entire world needs to find a better replacement for plastics. Plastics are everywhere, and they take forever to degrade. Their residue is killing us.

Dan

Dan said:

I think if industry cannot recycle plastic because it is not “cost effective” maybe we need to ban non-recyclable plastics and switch to aluminum. All drinks that are in 2 liter and smaller plastic bottles will do just fine in aluminum and it is recyclable . Thins could happen very quickly. Switch away from plastics to aluminum and glass.

MAC

MAC said:

Good reminders. They need to redesign recycling containers in townhome developments minus the lifting lid to a spout type opening engineered to avert depositing plastic bags from being deposited.

Valerie

Valerie said:

We should all be like Sevier County, Tennessee.
https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2014/08/28/sevier-county-composting

annie smart

annie smart said:

Recycling should be handled by and in the community that produces the waste. America’s trash problem was only enabled by China, rather than solved. Even if we all learn to compost, use our own cloth shopping bags, ceramic refill bottles and cups, and ask for no receipts and unwrapped veg at the store we are still going to produce waste. I would rather pay a higher tax and know that my city takes full and environment-friendly responsibility for every waste item than the current system of hotch-potch sorting and transporting. Full recycling should be part of our local infrastructure. Sweden and Finland have done this almost 100% effectively. There is no reason why the bay area should not be investing in the right plant and pick-up services too. The money is certainly out there. Even plastic bags can be put to secondary use if you have the will to provide the right plant. Banning them is the first step only, it will not eradicate the problem. Only comprehensive, local and scientifically sophisticated recycling will. This whole post makes me feel like Pollyanna, and it shouldn’t!

Todd

Todd said:

This is insane. Most people will not take the time to recycle if they have to follow all these rules. I’ve been recycling 75% of these items because I didn’t know better. You would think after 20-30 years of recycling they’d come up with the machinery that could eliminate these obstacles.

Andrew

Andrew said:

If No.5 was a problem then shop workers would be getting cancer of the hands. Is there any evidence of this?

DK Holland

DK Holland said:

NYC, where I live, recycles almost everything that is recyclable. This includes compost. We have curbside compost pickup. The problem is confusion about what is recyclable. And another problem is you aren’t home a lot of the time.

A good way to understand the source of confusion is to look at receptacles. I have been taking photos of recycling and trash cans for years. When one says ‘plastic and glass’ that explains nothing. And in a public place stuff is NOT cleaned before its tossed. Trash cans should be very small in regions where recycling is being promoted..

Restaurants could compost. I don’t know of one that does.

Greene Hill Food Co-op composts. BKRot is a local business picks up spoilage on trikes. They are paid a small fee. They create new soil. We need new soil. So much is still going to waste.

Art

Art said:

Sorry to hear this about so many things one should not recycle? I live in Sweden and yes we can and do recycle most all of what this article said you can’t recycle.

Tam

Tam said:

The recycling pick up company in our small town DOES take shredded paper. Our business has a cross-cut shredder, and he said we can put the shreds out in a closed garbage bag beside our bin on pickup day and he will take them

Anita

Anita said:

I agree with several of the commentators above. Consumers need better information. Also, I simply can’t understand why there aren’t more companies developing plants to recycle specific materials. I guess it’s not a priority or not cost effective. Americans should be recycling 80% of their trash. Here in Florida, my recycling/trash company used to recycle glass jars and bottles until recently. Now they don’t take them.

Elaine

Elaine said:

Considering the weight of recycling loads and how stuff gets tossed around, I am skeptical that placing shredded paper in a bag that’s stapled shut will effectively contain it. (Point 9)

Jordan

Jordan said:

The MOST important thing is to know your own local recycling guidelines, and understand what can be taken at curbside (if you have that service) and what is accepted at the depot. Usually the depot accepts a much wider range of things. You just need to take a few minutes to sort your materials. Better off to purchase less to start with, but it’s not rocket surgery to dispose of it properly.

David

David said:

I never know what to do with cat food cans. Does anybody know if they are recyclable?

Craig Windsome

Craig Windsome said:

Please cite your sources.

Tabitha

Tabitha said:

All non-recyclable paper products should be compostable (depending on your city’s compost program), as long as there is no plastic coating on them.

K BUSH

K BUSH said:

https://swa.org/174/Hazardous-Products-in-Your-Home

GOOD INFO IF YOU LIVE IN NORTH OR MIDDLE PALM BEACH COUNTY FL.
INFO AND DROP OFF LOCATION

Cactus

Cactus said:

Our refuse pick up service recently stopped accepting glass! Our garbage amount doubled! 🍾🍾🍾

Steve

Steve said:

I didn’t know about receipts. But doesn’t seem like a good idea to compost them since they contain BPA…?
Which then makes shredding more difficult…guess should keep receipts with signature separate and shred separately.

Leave a comment