Expert Insights

Pro Tips for Home Recycling

Dave Nichols
Jul 2023
Doing your part to reduce plastic waste feels good. So does giving paper and glass products a second life by avoiding the landfill. But how you recycle is now more important than ever before. Here are some tips for recycling at home.
A family putting their recycling into the recycle bin

How to Recycle at Home

Doing your part to reduce plastic waste feels good. So does giving paper and glass products a second life by avoiding the landfill. But how you recycle is now more important than ever before.

Helping each other, the animals and the planet by recycling is what we all want. But there are many questions around how to do it properly. Do you separate the bottle caps from the glass bottles? Do you need to rinse out milk containers? Can a pizza box be recycled? You may have even wondered what the heck all those little printed numbers mean inside the ‘recycle triangle logo’ often found on the bottom of household plastic products.

Before we get into answering those questions, let’s first take a look at how we got here today.

a man putting something into the recycling bin

A Brief History on Recycling

Recycling became popular in the 1970s. Our recycling was a multi-part process of separating various glass, paper and plastic products into separate bins. People used to spend a lot of time sorting their recyclables, removing labels, washing glass bottles and feeling like they were doing something good. That all changed in the year 2000 when America started sending all our recycling to China. People put all their recyclable material in one bin and then waste disposal companies sent it all to China.

As you might expect, this resulted in enormous trash islands in China and massive amounts of plastic ending up in the oceans. America didn’t seem to care. The trash was gone from our view. Out of sight, out of mind. It was no longer our problem, right? But then something amazing happened. China said, “No More!” Looking into its own environmental issues, China stopped accepting recyclables from the United States in 2018. That forced waste companies and the American public to rethink recycling. We have had to go back to basics, sorting our recyclable material and do a better job of separating them.

a high speed picture of a winding road

The Road Ahead

Recycling is good, but you should know that tons of our recyclables still end up in landfills or oceans. Plus, only nine percent of the world’s plastic is currently recycled at all. The biggest recycling problem we have today involves how we manage the use of plastics, largely because they take so long to decompose. For many years, the plastics industry has managed to shift the blame for making plastic products to the consumer allowing manufacturers to continue producing single-use plastics and condemn the user if the item is not properly recycled. Clearly, this is not working.

people picking up bottles that they can recycle

Recycling Best Practices

First, you need to know that all is not lost. There is a lot being done, and that can be done, to help our plastics problem. We can all compost organic material and use it in our gardens, sort our plastics and learn more about what our local waste company can actually recycle. Recycling is a regional enterprise, and each city’s waste company has its own rules on what they will accept to recycle. Contact them for a specific list of what they do, and just as importantly, what they don’t recycle.

One of the best things you can do to really understand what can be recycled is to take a field trip down to where the recycling is done in your town. You’ll likely notice a lot of people separating their items out, as well as recycling workers and big machines that help sort the recycling. We need actual human beings to pull the recycling apart because most customers don’t bother to know what is actually recyclable and what is not. With all that in mind, here are some universal recycling tips.

Plastic bag in the ocean

Plastic Bags

Never, ever, throw a plastic bag in the recycling. These bags are the number one contaminant in recycling loads. They get all tangled up in the equipment and cause the recycling machines to shut down. Not good. Plus, plastic bags dissolve into microplastics that end up in fish, and ultimately, on your dinner plate.

When it comes to sandwich bags, bubble wrap, and any thick plastic bags, they need to be taken to a commercial drop-off area - NOT tossed in your residential recycling bin. Never bag your recyclables. Dump them loosely into the big blue recycling container.

A handful of plastic bottlecaps

Small Stuff

Do not recycle small items such as plastic straws, bottle caps, plastic cutlery, or anything smaller than a credit card. Small stuff will also get gummed up in the recycling machinery and shut it down.

