The New Rules of Recycling

Recycling has changed a lot—here's what you need to know to learn how to recycle common items the right way.

Setting up a comprehensive recycling system seems like a cure-all for containers people know are bad for the environment. A single-use plastic bottle? It'll get recycled. An inordinate amount of Styrofoam packing peanuts? Toss them in the recycling bin. The it's okay, it can be recycled mentality is great—until it becomes clear that recycling isn't the cure-all everyone thought it was.

According to National Geographic, 91 percent of plastic isn't recycled. The 5 Gyre Institute, a nonprofit that researches and encourages action against plastic pollution, estimates that less than 10 percent of plastic is recycled, while 8 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year. Research suggests that the vast majority of plastic isn't recycled, and new restrictions in China—which until recently accepted the bulk of recyclable items from the United States, according to The Atlantic—mean even more recyclable goods are ending up in the trash and, eventually, landfills.

One of the best options moving forward is to adopt—or attempt to adopt—a zero waste lifestyle that reduces the amount of recyclable materials (especially plastics) people use. This lifestyle includes reliance on zero waste disposal options such as donating and composting, all in order to send as little trash to landfills as possible.

After trying zero waste tips and shopping at a zero-waste grocery store if there's one in the area, recycling is still better than sending recyclable items such as plastics and glass straight to landfills, though. Shoot for the stars, right? Perhaps your plastics (and other recyclables) will be among the items that are recycled. Just do your best to rinse off or empty everything before sticking it in the recycling bin. Lingering food or liquids can lead to odor or insect options, and some recycling systems can struggle to process leftover bits of food.

Scroll on to learn how to dispose of common recyclables. For more specific items—including eyeglasses, batteries, and coffee pods—turn to our guide to recycling anything or this list of items that can't go into your recycling bin, but can still be disposed of responsibly. If you're in doubt about anything, contact your local recycling service to find out specifics for your area.

Plastic Recycling

Wondering about the little recycling numbers on your plastics? They identify what kind of plastic the container is made of and can help you figure out if the plastic can be recycled at a particular facility. Check the bottom of plastic containers for their numbers, or see if your local recycling center has a plain-English guide to what it can and can't recycle.

Most communities offer some plastic recycling, but few are able to recycling all kinds of plastics. Check that your community can recycle the type of plastic before tossing it in the bin. (Yes, sorting plastics does matter in many communities.) If your community can't recycle the item, you'll want to research where you might be able to take or send it for recycling. In the future, consider trying a non-plastic alternative to the item.

  1. PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate)
  2. HDPE or PE-HE (high density polyethylene)
  3. V or PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
  4. LDPE or PE-LD (low density polyethylene)
  5. PP (polypropylene)
  6. PS (polystyrene)
  7. Other or O

Electronics Recycling

Many nonprofits and companies offer electronics recycling for everything from old phones and batteries to laptops and TVs. Try Call2Recycle for many items, or check retailers—including Amazon, Apple, Best Buy, and Staples—for electronics recycling opportunities. Electronics cannot go through recycling centers, so keep them out of the recycling bin.

Aluminum and Metal Recycling

Aluminum cans, aluminum foil and bakeware, and steel or tin cans (as for soup, canned veggies, etc.) are all metals that can be processed by many recycling systems. Double-check with your local recycling service that these items don't need to be sorted separately from other recyclables, but often, they can go straight in the recycling bin. (Remember to give them a rinse first, to avoid odor or insect issues in the bin).

Cardboard and Paper Recycling

Most paper products can be easily recycled. Much of it can also be composted, when shredded first, but recycling is certainly the more common method of disposal. Corrugated cardboard, magazines (even the glossy ones), office paper, newspapers, and cartons can all be recycled. Greasy pizza boxes, unfortunately, cannot, which makes another argument for looking into local composting opportunities.

Glass Recycling

Most glass can be recycled, though many facilities require that the items be sorted by color (clear, brown, or green). Not all glass can be recycled, though. Keep the following glass items out of your recycling bin: glass contaminated with stones, dirt or food waste; ceramics, including dishware and ovenware; glass treated to be heat-resistant (like Pyrex); mixed colors of broken glass; mirror or window glass; crystal; and light bulbs. Whenever possible, reusing glass containers is an excellent alternative to recycling. Donating well-maintained bakeware and other glass dishes is also a good option.

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles