By Marisa McNatt on Mar 22, 2010

What NOT to Put in the Bin

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Oftentimes, paper mills won’t accept shredded paper because of the difficulties it creates during the sorting process. Photo: Flickr/Peat Bakke

Ever wondered if that cryptic greasy paper plate could go in your recycling bin? Or would it really be a big deal if you threw in just one plastic bag?

It may seem simple to determine what doesn’t go in a recycling bin based on its labels or whether or not it shows a recycling symbol, but unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward.

So, where do you begin to find out of the specific materials that shouldn’t go in a recycling bin? Listed below are some materials that are not as commonly accepted, unless of course the bin or the program specifically says that you can drop it in. You can also use the Earth911 Recycling Directory to find out what your community can specifically accept, or where to recycle the materials listed below, elsewhere.

Shredded paper

When you shred paper with a paper shredder, you dramatically decrease the value of the paper because you shorten the length of the paper fiber, which is the source of value of the paper, according Eric Lombardi, the executive director of Eco-Cycle, one of the largest nonprofit recyclers in the U.S.

Nice white computer paper has a long, strong fiber, and every time you recycle that paper, the fiber gets shorter. If done properly, that computer paper can be recycled six to eight times.

However, if you shred that same crisp computer paper, you’re lucky if it can even be recycled once. Oftentimes, paper mills won’t accept shredded paper because of the difficulties it creates during the sorting process, says Lombardi.

“It gets mixed with everyone’s paper that day, and you put it in a giant pile at the recycling facility, there’s no way somebody is going to put ‘humpty-dumpty’ back together again,” says Lombardi.

If you have a document that is semi-confidential, rip it by hand three or four times, then throw it into the recycling bin. For documents that absolutely require shredding, locate a resource in your area that specifically handles shredded paper for recycling. Some curbside programs may even accept your shredded paper if it is bagged separately.

Read more
Is Shredded Paper Recyclable?

Brightly colored paper

Believe it or not, bright paper can stop a whole batch of paper from being recycled. The idea behind this one is simple, explains Dan Baril, recycling program manager at the University of Colorado at Boulder, “It’s like the red sock in the white load sort-of-syndrome.” If you need to buy colored paper, avoid really rich colors, and opt for pastels. Paper mills can usually handle the lighter tones.

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Juice boxes and milk cartons

This is a good opportunity to check with your municipality for the best recycling options. Some cities will accept milk and juice cartons for recycling with the paperboard stream. However, this is not true everywhere.

And while Eco-Cycle will accept milk and juice cartons, even with the plastic drinking-spot left in, they do not recycle milk and juice cartons found in non-refrigerated aisles used for packaging products such as soup and soy, rice or almond milk.

In 2008, a mere 18 percent of households had access to recycling programs that accepted cartons. To date, that number has increased to 36 percent.

Read more
How to Recycle Milk and Juice Cartons

Paper coffee cups

Currently, paper coffee cups (also called hot cups) are accepted for recycling at only few communities in the U.S. The thin polyethylene plastic coating on the cups that helps prevent liquid leaking has made it difficult for most processing services to recycle the cups.

With about 58 billion paper cups used each year in the U.S., the best thing you can do is simply reduce your usage. Bring along a reusable mug or ask your barista if they offer mugs for serving if you’re staying in the store to sip your drink.

“At the end of the day, we wouldn’t have a problem with paper hot cups if everyone was going to the coffee shop with their reusable mug,” says Wendell Simonson, marketing-director of Eco-Products, Inc. a Boulder, Colo., based company that sells single-use products that can generally be recycled or composted.

Secondly, if your community offers composting, look for cups made with plant-based coating, which allows the cups to be composted.

Starbucks has a pilot program that is working to prove that hot cups, even with the plastic coating, can be integrated into the cardboard recycling stream.

