Everyone knows that recycling is good for the environment. Most do their part to make the planet more green by regularly tossing items into the blue recycling bin.
But as good as your intentions are, you may be doing more harm than good if you’re unaware of the most common recycling rules. For example, not every piece of plastic, cardboard, or aluminum belongs in the bin.
“Approximately one-third of what typically goes into recycling bins in the U.S. doesn’t belong there,” says Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for Republic Services. “One of the biggest misconceptions is that an item is recyclable if it has the recycle symbol on it. This, coupled with confusion about what can and cannot be recycled, has caused contamination rates to increase.”
The types of materials that can be recycled can vary from state to state and city to city, so it’s important to be knowledgeable about the recycling best practices in your area. Be well-versed on the following rules to make sure your household is recycling the right way.
1. Know the basics
Recycling reduces the amount of waste being sent to landfills and incinerators, conserves natural resources, and saves energy. Many items can be recycled, but if they don’t get properly sorted, they’ll go straight to the trash. Make the effort to sort as you go.
As a rule of thumb, the following materials are accepted no matter where you live: paper, cardboard, metal cans, and plastic containers labeled with a No. 1 or 2.
2. Crush plastic bottles, leave caps on
Recycling is the right thing to do, but it’s also important to do it right. Plastic bottles should be emptied out and crushed with the bottle caps on when thrown into the recycling bin.
The plastic recycling industry used to not be able to recycle bottles with caps; however, as processing technology improved, the message has changed to ask that caps remain on the bottles, according to the Association of Plastic Recyclers.
3. Don’t put plastic bags in the recycling bin
Plastic is recyclable, so bags made of plastic belong in the recycling bin, right? Wrong.
“Don’t put plastic bags and plastic wrap in your curbside recycling bin,” says Nina Goodrich, executive director of GreenBlue, an environmental nonprofit. “They only cause problems for recyclers by getting tangled in the equipment.”
Instead, take your clean and dry bags, wraps, and films to a drop-off location like a retail store. Search for drop-off locations at plasticfilmrecycling.org.
4. Plastic cutlery and coffee cups are not recyclable
We’ve all been ordering a lot more take-out meals lately, so your collection of leftover plastic utensils has probably piled up.
But while plastic cutlery is convenient to use in a pinch, it’s not recyclable. Plastic knives, forks, and spoons are typically not accepted in most local recycling programs and—because of their small and narrow size—can get stuck in or fall through the machinery that sorts them.
And don’t even think about chucking your Starbucks coffee cup into the bin either! To-go cups made of cardboard have a plastic or wax lining that keeps liquid from leaking, but the lining also makes the cups nonrecyclable.
5. Break down all cardboard boxes
Each year 24 million tons of corrugated cardboard are discarded, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Most of that cardboard, around 91%, is recycled; but the big rule for cardboard boxes is to break them down so they’re flat. That way you’ll optimize space in your recycling bin and reduce the number of pickups needed from your local recycling service.
One type of cardboard box you should just throw in the trash? Pizza boxes. The grease and food soaked up by the cardboard make pizza boxes a gross mess to recycle.
6. Keep items empty, clean, and dry
Food is not recyclable, so every item you throw in the bin should be spotless.
“One ketchup bottle or not-quite-empty milk carton can cause your entire bin of otherwise perfectly recyclable items to be contaminated,” says Walters.
Therefore, any scraps, liquid, or waste should be removed from your recyclable items before tossing them.
Goodrich suggests rinsing out any recyclables that have a thick or sticky residue, like peanut butter or frosting jars.