7 Recycling Mistakes You’re Probably Making

It took a long, long time, but curbside recycling has finally become commonplace in most U.S. communities. According to the EPA, Americans create 251 million tons of waste every year.

We say that we “throw away” much of this waste, but of course, there is no away. Most of it (around 135 million tons) ends up buried in a landfill somewhere, where it takes centuries if not thousands of years to degrade, potentially leaching nasty chemicals into our soil and water supply.

Here’s the sad part: According to Keep America Beautiful, the recyclable materials in the U.S. waste stream would generate over $7 billion if they were recycled. That’s equivalent to Donald Trump’s net worth. In order to stop the flow of valuable materials to the landfill, we have to recycle.

If you’re a regular participant in your community’s recycling program, you’re probably feeling pretty pleased with yourself right now. Not so fast. In order to get the most out of these reuseable waste materials, we not only have to recycle, we have to recycle properly. That’s right, there are rules to this recycling game, and unfortunately, many of us aren’t following them. Below is a list of common recycling mistakes, along with information about why it’s so important to get it right–for your recycler, your community, and your world.

7 Recycling Mistakes You’re Probably Making

woman recycling

1. Separating (or not) – Is your recycling program single stream or dual-stream? Do you know the difference? Single stream recycling which allows paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and metal to be mixed together for pickup. Dual stream recycling is also referred to as source separated recycling. This means keeping the fiber component –– paper and cardboard –– separate from containers, including glass and plastic containers and cans. There are pros and cons to both methods. But separating (if you don’t have to) or not separating (if you’re supposed to) just makes things more difficult for those on the other end of your recycling bin.

2. Including plastic bags – It is very rare for a local recycler to accept plastic bags. Plastic bag markets require that these materials be clean, dry and empty. Once they go in a recycling bin, they definitely do not meet the first two criteria. Solving this problem is easy: a) don’t use plastic bags, and b) keep bags separate and return them to a local grocery store that accepts them for recycling (look for a bin near the front door).

3. Leaving lids on plastic containers – While an increasing number of plastics are now recyclable (you should still check the number on the bottom against your local program rules), plastic caps are often NOT recyclable and are a significant contaminant, both on and off the bottle. Left on, they often trap liquid, which is a contaminant. Separate them and throw them away. Always make sure bottles and glasses are empty and rinsed.

4. Including non-recyclable glassAll glass (or glasslike materials) are not created equal. Translucent bottles and jars are good to go. Ceramic dishes, china plates or cups, mirrors, laboratory glassware, light bulbs, Pyrex, porcelain and window glass are NOT. These materials have a different melting point and chemical composition from container glass. Seeing just one of these items in a load of container class can cause it to be rejected.

5. Food-soaked cartons/packages – “Leave the grease-soaked pizza box and oily Chinese takeout carton (and anything similar) out of the recycling bin,” explains the Fairport-East Rochester Post. “Ditto for dirty paper napkins. You can, however, tear off and recycle the unsoiled top of a pizza box.” When it comes to recycling, any type of contamination is a no no. That’s why it’s so important to clean the things that can be cleaned (aluminum, plastic, and glass containers).

6. Removing the labels from bottles and cans – Check with your local recycler, but in most cases this is an unnecessary step. Ha! I bet you didn’t expect that one. Save yourself some time, and toss ‘em in the bin, labels and all. Same thing goes for staples or other metal fasteners in paper and cardboard.

7. Shredded paper – “Shredded paper is too small to sort — the pieces literally fall through the cracks of the sorting machines and end up all over the floor of the facility, or worse, in with the glass,” explains Go Green Woolridge. Some recycling centers will accept shredded paper if it is contained in a paper bag and labeled “shredded paper.” And while we’re on the topic of paper, be sure to consult your recycler’s preferences when it comes to where paper should be placed. As this blogger found out, sometimes placing it in the bin with the other recyclables is a no-no.

What other common recycling mistakes do you know of? Share them in a comment so we can all get better at this essential process!

Learn more:

Top 10 Most Important Items To Recycle

5 Reasons Why Most People Don’t Recycle, and 5 Reasons Why They Should

Images via Thinkstock

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Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brown9 months ago

i didn't know about the bottle lids, will be taking them off from now on, thanks for sharing :)

Olivia Dawson
Olivia Dawson10 months ago

Didn't know about the staples, cheers

Lolly D.
Lolly D.11 months ago

Great guidelines! I strongly suggest checking with your local service for specifics though! Lids or no, types of plastic, and lots of other requirements can vary greatly! My city has a great 311 website with all the specific info about curbside recycling.

jessica r.
jessica r.about a year ago

Doing good except the shredded paper. I'll have to check on this.

Debbie Crowe
Debbie Croweabout a year ago

I used to leave the tops on bottles and jars, but now I don't.

june t.
june t.about a year ago

our building recycle bin says to keep the lids on the containers. every place seems to have different rules. I notice a lot of people don't bother to wash or rinse out their containers, which is gross because it starts to smell pretty bad.

Nikki Yau
Nikki Yau1 years ago

Thank you for the useful tips! I have definitely made a mistake or two in the past.

william Miller
william Miller1 years ago


Margaret M. F.
Margaret M. F.1 years ago

Thank you for posting this informative article. Where I live, ~ a year ago the township told all to put all plastic in the recycle bin regardless of the number on the bottom. With plastic bags, even with bringing my own reusable bags when shopping, there are times when I still wind up bringing plastic bags home. They are then reused unless they are to torn to be used. Since they are generally clean & are biodegradable I twist them & tie them in a knot be putting them in the recycle bin.

LMj Sunshine

Thank you!