Read more
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Pizza boxes, soiled paper plates, napkins

Many people assume that pizza boxes are recyclable. In fact, most boxes have recycling symbols on them and are traditionally made from corrugated cardboard. They are, in and of themselves, recyclable.

Pizza boxes that are tarnished with food, or any paper product that is stained with grease or food, are not recyclable – unless you remove the tainted portions. Photo: Flickr/massdistraction

However, what makes parts of them non-recyclable is the hot, tasty treat that comes inside them, specifically, the grease and cheese from pizza that soil the cardboard.

Food is one of the worst contaminants in the paper recycling process. Grease and oil are not as big of a problem for plastic, metal and glass, as those materials are recycled using a heat process.

But when paper products are recycled, they are mixed with water and turned into a slurry. Since we all know water and oil don’t mix, the issue is clear.

Grease from pizza boxes causes oil to form at the top of the slurry, and paper fibers cannot separate from oils during the pulping process.

Essentially, this contaminant causes the entire batch to be ruined. This is the reason that other food related items are non-recyclable (used paper plates, used napkins, used paper towels, etc).

Read more
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Plastic bags and film

When left to the machines to sort the recyclable materials, “The one that causes the most heartburn is plastic bags,” says Lombardi. Plastic bags wrap themselves around the equipment, and as a result, the whole plant may have to shut down – expending time, energy and money. Repairmen often are hired to come in with knives to cut the plastic bags out of the guts of the machinery, Lombardi explains.

But this doesn’t mean you have to toss your bags into the trash. The good news is that most grocery stores throughout the U.S. now offer plastic bag recycling. In 2007, more than 830 million pounds of plastic bags and film were recycled nationwide, up 27 percent from 2005. Plastic bags can be made into dozens of new and useful products as well.

Read more
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The wrong plastic resin

Plastics #1 and #2, made from polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), are the most commonly accepted plastics for recycling. However, just because a plastic is made from HDPE and PETE does not mean that it will be accepted by your community’s recycling program. Instead of just focusing on the plastic’s number, also look for the specific details provided by your community’s program, such as, “narrow-necked bottles” and “rigid plastics.”

Even with a recycling program that accepts plastics #1-7, it’s often the shape of the plastic product that determines whether or not it can be recycled in that specific program. The most important thing to remember is to check your program and pay attention to the type of plastic you’re recycling.

Read more
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Bottle caps

Polypropylene (PP), or plastic #5, often makes up the plastic caps on bottles. So, what’s the big deal if the bottle is a #1 and the cap is a #5? They’re both plastic right? It’s not that simple.

It all comes down to the melting point, which has a difference of nearly 160 degrees Fahrenheit between the two. If a cap gets mixed in with bottles, the entire batch may be ruined because there is un-melted plastic in the mix.

A general rule of thumb is to remove all of the plastic caps and lids from your plastic bottles, jugs and tubs before recycling them. To check if your city accepts caps for recycling call or visit the Public Works or Department of Sanitation section of its Web site.

If you’re in an area where plastic cap recycling is not available, seek out retailers that accept them. Also, a few of companies are taking the lead when it comes to tackling the issue of recycling #5 plastics, such as Aveda.

Read more
360: Bottle Caps

Broken glass

Broken glass is recyclable, but it might not be reprocessed into new glass bottles. This is because when glass breaks, it can often be a challenge to separate it by color given the tiny pieces.

This glass can be used as an additive in fiberglass, tile and flooring, pavement or even turned back into sand to stop beach depletion. However, just because glass is crushed during recycling doesn’t mean you should do this prior to putting it in your bin. This could injure waste haulers or people sorting material at the MRF.

Read more
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What causes contamination

Knowing what goes in the bin is critical to ensuring the success of the recycling process. That’s because recycling actually happens when materials that would otherwise become waste are turned into valuable resources.

Putting the wrong materials into the recycling bin may ruin the entire batch. The material in a recycling container is taken to a material recovery facility (MRF), where the material is separated and processed for selling to companies that buy recycled materials for making products. The higher the quality of the recycled material, the more the companies will want to buy it, and the higher the price they’ll pay for it.

