Recycling is a regional enterprise, and each city has different rules, which complicates things for residents who just want to know how to recycle correctly. The truth is that recycling is confusing.
“There’s a lot of different rules, and even if there’s an understanding of what can be recycled, there may be different rules in different jurisdictions,” says Jeffrey Raymond, chief of communications and community affairs for Baltimore’s Department of Public Works. “In terms of communicating all this, we have to walk a line between getting people to make recycling as simple as possible, and not making it so intimidating and difficult that they don’t recycle at all.”
Below are a few recycling best practices:
1. No bags. Like really, no bags.
Grocery bags dissolve into potentially harmful microplastics and, in the case of ingestion or entanglement, hurt and kill animals. They’re pretty much the worst. Even though these bags are technically recyclable, you must go to a drop-off area to do that, not your curbside bin.
Plastic bags are the number-one contaminant in recycling loads. Plastic bags act as “tanglers,” getting caught in machinery and shutting down the equipment.
In some cases, like in Montgomery County, Maryland, when plastic bags full of recyclables arrive at the facility, workers are not allowed to open the bags, says Griselda Guillen of the county’s recycling center. That means the entire bag, even if it’s full of water bottles, is considered trash.
Though grocery bags may be posterchildren of plastic pollution, sandwich bags, bubble wrap, plastic wrapping and other flimsy materials that don’t survive the poke test — where the plastics are soft enough to push your finger through it — are also prime candidates for commercial drop-off areas, not the residential recycling bin.
This also means you shouldn’t bag your recyclables. Instead, dump them loosely right into your blue bins.
Solution: Buy a couple canvas bags and get some reusable containers.
2. Small things are big problems
Don’t recycle anything smaller than a credit card. That includes straws, bottle caps, coffee pods, plastic cutlery, paperclips, and a million other tiny things that creep into our daily lives. These objects are too small to be sorted and can jam the recycling equipment.
At Montgomery County, Maryland’s Recycling Center, these contaminants can shut down machines 10–15 times a day, says Guillen.
But what about plastic lids and metal bottlecaps? you might ask.
Helen Lee of Alexandria, Virginia’s Resource Recovery Division points out that “if you put the plastic cap back on the bottle, it becomes bigger than a business card, so it would be captured [by the sorting equipment].”
According to the Association of Plastic Recyclers, when plastics are grinded into pellets, the different numbered plastics have different weights and can be separated easily after that.
That’s not so easy for metal bottlecaps, which tend to fall off glass bottles. You can sometimes bring these metal bottle caps to companies that take scrap.
Solution: Be conscious of what you throw in that recycling bin.
3. Make sure it’s clean, empty and dry
Food waste contaminates whole loads of recyclable material, rendering them useless and fast-tracking them to landfills. In the U.S., food waste contaminates 25 percent of our recycling loads.
“The message we try to have residents remember is clean, empty and dry,” says Lee.
But just how clean?
“I always tend to tell people that their recyclable material should be clean enough to use again,” says Howard Lee of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Waste Diversion. “So, if you’re putting things in the bin and you’re concerned about rodents or rats or anything like that, then chances are your recyclables are not clean.”
With that in mind, be wary of advertising at your local fast-food joint. I recently saw a paper taco bowl that read, “Please Recycle. We Care About the Environment.” That’s fake news. You can’t recycle something covered in salsa and beans. You may have better luck composting that bowl, but again, it’s complicated.
You can also recycle pizza boxes… if they’re not covered in cheese and grease. If they are, you can always tear off the clean part and recycle that.
Solution: Just as the rule states, make sure your recyclables are clean, empty and dry. It’ll take seconds and if everyone did it, it would save tons of recyclables going to the landfill.
4. Combined materials are trash
Recycling only works when like materials are together. Unfortunately, items like plastic-coated coffee cups, laminated paper and paper-bubble wrap envelopes from the mail can’t ever be separated, which means they’re trash.
Solution: Try to avoid buying nonrecyclable materials that can’t be separated. And when you can, shop local to cut down on the carbon footprint of your products.
5. Know your plastics
Not all plastics are treated equally. Rigid plastics are recyclable, labeled by resin codes 1 through 7. Generally, the higher the number, the less recyclable it is. Most recycling centers will recycle plastics 1 and 2 without a problem. Past that, it gets tricky.
Furthermore, a lot of plastic just isn’t recyclable curbside. As noted earlier, you can’t recycle plastic bags or films. Additionally, you can’t recycle anything that can tear like paper. That means no cracker bags, chip bags or cereal bags.
“With plastics, it does get so confusing,” says Erin Hafner of Baltimore’s recycling program. “Clamshell containers, cutlery, plastic straws — all that stuff that ends up in the [recycling] bin.” And it shouldn’t.
Solution: Check your city’s recycling website for the number the city takes.
6. Stop wishcycling
When it comes to recycling, one of the worst things you can do is wishcycle. That’s when we optimistically put non-recyclable objects in recycling bins. When we do this, we contaminate whole loads of otherwise recyclable materials.
“A lot of people wish that this material can be recycled, and it seems like it’s made out of the materials that could be recycled, but sometimes it’s not,” says Helen Lee.
Cities have certain thresholds to meet when they send their recyclables to third-party waste management companies. If they surpass these thresholds — in other words, if there’s too much trash mixed into the recycling load — that entire load could end up in a landfill.
So when you wishcycle, you screw up the entire system.
Solution: Don’t wishcycle.
7. Teach yourself
At the end of the day, we can’t know everything. There’s a bunch of stuff we accumulate over our lives — batteries, electronics, paint cans, toys, clothing, wood — and they, unfortunately, all have separate drop off centers or special instructions for recycling.
Solution: Hit up your local recycling website, and teach yourself what you need to know. This article only gets you so far.
Of course, you can change your individual behavior: Clean containers better, only recycle what’s recyclable and most importantly, reduce your overall use.
“[Be] mindful of how you purchase products,” says Howard Lee. “Start with reducing the amount of waste you create. Once you’ve gotten the hang of reducing your waste — maybe not buying so many water bottles — you can start to reuse things that you have and recycle or compost before getting to a landfill.”
But don’t let industry off the hook, either. Manufacturers and lobbyists have created a single-use empire built on this false narrative of recycling as the be-all-end-all solution to our consumption habits. Get mad. Make some noise. Demand solutions, not delays. That materials like plastics are unavoidable in our market economy is not your fault.