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Recycling: One of the most important things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint. We all know that we should be recycling, but did you know that many of us are doing it wrong?

Recycling unfortunately isn’t as easy as just throwing items into our recycle container and assuming it will get recycled. We actually may be doing more harm than good without even realizing it. So how can we recycle correctly and ensure our items aren’t just going into a landfill?

To prevent this from occurring, follow these must-know recycling tips from the experts themselves.

First, Check Your Local Municipality’s Rules

This is perhaps the first and most important thing you should do, since every municipality has different protocols. I was surprised to learn when I lived in Atlanta that glass was not accepted (much to my dismay) and that I was putting glass in my recycling incorrectly for weeks.

This may have led to all of my recycling getting tossed, so I highly recommend you do a quick Google search ASAP for your town’s recycling protocols. This is where you’ll find the most up to date information on what you should and should not be recycling in your city.

Don’t Put Your Recycling in Plastic Bags

This is one of the lesser known faux-pas of die-hard recyclers. Many of us have separate bins for trash and recycling, with plastic trash bags lining both for easy disposable. However, when you toss your recycling in these plastic trash bags, the plastic bags get tangled in the machines and often lead to the equipment being shut down.

According to Earth Day’s article on recycling, many recycling programs report that plastic bags are the number one contaminant in recycling loads. The article also states that in a number of towns, if recycling comes in a plastic bag, the workers aren’t even allowed to open the bags and have to throw the whole thing away – even if it’s full of clean recyclables.

Plastic grocery bags are also not traditionally recyclable because they also clog the machines. You can take them to special recycling plants, or you can opt to bring your own reusable bags to avoid that hassle altogether.

Only Recycle Items Larger Than a Credit Card

Earth Day also reports that when you recycle items smaller than a credit card, they are too small to be sorted by the machines and could jam the equipment. If you have bottle caps, you can secure them to the clean bottle to make them larger than the credit card requirement.

If the caps aren’t able to reattached (like metal bottle caps), then it’s best to throw them away unless you can take them to a special scrap recycling plant.

Don’t Recycle Single-Use Items

Single-use items like coffee cups, straws, aluminum foil, to-go utensils, plastic wrap and to-go Styrofoam containers are almost always non-recyclable and should be thrown into the landfill.

To avoid having to throw these items away constantly, you can use a zero-waste kit with reusables of all of the above items. Here’s an example of a zero-waste kit that you can purchase on Amazon, or you can make your own.

recycle correctly reusable kit

Make Sure Your Items Are Clean

While it’s more of a hassle, you want to make sure that none of your food containers have any food residue on them before you throw them into the recycling. Waste Management reports that the average contamination rate of recyclables is around 25%. When contaminated by food, as with the plastic bags, whole loads of recycled items are sent to the landfills due to the significantly increased costs the recycling facilities cannot sustain.

Because of this, it’s more important than ever to ensure your items are clean before adding them to your bin. To save yourself some time hand-washing, you can put your soiled food containers in the dishwasher before recycling. I find this really helpful for nut butter containers or any oily food containers that otherwise would take a while to clean.

It’s important to note that pizza box cardboard that has any oil, sauce or food on it is not recyclable and should be sent to the landfill unless it’s able to be composted.

Avoid “Wish-cycling”

What is wish-cyling? Wish-cycling is defined by Recycle Nation as “the process of putting items in a recycling bin instead of the trash even if you’re not sure whether they are recyclable or not.” The belief is that even if the item is not recyclable, the recycling center will “sort it out,” but unfortunately this is not the case.

Machines are sorting the items – not people. So when improper items are thrown in – you guessed it – the machines may become jammed and damaged. If an item does get through the machine and ends up in a batch of recyclables, it will contaminate the rest of the batch typically resulting in the whole batch being thrown away.

Noticing a theme?

Before recycling items that aren’t your typical approved items, refer back to your town’s recycling guidelines. It only takes a moment and can save quite a few items from being sent to landfills.

So What are the “Typical” Approved Recyclables?

If you’re curious about what is typically approved, the following clean items are generally acceptable according to the EPA:

  • Cardboard
  • Paper
  • Mail
  • Beverage containers
  • Food cans
  • Glass bottles
  • Glass and Plastic Jars
  • Jugs
  • Plastic bottles (attach the caps before recycling)

But again, be sure to check with your town’s guide just to be safe!

recycle correctly sorting

When in Doubt, Throw it Out!

If you ever find yourself wondering if something is recyclable but aren’t sure, the experts recommended that you just dispose of it in the trash to avoid the above-mentioned contamination. It’s better to just toss a few items that you aren’t sure about than risk whole loads of recyclables being discarded.

And as always, you can refer back to your municipality’s guide if you aren’t comfortable just throwing the item(s) in the trash.

When We All Recycle Correctly, Recyclables Won’t Get Tossed

As you can see, it’s so important to follow your towns’ recycling rules to avoid contamination and reduce the risk of all of our recycling getting thrown into landfills each week.

While it’s not the most exciting dinnertime conversation, educating your friends and family on how to recycle correctly is also a great way to reduce overall recycling contamination.

If you don’t feel like spending much time talking about it, you can always share this article with them 🙂

What Recycling Tips Do You Have?

We love hearing from you, whether you’re an expert or you’ve simply done your recycling homework. Let us know what other tips you would add in the comments section.

Thank you SO much for reading our recycling tips and for doing your part to recycle! Every person doing their part on a regular basis makes a positive impact on the future of our planet.

Important Recycling Resources to Check Out:

Recycling 101 Guidelines and Tips (Waste Management)

You’re Doing it Wrong: 7 Tips to Recycle Better (EarthDay)

Recycling Benefits and Facts (Recycle Across America)

Recycling is in Trouble — and It Might be Your Fault (USA Today)


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