Your Biggest Recycling Questions, Answered

You asked, we answered—and hopefully recycling just got a tiny bit easier.

Common Recycling Questions, Answered
Photo: Robert Hanson/Getty Images

If recycling were easy, everyone would do it. But wait–everyone should be recycling! We want to help make that happen.

Recycling gets easier every day, especially as companies prioritize making items that are easier to recycle. Did you know that coffee pods can actually go into your recycling bin? (The top goes in the trash, but you can rinse the plastic pod and add it to the bin.) And more and more other food containers now have recycling symbols. Still, plenty of items don't fall into standard categories and need a little special care while still more seem to be recycling mysteries.

To help dispel some of those recycling mysteries—and introduce you to zero waste disposal options and zero waste lifestyle tricks that can help cut down on the waste you bring home—we've answered common recycling questions straight from our readers here. Take a look, and keep an eye out for more opportunities on Instagram to submit your pressing questions on recycling, zero waste, and sustainability.

Questions have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q: Do recyclables need to be totally clean? Food containers especially...

Not totally! A quick rinse should be enough to get rid of anything that might mess with the recycling equipment. Just be sure large chunks are gone, and that the item is mostly clean. Rinsing recyclable food containers will also help make sure your recycling bin doesn't smell or get any unwelcome bugs.

Q: What are the easiest ways to start composting at home and also minimize plastic use?

The easiest way (especially for people in apartments or smaller homes) is to research any local compost sites. If there's one near you (gardening centers, schools, and parks often have them), you can keep your compostables in a bin (look for one with a charcoal or other odor-fighting filter, to avoid any smells) at home and bring them to the compost site regularly.

To reduce plastics, start with small, manageable things. Carry a reusable grocery bag with you at all times; try to buy products with cardboard or glass packaging. Consider looking into a zero waste grocery store to really kick off your zero waste journey. And pay attention: Once you start noticing how much plastic you use in your life, you can start finding simple replacements that work for you.

Q: Are empty toothpaste tubes recyclable? How about aluminum foil?

Check what the tube is made of first; toothpaste tubes made of aluminum are recyclable, but plastic ones are not.

In many cities, aluminum foil is also recyclable! (Check with your local recycling processing center to make sure it is in yours.) Clean it first, though—it might need a rinse, but it can go with aluminum beer and soda cans in the recycling.

Q: How can I start going zero waste in a condo or small space?

Look for easy swaps! You don't need to make your own toothpaste to be zero waste—just shop for a brand with recyclable tubes. You don't need to give up yogurt—just buy the kinds sold in recyclable cups. Think about what waste you produce and how you can cut back. Try shopping at farmers markets or a zero waste grocery store where you can use reusable containers, and look for local services that can handle your compost and recycling. No one can go zero waste overnight, so start by thinking about ways you can cut back, and go from there.

Q: My city doesn’t recycle glass. Is it worse to buy plastic and recycle, or buy glass and throw out?

If you're willing, you can look for surrounding services or centers that will take glass and commit to making the trip every few weeks to recycle your glass responsibly. Some services also offer mail-in service! Try to avoid plastics, if possible; think about reusing your glass containers instead.

Q: How can we get friends and family to recycle in places that don’t have household pick-up?

Look into mail-in services! Terracycle offers zero waste boxes that you can fill up and ship back to get the items inside recycled appropriately. You can also suggest making a semi-regular trip to the local recycling plant together: They'll have places to sort recyclables, and you could make it enticing by planning a group meal out after. Every little bit helps!

Q: What’s the best way to dispose of old sheets and pillows?

Try reusing or upcycling them! They can be used as cleaning rags, painting tarps, pet bedding, and more. Crafty types can turn them into costumes and play clothes for kids. Or consider donating them to a local animal shelter—many accept clean bedding to help line crates for the animals. (Double-check with your local shelter before donating.) Or check with your local recycling service to see if they accept textiles to recycle into stuffing, upholstery, or insulation.

Q: What is something most people think they can recycle but actually shouldn’t?

Pizza boxes! If they're greasy, they can't be recycled. Cut the greasy parts off, if possible, and recycle the rest, or try composting it.

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