What can’t be recycled and what can? Where? How? Why does it often cost so much?

For so long, I didn’t know the answers to these questions. It was easier to just not deal with it at all. Plus, I would hear about lots of recyclable materials being dumped into the landfill anyway. So then I would think — what’s the point? 

Whether you find yourself in the same place today or not, I hope to shed some light on this tricky topic!

Why Is It Important To Recycle Right, Or At All? 

First off, I will never, ever, ever say recycling is the answer. In fact, if I were to list the things you should do before recycling, I would list at least 4… Oh wait, I have! 😉 If you’re taking small steps into this zero-waste lifestyle, I would follow each of these R words in this order first: 

To make the greatest positive impact on the environment, we need a cyclical economy (everything reused / repurposed) instead of a linear economy (make-take-use-dispose). Applying those first 4 R words to your life is the most important. 

BUT, we should not give up on recycling! Once everything has been reduced, reused, repaired or repurposed, this is where recycling comes into our circular model. If an item is at its end but could be recycled and therefore given another life, it totally makes sense to do this. Paper, plastic, certain metals, and even unique items like electronics can often be given a second life or more. 

Preserving the lifespan of a material for as long as possible is where recycling definitely becomes important. However, the efforts to recycle are often exhausted without the intended outcome due to this dirty word: contamination. 

Contamination is also what drives the upward cost of recycling. 

If something is thrown into a recycling bin that cannot be recycled, it is called a contaminant. The entire batch is often ruined. 

I remember hearing this a few years ago and thinking “No way!” It was such a depressing idea. To think a whole bin of carefully sorted items could be thrown out as garbage due to one mistake! I didn’t want to believe it. 

But sadly, this is true much of the time. A facility loses valuable time and efficiency within their system by having laborers sort through the materials by hand. This becomes a major contributor to why their cost increases. (To see an example of this, watch this video)

With the high, high volume of recyclable materials brought in, laborers cannot get to every possible contaminant in time. This can result in damaged equipment and possible injury to employees as they try to fix the problem. 

For example: plastic bags.

NEVER throw your plastic bags into regular collection bins OR throw a plastic bag filled with recyclables into the bins. These bags are not meant for typical recycling facilities and jam the machines. This becomes a tedious (and often dangerous) task for employees to unjam and fix by hand. Instead, drop off your plastic bags at a specific collection bin — usually found within grocery stores. They will be collected and recycled properly. 

Contamination also results in entire batches of recyclables being sent back to the collection facility. They could not be melted down / recycled into quality materials. This type of contamination usually involves food or some kind of toxic waste. 

This is why our recycling is no longer being accepted by China and many other countries now. Our level of contamination has crossed the line of fixing in any kind of efficient, safe, or high-quality manner. 

So, what does this mean?

Our efforts and money are often being dumped right into the landfill anyway (or overflowing – literally – into other countries and waters). 

BUT, the opposite is also true. We can learn to recycle right if we pay more attention in our efforts to what can’t be recycled, what can, where to recycle, and so on. Then we’re not only saving items from polluting the environment but we’d also be saving money. The cost for recycling services would go down if we just did it right. Of course, mistakes happen, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying our very best. 

Now I hope that doesn’t feel like I’m putting a scary level of pressure on you. Honestly, just like any other habit, recycling right becomes easier the more you practice! 

I’ve learned A LOT since my response years ago, when I felt too overwhelmed by it all and didn’t even want to try. Kevin and I have both come so far in our learning, we’re always learning more, and recycling is really important to us today. (Kevin even saves his recyclables at work to bring home so they don’t get thrown in the trash… what a man!)

We don’t actually pay for a recycling service at our home. Our city has a central drop-off location that’s FREE and it only took a quick Google search to find! Do some digging and you may be surprised at the resources you’ll find in your area… (and if you don’t have access to something free, what about combining with your family/friends/neighbors to recycle together and split the cost?)

Here’s a snapshot of what this looks like: 

Tips On Recycling Right

So now we’ve established why recycling is important. And you know it’s even more important to recycle right. Let’s dive into some tips! These will help you figure out what can’t be recycled, what can, and where it should go.

What Do The Numbers Mean?

photo of plastic bottle with number 2 inside recycling symbol of arrows

Chances are, you’ve seen the symbol above. You may have noticed the number in the middle of the circling arrows isn’t always the same. So, what does it mean? Basically, the numbers refer to what kind of plastic the item is made of. This is important because not all plastics can be mixed together. Like this article breaks down, it would be like trying to recycle glass and paper together, but the materials won’t and can’t mix. 

Most plastic containers are numbered 1 or 2 because these are the most commonly recyclable plastics. The numbers 3-7 increase in the level of difficulty for recycling, but should not be discarded because of that. 

Honestly, I recommend paying less attention to the numbers and paying more attention to what your local facility tells you. In America, we do not have a standardized recycling program across all states where you could expect everything to be the same (at the current time of this writing). So, it’s super important to look up online or directly contact your local facility’s guidelines and follow those. 

Now let’s get into my top 4 resources in order to make sure you’re meeting specific criteria in your area. (based in America)

Top 4 Resources To Guide You In Your Area

person holding phone with recycling symbol of arrows on it, representing researching what can't be recycled and what can
  1. Waste Management has 3 rules you can generically follow to recycle right, and they have a downloadable guide for what can’t be recycled and what can – this is helpful to keep in your home!
  2. Recycle Smart has an online tool that I LOVE called the “Recyclopedia.” You can just type in any possible item you’re wondering about for guidance on what to do! This comes in so handy and I’m always learning new things. Someone recently asked me about Keurig cups, and I wasn’t sure, so I typed it into the tool — unfortunately, they cannot be recycled in most local facilities. (Apparently Keurig is working to change that by the end of 2020, but we’ll see…) 
  3. How2Recycle shows how to read the recycling labels properly!
  4. Earth911 has a search feature to make sure something can be recycled in your local area. This was what helped Kevin and I to find the central drop-off location in our city — we had never heard of it before!

Give It A Try!

Recycling, as mentioned above, should be the last resort to extending an item’s lifespan. If you can refuse or reduce the packaging, if you can reuse an item many times (like pasta sauce jars — they’re perfect for storing items in bulk!), and if you can repair something… do these things first. 

Then, once you’ve done your best to follow the previous “Rs,” turn to recycling. And when you do, recycle right. 

Check your local (and online) resources. 

Build better habits. 

Save more from overflowing our landfills, oceans, and developing countries. 


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