Everyone who participates in recycling, whether you’re a newbie or a pro, has found themselves in the following situation: You have an item in your hand and don’t know if you should put it in the trash or in the recycling bin. What do you do? Experts in waste management/removal and recycling say that many of us are actually recycling incorrectly, at least some of the time. Recycling wrong can actually be as bad as not recycling at all. Here is why you might be doing it wrong, and ten steps to help you with better recycling!

Step 1:  DON’T put something in the bin if you aren’t sure if it can be recycled or not

You can actually make the recycling process more difficult by doing so, even with the best intentions.

“Part of the problem with recycling is if you throw it in with doubt, it could be a contaminant and it can slow down the process in the recycling stream,” says Bob Gedert. Gedert is the Resource Recovery Director in Austin, Texas.

Step 2: Figure out exactly what CAN be recycled

If you’re ever unsure if something can be recycled, or how to recycle it, somebody else probably has the same question. A quick search on the internet should return you with some answers. This list of acceptable items comes from the National Waste & Recycling Association:

  • Aluminum
  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • 1 and 2-type plastic bottles
  • Steel cans
  • Glass containers

Step 3: Know what CANNOT be put with curbside recycling

Water hoses, Styrofoam, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and plastic bags CANNOT go into those all-in-one single stream recycling bins. CFLs may be recyclable at hardware stores and plastic bags may be accepted at grocery stores. That also means anything that’s similar to a plastic grocery bag is out.

“If it’s flimsy, if it’s film-like, it cannot be recycled because it gets wrapped around the recycling equipment,” Gedert says.

Step 4: Recognize composites, or things that are made up of more than one type of material

Sometimes it is easy to recognize and just as easy to fix. Other times, composite materials make an item impossible to recycle.

“Like a bucket with a metal handle, remove the metal handle, recycle the metal handle, recycle the bucket – but they need to be separated,” Gedert says.

Another example would be the kind of yogurt container that comes with an aluminum foil lid. Just pull off the top and recycle them as separate items!

In some other cases, it’s impossible to separate the two. Examples of this include frozen dinner packaging, concentrated juice containers, or paper oatmeal packers. The materials can’t be separated, so the whole thing just needs to go in the trash.

Step 5: Learn to recognize the difference between a wax coating and a plastic coating

Wax coating is OK (such as what you will encounter with a paper cup at a convenience store or take-out restaurant.) Plastic coating, however, cannot be recycled (think of that oatmeal packet or frozen dinner box.) This can be difficult to learn, so you might need to do a little research if you’re unsure.

Step 6: Understand what to do with pizza boxes (and other similar cardboard food packaging) 

“If the box does not have grease on it, it can be recycled,” Gedert says. “So sometimes you can rip of the top and recycle the top and discard the bottom.”

If the box contains a removable cardboard lining, you can just toss the lining. If the box was protected from grease by that lining, you are OK to recycle the entire pizza box.

This yogurt container is an easy composite product to make recyclable – just separate the aluminum top from the plastic. The container also needs to be rinsed.

Step 7: Rinse your recyclables (even the difficult or sticky stuff!) 

Rinse out whatever leaves behind food residue. Examples include yogurt containers, condiment bottles, and cans of thick soup. “I just finished a plastic peanut butter container and I tried to rinse it out and the remaining peanut butter scraps won’t rinse out. I put it in the dishwasher and it cleaned up perfectly,” Gedert said.

Step 8Buy products that are easier to recycle

Be conscious of what you are buying, especially the recyclability of the packaging. For example, buy eggs that come in a cardboard container rather than the Styrofoam ones. It’s a quick and easy habit that can make a difference!

Step 9: Use the other “Rs” first: Reduce and Reuse!

You can get better at recycling by actually avoiding having to recycle in the first place! First, reduce the amount of stuff you’ll have to get rid of. Buy only what you need, and avoid buying items with excess packaging. Then, see if there is a way to reuse an item before getting rid of it. We recommend recycling plastic bottles and aluminum cans for arts and crafts projects.

Step 10: Ask questions

If you have any questions about what can be recycled or how to recycle it, you should always ask the provider in your area. Accepted materials can vary by city.



Here’s a wrap up of what we’ve gone over today, courtesy of KUT.org.

Items that CAN be recycled:

  • Wrapping paper without foil, decorations and ribbons can be recycled.
  • Tissue Paper that does not contain ribbons or foil can be recycled.
  • Pizza boxes without grease can be recycled.
  • Plastic hangers can be recycled. Instead of tossing them at random, tie the hangers with a bread tie or string to keep them in one bundle.
  • Paper plates that have not been contaminated with food can be recycled. Plastic utensils and plates can be washed before being placed in the bin.
  • Cardboard egg cartons can be recycled.
  • Labels do not need to be removed for recycling items.
  • Shredded paper can be recycled, but can cause problems if not placed in a bag and labeled.

Items that cannot be recycled:

  • Bubble Wrap is a film plastic so it is not recyclable. It can be re-used or donated.
  • Frozen from concentrate juice containers are not recyclable.
  • Styrofoam egg cartons are not recyclable.
  • Tinsel cannot be recycled.
  • Plastic ornaments cannot be recycled unless the ball ornament is a hard plastic only (not a composite).
  • Anything with film plastic (unless film plastic can be removed).