However, when you put materials into the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there, you may (at the very least) be slowing down the entire recycling process. Here’s what can happen when you put the wrong things in the recycling bin:

  • Machines that handle the sorting of the materials can become damaged, which means that precious time, energy and money will be needed to repair the machines.
  • If no equipment is available to do the job, more material in the bin that shouldn’t be there makes the job far more difficult and inefficient for workers sorting the material by hand.
  • Also, it may inhibit the materials in the bin that should be there from turning into the highest quality materials possible, or it could even send everything in the bin straight to the landfill. It may be cliché, but the expression, “one bad apple could spoil the bunch” pretty much sums up the situation.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated July 10, 2012, with revised links.

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Comments

  1. says

    I would be interested to hear what sort of effect miss-sorting of paper waste has on the actual recycling process. Is it not possible than it some cases the carbon footprint of the collections overshadows the recycling effort when the loads have to be disposed of with normal household waste? What sort of percentage of loads does this affect?

    Robert Daniel
    Paper Cups

  2. Anisha says

    I am still trying to understand “recycling”. Although I do follow the city guidelines as to what to put in the recycling bin, I still have hundreds of questions. Every day I come across something new that I am not sure whether can be recycled. I have been using tall plastic trash bags to collect my recyclables and then throw the bag into the bin. After reading this article, I am thinking whether i have been doing it all wrong and whether I should have dumped my recyclables directly into the bin. Please clarify.

  3. Treehugger says

    Stryofoam generally isn’t recyclable in curbside recycling programs either. The recycle symbol on some stryrofoam pieces can be deceiving for many people. Mailing and shipping stores like UPS sometimes take styrofoam packing materials for reuse, but we should all try to avoid using it in the first place.

  4. Bruce says

    The bottle cap issue was one I had trouble understanding until I spoke with our local recycler. I was originally led to believe the entire bottle was thrown out if the cap was left on. He explained that not only is that a falsehood they actually have no problem with water and soft drink caps since the process is to shred the entire unit with the density difference of the two plastics allowing seperation during a washing step where the heavier plastic is seperated quite easily. Leaving the plastic cap loose helps as well since the compaction during handling/shipping is more effective

  5. babs says

    We received a large magnet printed with all of the recycling #’s and do’s-and’don’ts listed on it. Most of the items mentioned above are on the YES list, which leaves me wondering which of these items, if any, are actually being recycled. Reading your article, it seems the city would have to have an extremely sophisticated system to be able to handle all of what we were told we could recycle. Any thoughts?

  6. Pam Kutscher says

    Some of the papers that are not “recyclable’ are, however, compostable. Shredded paper can make excellent “mulch” in your vegetable garden (make sure the ink is non-toxic first). I have used cardboard as an underlayment to other mulch to prevent weeds. Again, make sure the inks are non-toxic first.

    My biggest question is whether small plastic bottles (vitamins, etc) even though the right type–are they still recycled? I got the impression when touring a local recycling sorting plant that only the larger (milk, soda) bottles made it into the final bale of plastic to be shipped to the recycler.
    Thanks for all your good information.

  7. Lissa says

    Why does it have to be so difficult? No wonder so many people do not recycle let alone recycle properly. I would love a large magnet with do’s and don’ts! And all yeses is even better!

  8. says

    Marisa,
    This is a really tricky subject, and you did a good job capturing the key points. I’m sure it wasn’t easy – I wrestle with issues in the recycling industry everday! Good job.

  9. Kathy says

    I’m very interested in the idea of turning glass back into sand. Our community has depleted sand dunes, while most of our glass is going to the landfill. Any specifics would be appreciated.