Waste bin full of food, bottle, cans, and other recycled material

Food Stuff

If food waste of any kind is found in your recycling, such as tomato sauce inside a glass bottle, it will be sent directly to a landfill and not be recycled. The rule for recycling companies is, “Keep it clean, empty and dry.” If you are recycling glass bottles or jars, they have to be clean enough that you would consider using them again.

Many recycling companies will not take cardboard pizza boxes because people don’t clean them out. If there is cheese and grease in the box, it will go to landfill. If you can clean up those boxes and containers, you could save that material from ending up in landfills.

A woman sorting her recyclables

Combined Materials

Any time you try to recycle something made from two different materials, such as a plastic-coated or wax-coated paper coffee cup, or flexible packaging such as a paper box with a plastic front, it cannot be recycled. Recycling only works when products are separated into like materials.

Woman carrying cardboard to recycle

Paper Products

Paper makes up 23 percent of municipal solid waste generated each year. The good news is that Americans recycle nearly 70 percent of the paper they use. When using paper at home or at the office, use recycled paper and print on both sides of the sheet. By recycling one ton of paper, we can save 17 trees, 7,000 gallons of water and three cubic yards of landfill space. Also, you can recycle newspapers, magazines, catalogs and phone books. When it comes to cardboard, flatten boxes into three foot by three foot pieces.

Waste management workers sorting through garbage

Recyclable Plastics

Take a look at that little recycling triangle logo. The plastic item you are hoping to recycle has a “resin code” number 1 through 7 printed or stamped into it. The higher the number, the less likely it will be recycled. Most recycling centers only recycle plastics marked 1 and 2. Plastics can be very confusing when recycling. For instance, you cannot recycle plastic bags (as mentioned earlier).

Never recycle plastic cutlery, straws, and those clamshell plastic containers your take-out food comes in. Also, any plastic bags that you can tear such as from cereal boxes, chip bags, or cracker containers, cannot be recycled. Though, paper cartons such as cereal boxes can. Keep in mind, too, that no polystyrene foam (used in packing electronics and appliances) and no plastic wrap can be recycled.

To help you get to the bottom of which plastics can be recycled, check out this handy plastic recycling guide courtesy of Green Living Tips.

A plastic bag littered on a hiking trail

"Wishcycling" Beware

When asking the people who actually handle and separate all our recycling to name the worst thing consumers do to keep recycling from being effective, the universal answer is something called “wishcycling.” That is when you optimistically throw something into the recycle bin that doesn’t belong there. By doing that, you can contaminate your entire load of recyclable material.

Waste management companies send an enormous amount of our “wishcycled” material to landfills every day. Getting to know what your town’s recycling center will actually take is extremely important. Remember that such household stuff as used paint cans, wood, clothing, toys, batteries, and electronics such as old computers and TVs, all have specialized drop-off centers in your area. According to the EPA, Americans throw away two million tons of used electronics every year.

Single use straws

Stop Single-Use Plastics

We will never end the plastic problem unless we stop the use of single-use plastic containers. More than 35 million tons of plastics are generated in the U.S. each year. Due to public outcry, many companies are committing to reduce their use of plastic significantly. Entire cities have already banned the use of plastic straws. Grocery stores now charge you for plastic bags in an effort to encourage you to bring your own cloth shopping bags and get you to stop using plastic. Disposable plastic water bottles have also been banned in certain businesses. But this is just the beginning.

Reduce your use of plastic at home, at work and in your community. Tell your local city and state officials that we need to ban single-use plastics. We must hold the producers of plastics responsible for the global ecological threat that their products continue to cause.

Man recycling cans and bottles

Let’s Recap

The basics of recycling are simple. Recycle clean glass and plastic bottles, cans, paper and cardboard. Keep food and liquid out of your recycling. Never put your recycling in bags and never, ever, recycle plastic bags in your recycling bin. And please, friends, no dirty diapers in your recycling.

To find out more about what you can do to be part of the Great Global Cleanup, click here.