Do you make these 7 common recycling mistakes?

Sorted bales of PET plastic ready for sale / Nick Saltmarsh via Flickr

You want to be a conscientious recycler. Unfortunately, many people, maybe including you, find recycling rules complicated. After all, local governments set their own recycling rules, and the US has thousands of them.

Some people recycle carelessly and sometimes they end up sabotaging everyone else’s efforts. Here are seven common recycling mistakes. Mistakes we can all easily avoid.

1. Not separating recyclables correctly

Single stream recycling merely requires separating recyclables from regular trash. Most American cities that offer recycling use single-stream. If you live in one of them, you still have to separate them correctly. Single stream recycling results in such a high contamination rate that China, which once eagerly bought the world’s recyclables, slammed the door. It threw the entire recycling industry in the US and other developed nations into an uproar.

Perhaps the most serious problem with single-stream recycling is aspirational recycling. That is, people non-recyclable items in their recycling containers because they think they ought to be recyclable. Putting wrong things out for recycling is probably the most common of recycling mistakes.

Other people are too careless to pay attention. Maybe that’s how coat hangers, electric cords, or other tanglers make their way to the materials handling facilities (MRFs) that sort and sell the recyclables. 

Some places require residents to separate some kinds of recycling from others, such as keeping paper separate. Still others require additional sorting to separate paper, plastic, metal, and glass. It’s less convenient, especially if you have to carry recyclables to a drop-off center. But it results in a cleaner, less contaminated product, which makes the whole recycling process less expensive and brings higher prices.

2.  Using only curbside recycling

Not recycling what can be recycled is also a common recycling mistake. Just because something isn’t on your town’s list of what it accepts in recycling doesn’t mean you can’t recycle it. For example, you can’t put plastic bags out at the curb, but you can take them back to a store that provides recycling services. 

You can also take dead rechargeable batteries back to many of the places that sell them. Single use alkaline batteries, unfortunately, can’t yet be recycled economically. Handle them as hazardous household wastes

More and more towns are banning glass from curbside recycling but providing drop-off locations for it. It’s a mistake not to participate. Just be sure you’re recycling only bottles, jars, and jugs. Other things use different and incompatible kinds of glass. 

TerraCycle makes a business of recycling materials that more accessible recycling programs can’t handle. You can find other places to take or send difficult-to-recycle materials at Earth911.

3. Leaving food residue on recyclables

pizza boxes. recycling mistakes
Pizza boxes / Wikimedia Commons

Jars, cans, or other containers need to be reasonably clean. You don’t need to wash them as thoroughly as you wash your dishes, but you do need to rinse them to make sure no food residue can get all over anything else. 

Food residue doesn’t harm glass, plastic, or metal in the recycling, but it can destroy the value of paper or cardboard. Including the value of paper or cardboard your more careful neighbors put out.

Shake your pop can or beer can over the sink until nothing else comes out for the same reason. 

Otherwise recyclable materials with grease on them—pizza boxes or sacks that held fries, for example—likewise contaminate paper. 

4. Putting recyclables in a plastic bag

I see this point regularly in accounts of recycling mistakes, and frankly, I don’t understand why it happens often enough for such frequent mention. Plastic bags get tangled in sorting equipment. That’s true whether they’re empty shopping bags or trash bags full of recyclables.

And how is anyone at the MRF supposed to know which trash bags actually have recyclables in them instead of trash?

Bagging recyclables guarantees that they will end up in a landfill. 

5. Letting paper or cardboard get wet

Water weakens the fibers of paper and cardboard and renders them useless for recycling. So don’t leave them out in the rain. Don’t try to recycle any paper from a flooded basement. That paper is compostable, so you don’t have to put it in the trash. 

Are you seeing a pattern here? Various kinds of paper can be the most valuable part of the recycling stream, but they are also the most vulnerable to damage. A crushed can or cracked plastic container keeps its value for recycling. Contaminated paper doesn’t. So let’s be mindful of paper’s fragility and take steps to protect it.

Of all these recycling mistakes, trying to recycle wet paper is probably the most common one for conscientious and knowledgeable recyclers to make.

6. Removing caps and lids from plastic containers

recycling triangle with PET bottles. recycling mistakes
But someone took the caps off!

Remove lids from glass jars and bottles, but do not remove plastic lids or caps from plastic jars and bottles. Metal lids will probably make it through the MRF to the proper place. Plastic caps will not. They will fall out of the system and have to be swept up and go to the landfill. 

This point is somewhat controversial. I have seen instructions on other sites to throw out the caps. But on one of my tours of a recycling facility, the tour guide told me that is an obsolete practice. Actually, the bottles and caps are made of different kinds of plastic, but they’re easily enough separated at processing facilities. They have to get there, instead of the landfill, first!

That is, removing the cap and putting it in recycling separately is a worse mistake than throwing it in the trash.

7. Not emptying bottles before recycling them 

Sometimes people decide not to finish their bottle of water or tea or whatever. They put the cap back on and dump it. They might put it in a trash can, liter the side of the road, or put it out for recycling. That might be one reason why some people still advocate removing and discarding the cap. 

And this point gets us back to the first of the recycling mistakes in this post. Only put in a recycling container items your MRF can process and sell. And that doesn’t include any liquid.

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