Can I Recycle This?

Of all the questions I am asked about going green, probably the most common is “can I recycle this?” Most people want to do the right thing by recycling, but it’s not always clear what is recyclable and what is not. Every day, the average American produces 4.6 pounds of trash, 75 percent of which is recyclable if we just pay a little attention to how and where to recycle.

If you aren’t recycling at the home and office, start today. Many cities like mine have adopted a "single stream" collection system, meaning that recyclables do not need to be sorted in separate bins. All recyclables can be placed in one bin and are taken away and sorted at the site. So really, it only takes the addition of one separate recycling can in your home and you are well on your way. Despite this fact, members of my own extended family (who shall remain nameless but know who they are) still can’t seem to participate. Of course this drives me completely crazy and I just end up just taking my recyclables home with me whenever I visit them. For me, recycling is just something you do as a member of society – like paying taxes or obeying the rules of the road. It’s just a given and there is really just no excuse for not doing it, except lack of information. So let me try to shed some light on the recycling rules for the different materials that we should all be recycling.

Metal – One of the most recyclable materials, virtually all types of metal can go in the recycling bin including soda cans; canned food containers (a quick rinse of these is fine, only remove labels if requested by your recycling facility); rinsed aluminum pie tins and foil; metal bottle caps; wire hangers; empty aerosol cans (yep, even aerosol cans as long as they are empty); and other scrap metal. Only note on metal recycling – no batteries or electronics. Those items should be dropped off at your local hazardous waste disposal location; check to find the drop site nearest you.

Plastic – The key to plastics is the numbers found on the bottom of the containers. #1 and #2 are almost universally recyclable. #5 plastics are usually not recyclable in curbside programs. Other numbers depend upon the recycler. To simplify plastics recycling, here is the basic rule of thumb – if the plastic bottle has a neck that's smaller than the body and has "alor2" symbol on the bottom, nearly every recycling program will accept it. But please remove the caps from the bottles and throw them in the trash or drop them off to a company who will recycle them (more information on that coming in a future post). If left in with the recycling, those little caps can ruin a whole batch of recyclables. Plastic bags are also not recyclable in curbside waste collection, but are recyclable at most grocery stores – you will find a bin at the front the store dropping these off for recycling.

Glass – Just rinse out glass bottles and jars and throw away or recycle their caps. Don’t worry about the labels. They will be burned off at the recycling facility. The only thing to remember about glass is that some programs won't take certain colors of glass (particularly blue). Also treated glass, like broken dishes, incandescent light bulbs, and window glass should be thrown in the regular trash can.

Paper – Paper can be recycled up to seven times, and it is easier, cheaper, and more energy efficient to make pulp out of recycled paper than wood. So recycling paper makes a huge difference. In 2008, 57.4 percent of the paper consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recycling. You can recycle paper in almost all forms, from cardboard to newspapers, copy paper to envelopes (yes, even with that little plastic window), and even the glossy paper found in advertisements and magazines. You don’t even need to remove staples, paper clips, or spirals in notebooks; they'll be taken out during the recycling process. Now really, could they make it any easier for us? The only things to watch out for are Pressure Sensitive Adhesives or PSAs, which can ruin an entire batch of recycled paper. So please remove any complimentary address labels and other stickers before you toss your junk mail. The same goes for sticky notes. Stamp adhesive is fine, it’s just the peel & stick kind of stuff that gums up the paper recycling process. Also, don't shred paper unless you really need to. Most recyclers are not able to accept shredded paper.

Probably the most important thing to remember about paper is to leave out anything that's food-stained, like pizza boxes (though you can rip the box apart, discarding the soiled part and recycling the rest). Here’s an interesting blog post to check out on this subject from the Mother Nature Network. When in doubt though, throw it out. Food is one of the worst contaminants in the paper recycling process. Whole batches of otherwise recyclable paper end up in the landfill because of spoilage due to food. Also out: plastic-coated paper plates and cups (but flattened milk cartons are usually acceptable); heavily dyed, brightly colored paper (it’s just too difficult to bleach it back to a usable form); and books, but you can donate these to a local library, school, or charitable organization.

Still unsure about what can be recycled or where you can go to recycle your items? The single best source of information on this topic can be found at Just enter what you want to recycle and your zip code to find out almost anything you need to know about recycling in your area.

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