  10. Laura says

    I think this article makes recycling too complicated, and these types of warnings (“One bad apple will spoil the whole batch…”) discourage people from recycling for fear that they will do more harm than good (or in some cases, it even gives people an excuse not to recycle). As someone who has worked in the recycling industry, I can tell you that, in most cases, it is simply a matter of volume. A few pizza boxes here and there are not going to be a problem. An entire college dorm’s worth of pizza boxes might be a different story! Plastic bottle caps will float to the top and get skimmed off during the recycling process. There is no need to take the labels off food bottles, jars, or cans. Yes, it is always best to follow the recycling program’s guidelines; some are more restrictive about what they take than others.
    There are a few exceptions–some things that REALLY shouldn’t go in the recycling bin unless specifically mentioned as allowable. Plastic bags really do clog up the equipment and can cause a lot of wasted time and even equipment damage. They should not be included with regular plastics.
    And glass recycling can be tricky. NEVER put anything but glass food/beverage containers in the glass bin. Ceramics, window glass, light bulbs–small amounts of these really can ruin an entire batch. Also, don’t mix colors unless specifically told to do so. Clear glass is much more valuable than brown or green, and even a very small amount of colored glass will cause that batch to be valued as colored. Green is the least valuable, so if you have mixed glass or odd colors (yellow or blue), put them in the green bin.

  11. says

    Great reminder article! I know recycling rules frustrate people, but do the best you can. Try puting your positive green energy behind something you can control, like energy use or supporting local farmers. Stay positive, every little bit helps!

  12. Mark says

    Wow. I had no idea the proces for recycling was so extensive. I thought it was simply put on a conveyor belt then people would pick through the recyclables, etc.
    Because of two things:
    1) What really distinguishes our civilization from others; what our “mark” will be is…landfills. We won’t be known for our statues or temples, like past societies. Rather, we will be known to future generations (if there are many/any beyond our societal structure) as those which left us-the future generation- garbage.
    2) Everything that is mass produced destroys the landbase and planet (www.storyofstuff.com); the waste generated to create the product is larger/worse than simply tossing the product out.

    Therefore everything I had to dispose of (aside from food); all the materials I, myself, couldn’t reuse, I would place into the recycling (after cleaning it thoroughly and to the best of my ability).
    My philosophy was- why condemn it to a landfill? Give it to the recyclers to at least give the material potential of being recycled. Even if it does not get ecycled, the recyclers have more knowledge and/or responsibility as to how to “trash” it properly. I figure: give it to them, they would know what to do with it or at least dispose of it in a more ethical and contentious way then simply giving it to the landfill. I also thought: maybe if they get enough of something that they dont’/can’t currently recycle, by getting enough of that material they may take that as an initiative or sign to develope a reclycing method for the material. (How cool would it be to have given that styrofoam cup to them. What if that cup was the one that triggered them to say, “Hey, there is a demand for us to recycle these, maybe we should try to devise a way to.” It’s a fun thought to think that maybe my current problems to the recycling system will actually be beneficial in the long run…)
    Apparently I may have just done more harm than good….scarey. Well back to my mind, to transform it once again by removing my false idea/misconceptions for truth/reality of the situation- I have hindered/troubled the goal I strive for (helping “Mom” [Earth] and living sustainably with her), etc.

    Thanks for reading,
    Mark.

  13. chris graham says

    It’s my medications and sharps I don’t know how to dispose of! My meds are changed often (many left over that drs. & others don’t want) & sharps placed in
    sharps containers still have to be disposed of – but where?

  14. Frances says

    Anisha – yes, put the items directly into the bin. I know it can smell in the house. If rinsing isn’t enough, and our dishwasher isn’t full, we put peanut butter/jam jars, greasy fast food plastic containers, etc. in there with our dishes.
    We have a large bin on wheels outside (with a top) that we dump our small kitchen one into every 5 or so days.

  15. Oemissions says

    those cheap reusable bags every store has now wit their logo on them are an environmental nightmare
    they are not accepted for recycling ,get holes quickly, torn seams, and are tossed in te landfill.
    how many are going to the landfill as garbage/

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