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Be honest: Do you ever toss that can of tomato sauce in the recycling bin without rinsing it? Do you automatically stuff your pizza box in with the rest of your cardboard? Or maybe you use plastic bags to corral bottles and cans? If so, your intentions are good but these are small missteps that can actually send your recyclables straight the landfill.
That's right: Something as simple as not rinsing that aluminum container can keep it from being recycled. It's been reported that only between 60 and 80 percent of recycling is actually recycled—the rest goes into the trash.
Recycling is complicated, mainly because guidelines are different in nearly every municipality and there are very few blanket rules. One mistake can mess up an entire bin of recycling.
There are a few precautions you can take to make sure your recyclables actually get recycled. For starters, you can use this database to see the recycling rules in your area, or log on to your city’s sanitation website to get the information straight from the source. In the meantime, these are a few of the most common misconceptions about recycling. We’ve rounded up the biggest offenders to help keep your recyclables out the landfill.
Just because you see the recycling symbol on plastic doesn’t mean that item is recyclable—it’s just an identifier, says Kathryn Kellogg, recycling expert and founder of Going Zero Waste. Look closely, and you’ll notice a little number inside the symbol. Those numbers go from one to seven. “Most of the time plastics one and two are recyclable,” explains Kellogg. “But as we get to the higher numbers, the harder it is to recycle and the fewer places take it.”
Plastics three through seven include PVC (toys and packaging, for example), polystyrene (styrofoam), and mixed plastics, which are more difficult to recycle and can cause contamination. Try to find a way to repurpose these items instead of attempting to recycle them.
As alluded to above, in many cases, recyclables need to be rinsed of food and other residue before they go in the bin. Containers don’t need to be spotless, but should get a quick rinse, says Kellogg. A little residue is fine, but a half-full soda bottle or a lot of thick tomato paste is considered a contaminant, or trash.
If a load of recycling is considered contaminated, it could all be sent to the landfill instead of processed to be recycled. Consider this: “In January 2018, China, a major importer of recycled goods, stopped accepting any shipments from countries unless they could meet a 1 percent contamination rate or lower,” says Kellogg. "Today, the average contamination rate among communities and businesses sits at around 25%," according to Waste Management.
Your daily caffeine habit is not very earth-friendly after all. “The only thing that’s recyclable on a coffee cup is the kraft sleeve,” says Kellogg. Yikes.
“Coffee cups are lined with plastic, so the cup itself is not recyclable in 99 percent of places. And coffee lids (plastic number six) are also not recyclable in most municipalities.” Your best bet? Use a reusable coffee mug like our favorite Zojirushi to keep coffee fresh and landfills a little lighter.
Though many recycling centers prefer that plastic tops be kept on plastic bottles, the rules differ when it comes to metal lids on glass jars, or plastic lids on metal jars, says Kellogg. A pasta sauce jar, for example, generally has a glass base and a metal lid. Those should go in the recycling bin separately. Same goes for the plastic lid on an aluminum coffee can.
In most municipalities, any paper product smaller than a sticky note is not recyclable, says Megan Walton, Senior Programs Assistant at Delta Institute, a nonprofit that collaborates with communities to solve environmental challenges. The tiny shreds of paper can clog sorting and processing machinery at recycling facilities, she explains.
Some cities allow for shredded paper to be placed in curbside bins in a labeled and sealed paper bag, but many cities do not. If you need to shred sensitive documents, put them in a compost bin instead.
Receipts are often printed with glossy-coated thermal paper, which can include BPA, says Walton. “While it is possible to remove chemicals and recycle thermal paper, most recycling facilities do not have access to the necessary equipment," she says.
"I would advise residents to review lists of accepted materials for their local recycling facility, and unless thermal paper receipts are specifically mentioned, throw them out.” To avoid this dilemma, request electronic receipts whenever possible.
It's time to stop lining your recycling bin with trash bags. “Plastic bags and other plastic films can create issues for waste haulers and damage machinery at recycling facilities,” says Walton. Never bundle glass, plastic, or aluminum bottles and cans in bags—even paper bags—unless specifically requested.
Instead, recyclable items should be placed loose in curbside bins. Paper bags can, however, be recycled with other paper goods, so save those Trader Joe's bags.
While pizza boxes made of cardboard are technically recyclable, they become ineligible for recycling if they’re covered in food or grease. Paper (cardboard is a type of paper!) needs to be clean and dry to be recyclable, explains Kellogg. Generally speaking, “the lid is typically grease-free, so rip the lid off and recycle it, then compost the bottom,” if it's covered with residual grease.
Even if you swear by your Keurig, those convenient, single-use K-cups might weigh heavily on your mind. Currently, K-cups are not recyclable or biodegradable, which means they basically sit in a landfill until the end of time.
According to Keurig, they hope to be 100% sustainable by 2020. For now, if you want to recycle these pesky pods, you need to take them apart by hand, rinse out the coffee beans, remove the foil lid, and recycle only the plastic cup, or use a refillable pod.