Recycling 101—Everything You Need to Know (And Probably Don’t)

Three children laughing and holding a recycling bin.
  • May 8, 2020

Many people try to recycle, but unfortunately, recycling the wrong way can disrupt the recycling process and send many of our recyclables to landfills. Here’s what everyone should know about recycling to ensure our all of our waste is properly recycled:

1. “Wishful recycling” can do more harm than good. If non-recyclable materials are mixed in with your recycling, it can ruin the entire batch of recycling. If you’re not sure if something can be recycled, look it up before you pitch it!

2. Your local area has its own set of recycling guidelines. Recycling guidelines vary between municipalities, affecting what can or cannot be recycled as well as proper recycling guidelines. Look up recycling in your city or town to ensure you are recycling properly!

3. Many items can be recycled in certain areas but not others. Check your local recycling guidelines for things like coffee cups, aerosol cans, glass, frozen food boxes, or ice cream cartons.

4. Plastic is not as recyclable as you think. Many plastic items are only recyclable in certain places, and some plastics (such as styrofoam food containers) aren’t recyclable at all. Check out this guide from NPR to see which plastics are or aren’t recyclable.

5. Those numbered recycling symbols on plastic products designate the type of plastic—and whether or not it’s recyclable. Products marked with #1 or 2 (such as water bottles or milk jugs) are the most easily recycled, and products marked with #5 (such as yogurt containers) are sometimes recyclable. If a product is market with #3, 4, 6, or 7, it is likely not recyclable through your curbside program. Check out this guide to learn more about the 7 different types of plastic. 

6. Anything you recycle should be empty, clean, and dry. It doesn't have to be spotless, but it should be clean and dry enough that it doesn't contaminate other recyclables. Your newspaper can’t be recycled if it has yogurt spilled on it!

7. Greasy pizza boxes are typically not recyclable. When grease seeps into the cardboard, it makes it difficult for the cardboard to be successfully recycled. But if the top half of the box is clean, you can rip it off and recycle it! 

8. Don't bag your recyclables. Plastic bags are not recyclable through curbside recycling, so putting your recycling in a garbage bag can make the whole bag unrecyclable.

9. Plastic bags should be recycled at the grocery store, not with your curbside recycling. Find locations near you that offer plastic recycling.

10. You should flatten cardboard boxes before recycling them so that they can be processed more easily.

11. Don’t recycle anything smaller than a credit card. This includes things such as plastic straws or cutlery. Items that are too small can jam the recycling machinery.  

12. You should (probably) put the cap back on plastic bottles before recycling. This is a new change, but not all curbside programs accept bottles with caps, so check your local guidelines before recycling. 

13. Recycling single-use coffee pods is complicated. Keurig is in the process of making all of its K-Cups recyclable by the end of 2020. But for now, recycling them involves peeling off the lid, dumping the grounds in the trash, removing the paper filter, and rinsing out the excess grounds (there are even products to simplify this process). Using reusable coffee pods is a less wasteful option.

14. Buying products made from recycled materials increases demand for recycled materials and helps close the recycling loop.

15. Recycling solutions do exist for items you wouldn’t expect. Recycling doesn’t just happen curbside and isn’t just for papers and plastics. Look up places to donate batteries and electronics in your local area. You can also recycle items that are typically not recyclable through TerraCycle, and you can even recycle clothes at H&M!

16. Food scraps can’t be recycled—but they can be composted! Check out our Beginner’s Guide to Composting for tips to help you get started. 

17. Don’t forget the other two R’s—reduce and reuse! Limiting waste to begin with is better for the planet than recycling it later. Try buying products through Loop or other waste-free programs.

Following proper recycling guidelines can help keep our planet clean and beautiful, so recycle right and teach your loved ones to do the same! And if you want to do even more to help the planet, sign up for 100% clean, renewable energy today.

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