Recycle smarter with these simple guidelines.

By Anna Maltby
Updated July 18, 2019
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If there’s something you just can’t reduce or reuse (two tenets of a zero waste lifestyle), recycling is the way to go. When figuring out how to recycle, establishing a recycling system the whole household can stick to is key. So is recycling intelligently: Blindly tossing containers, odds and ends, and other items that are supposedly recyclable into the bin and hoping for the best may actually do more harm than good.

Researching answers to common recycling questions can help, but so can a few simple guidelines. To recycle responsibly, first stop making these major recycling mistakes, then follow this advice from Keefe Harrison, CEO of The Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping corporations and communities improve recycling. You’ll be sorting your plastics appropriately and placing everything in the correct bin in no time.

Mistake #1: Buying Difficult Containers

The fix: Opt for simpler packaging.

Consumers love pouches because they don’t break or spill (and no spoon is required!), but they are not recyclable—sorting machines confuse the flat format for paper, and they contaminate the batch of paper recyclables they find their way into. Plus, they’re often made with multiple kinds of materials that can’t be recycled the same way. When in doubt, stick with boxes, tubs, bottles, and jars—simple, single-material containers.

Mistake #2: Wish-cycling (hoping that an item is recyclable and tossing it in the bin without confirming if it is, letting someone else figure it out)

The fix: When in doubt, leave it out.

It costs energy, time, and money when something that isn’t recyclable has to be pulled out and rerouted. Don’t just toss it in and hope for the best.

Mistake #3: Tossing dirty containers

The fix: Clean containers (but not too much).

Rinse out containers that had liquids, gels, or food inside, and use a spatula to scrape out excess material that won’t come out with water. Nothing should fall out if you shake the container. But don’t stress about scrubbing with hot water and soap, and skip the dishwasher: It isn’t necessary for most recycling programs and wastes water and energy. Screw plastic lids back on plastic containers; remove metal lids and rings from glass containers and bottles. (They may be recyclable as scrap metal, but check with your local service.)

Mistake #4: Using recycling bin liners

The fix: Skip the bags.

Tidy recyclers may want to line their inside bins, but many facilities aren’t able to break open plastic bin liners, and they can even get stuck inside the inner workings of the giant sorting machines, necessitating costly, time-consuming repairs. Better not to bag in the first place—just rinse out your bin when needed.

Mistake #5: Leaving plastic film with other plastics

The fix: Drop it off.

Plastic bags, film, and wrap can’t be placed in the recycling bin, but they can be recycled—many grocery stores across the country (as well as Target, WalMart, and Wegmans) have collection boxes where you can drop these items. Don’t forget the plastic bags inside cereal boxes, plastic sleeves for newspapers, the packaging toilet paper comes in, and even the small strips of plastic that wrap around bottle caps to prevent leaks.

Mistake #6: Following the wrong guidelines

The fix: Know your local rules.

Because recycling programs differ from town to town, the best thing you can do is know your municipality’s rules and guidelines. Google “[your town and state] recycling” to find more info, and contact your Public Works department to see if they’ll send you a sticker or poster you can tack up next to your home’s recycling bin as an easy reference.