What Really Happens When You Recycle Wrong?

Have you ever wondered what actually happens when you don’t follow the recycling rules properly? When you make a mistake and recycle something that cannot be recycled? Or put glass into a container meant for paper recyclables? Is the sifting really that important?

Yes. If your recycling habits aren’t up to snuff, it may mean that it all ends up in the landfill.

That’s right, if recycling is poorly mixed or mishandled, it just gets dumped. Secondary sifting can prove too costly and time consuming, so it is often easier for centers to just trash mismanaged recyclables. But what about when you mix one little glass jar with a big box of plastics? Depending on the features of your local recycling center, inappropriately mixed items in the waste stream can clog up machinery, resulting in even greater costs and manpower hours.

And it gets worse. The US, along with a handful of other countries, used to ship a hefty portion of our recyclables to China. But, as of Jan 1, 2018, China is no longer accepting foreign waste. The foreign recyclables were often so poorly sorted and poorly cleaned, it no longer became worthwhile for the Chinese to sort through and process it. That means here in the US, we need to clean up our act.

Recycling should be easy, and it can be. Here are 4 ways to avoid recycling mistakes and support a smarter, more sustainable American future…

Related: How to Lead a Nearly Zero Waste Life

Clean all of your items.

Bad news: if you aren’t cleaning your items, they may not be getting recycled at all. Things need to be reasonably clean in order for recycling facilities to process them. And it doesn’t mean you have to take out the rubber gloves. Just a quick rinse before recycling will do. If you recycle jars that contain sticky substances like peanut butter, just fill them with some warm soapy water and let them sit in the sink for an hour or so. Follow with a quick rinse and all your problems will be solved. Your local recycling center will thank you.

Closeup portrait woman hand throwing empty plastic water bottle in recycling bin.

Separate with intention.

If you carelessly mix your recyclables, you might want to start paying more attention. Depending on your local facility, carelessly sorted recyclables can result in severe slow-downs at the recycling plant. If the mis-sorted material isn’t caught, it can clog up machinery, resulting in expensive repairs and wasteful man hours to get things up and running again. Then again, some recycling centers don’t require you to sort your recyclables. That’s why you need to…

Know your local recycling guidelines.

You can’t just throw plastics in to a recycling container willy-nilly. Not every recycling center can handle every type of recycling. Most centers accept #1 and #2 plastics, but beyond that, it depends on what your local recycling center is outfitted to handle. Some plastics require expensive machines to process, like single-use shopping bags, which is why they are only accepted at select recycling centers. Do a quick online search to find out more about what plastics your local center accepts.

Also try to find out if your recycling center uses a single-stream or a multi-stream system.  If it is a single-stream system, you can mix all of your recyclables—glass, plastic, paper—in one container. A multi-stream system requires more awareness so that mismatched recyclables don’t clog up the system, which can be costly and time consuming. And whatever you do, don’t put trash into your recycling. It makes the entire process harder for everyone.

Use less disposables.

The less trash you make, the less you have to recycle. Stop buying products that come in disposable packaging in favor of making them at home or using reusable bulk bin bags. Repurpose and reuse glass jars and thick containers. Be conscious of how much overall trash you are creating and work to cut it. The less waste you create, the less you have to worry about recycling.

Recycling can seem like a pain when you first get started, but it becomes habitual. Make your recycling setup as simple and easy-to-use as possible to minimize mistakes and time consumption. Recycling is not hard. It just takes awareness. Is that too much to ask?

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237 comments

Marie W
Marie W4 months ago

Thank you for posting

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hELEN h
hELEN h4 months ago

Tyfs

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Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Thanks

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Mike R
Mike R7 months ago

Thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S8 months ago

thanks

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Jerome S
Jerome S8 months ago

thanks

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Jim Ven
Jim Ven8 months ago

thanks for sharing

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Paulo R
Paulo R9 months ago

ty

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Angel W
Past Member 9 months ago

thanks

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Stephanie s
Stephanie Y9 months ago

Thank you

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