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 more than 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 glass.

All 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


Liz Bryman
Liz Brymanabout a year ago

In 1987 my small exurbia community in Pennsylvania started recycling. We welcomed it, were proud to participate. Households were issued 4 containers, different colors for Paper, Aluminum, Glass, Plastic. No specifications about aluminum or other metals to separate or if foil there was ok. No instructions about used napkins, baby nappies, pizza boxes or newspapers or glossy magazines in the Paper sorter. Where to put metal lids from glass jars was also undecided so they stayed on the jars in the Glass bin. Hours were devoted every week sorting stuff we wanted to be rid of; a messy, boring, disgusting and time consuming job.
One good morning I am outside airing my dog when the trash truck shows up. Not a recycling truck with the special sign but the guys for general trash. I witness to my horror how the fellows empty the recycle bins directly into the rear hopper of the trash truck! I run out to ask, "Why? That was recycle stuff!" Answer, "Lady, the recycle people don't want more recycle stuff, they have too much already. They want the county to pay for processing the recyclables but the county won't. So it's going in the landfill like before." I was so hopping angry I asked them to please toss the colorful recycle bins in the hopper too; my recycle days were over.

Leanne K
Leanne Kabout a year ago

I really feel sorry for the actual activists who must have worked tirelessly for years to bring in recycling. That was monumental. Yet they are never mentioned and now must think why did they bother. Go to all that effort and campaigning endlessly despite the good luck with that comments, now watch as people.fail to recycle or recycle correctly. I tell you i would be mad as a cut snake.

Leanne K
Leanne Kabout a year ago

Recycling mistakes- pull my hair out. The same people who monotonously toss their aluminium can in the garbage bin will then chuck their used serviette into the recycling along with their take away styrofoam container three quarters full of food and say but its paper isnt it, or its recyclable isnt it. If you pretend to be confused or mildly surprised that you are not recycling correctly you are viewed as that good human who tries. Whereas the environmental warrior who wanted to do the right thing is seen as a harpy

Jim V
Jim V2 years ago


Jerome S
Jerome S2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Christine J
Christine J2 years ago

In my eternal quest for good grammar, I must correct your statement "All glass (or glasslike materials) are not created equal". That should read "Not all glass (or glasslike materials) is created equal. They mean two completely different things. Having got that out of the way, I found the article very interesting. There is widespread confusion everywhere about recycling. Local councils are often not as helpful as they might be in giving residents clear instructions. For example, mine says to "Take lids off bottles" and gives details of how they are made of different types of plastics, etc. However, it doesn't say whether to put them in the recycling or the general rubbish. Your article simply states to "Separate them and throw them away". Clear and concise.

Melania Padilla
Melania P2 years ago

Very nice article, shared everywhere

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago


joan silaco
joan s2 years ago

thank you

Donn M
.2 years ago

Our county doesn't have a recycling program, nor does our town any more so I take it to adjoining areas that do recycle. The only thing here I wasn't aware of was it being ok to leave staples in paper products. Good info to know.