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Recycling 101: How & Why You Should Recycle

Jump Links: Why You Should Recycle | Before Recycling | Reduce and Reuse | Buy Recycled | Things You Should Never Recycle | Bottom Line

The average American creates about 4.48 pounds of trash per day. Currently in the US, 262 million tons of trash is accumulated every year.  Knowing these numbers makes it even more clear how vital recycling is to protect the environment and conserve more of our resources.

While it is common knowledge that recycling can help the environment, there is a good chance that you’ve heard some myths and rumors about how and why to recycle that are not completely true.

As we go over some general guidelines about recycling, remember that the options and rules regarding curbside recycling could change depending on where in the country you live. There are various websites that will allow you to research what is allowed in your area, so be sure you look to see what applies to you and the curbside services in your city or county.

Why You Should Recycle

In some circles the benefits of recycling are still debated. While the costs associated with some types of recycling can debated, being a responsible recycler is clearly better than simply sending things to a landfill. Below we will discuss the benefits of recycling more specifically.

1) It Conserves Natural Resources

One of the only ways to dramatically conserve some of the Earth’s natural recourses is to recycle. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency recycling one ton of paper saves up about 17 trees and 17,000 gallons of water! Not only that, but for every 1 ton of plastic that is recycled, it is estimated that 7 yards of landfill space is conserved. 

2) Reduces Greenhouse Gas Emissions

When we choose to use recycled materials to make new products, we reduce the need for virgin materials. This avoids greenhouse gas emissions that would result from manufacturing, extracting or mining for virgin materials.

When we put trash in the landfill it begins to rot, which emits greenhouse gases. When you choose to recycle the waste it directly reduces this air pollution.

3) Recycling Saves Energy

We know that recycling products that are already made, takes less energy than creating a whole new product. For example, the amount of energy it takes to make one virgin aluminum can manufacture 20 recycled cans! Since over one billion aluminum cans are manufactured every year in the US, you can see how much energy recycling cans could save. Even better, some items, like aluminum can be recycled indefinitely without degrading!  

When we recycle plastic, we save over 80% of the total energy from going into manufacturing new plastic products. When we recycle glass only 10-15% of energy is needed when compared to manufacturing it from scratch!

4) Reduces the Use of Landfills

Today, in the US alone, we dump more than 100 million tons of trash into landfills. While that is down from what it was in the 1980’s, it is still a considerable amount of garbage to discard. We recycle 32% of waste is diverted away from landfills due to recycling. However, as much as 60% of trash that is currently being sent to landfills could be recycled.

5) Protects the Oceans
It is shocking to know that 90% of the trash that is floating on the surface of oceans is plastic. That means the oceans hold about 46,000 pieces of plastic per square mile!

Plastics irreparable to the ocean’s ecosystem. Over a million sea birds and over 100,000 marine animals are killed by plastic pollution every year. In fact, 44% of seabirds, 22% of crustaceans, a are known to have plastic in their bodies! If we recycle plastic, instead of throwing it our or worse, throwing it into our water ways, we will protect our oceans.

6) Less Use of Fossil Fuels
Plastics make up more than 12% of all the waste in a landfill. This is equivalent to 30 million tons of plastic being disposed every year! Most plastics can be reused and recycled multiple times, which means that instead of being in a landfill, they could be used to make new products.

Recycling plastic means that we are creating less new plastic. Since, plastics are made from fossil fuel hydrocarbons, this means that we would be using less fossil fuels, in fact, recycled plastic saves up to 16.3 barrels of oil!

7) Spurs Innovation

Many new start-ups are built around using recycled materials to create a new brand or product. But, large corporations and companies are also finding ways to utilize recycled materials in their business models. Even better, studies have found that consumers will support companies that highlight the products that “green” or made from recycled materials.  

8) Boosts the Economy

Recycling a ton of trash has an economic impact that is two times greater than if burying it in a landfill. Recycling one ton of waste will pay $101 more in wages, produce $275 more in goods and services, and generate $135 more in sales that what throwing it in a landfill would create.

9) Decreases Pollution

Recycling reduces pollution by cutting down on the production and manufacturing of fresh or virgin products and by avoiding incineration. Incineration puts smoke and debris into the air and contaminates the water.

Before Recycling

Although recycling is a great way to cut down on the waste that we send to a landfill, there are few things to consider before dumping an item in the recycle bin.

Reduce and Reuse

Always think about what you are intending to recycle. Start by considering if you could cut down on your use of something. The overall goal of recycling is to cut down on the amount of waste we produce, and one way to do that is to consume less. The next way is to reuse an item. If you are recycling water bottles perhaps, it is time to get a reusable one. If you are recycling glass containers, perhaps they could be washed and used for another purpose. 

Some ways that you can reduce your waste include:

  • Using cloth napkins instead of buying papers ones.
  • Using cloth bags instead of getting plastic ones from the store.
  • Reuse glass containers for other purposes.
  • Buy a water filter and a refillable bottle for water, instead buying bottle water.
  • Consider using silicone sheets instead of aluminum foil.
  • Swap out using body wash with its plastic container for bar soap.
  • Instead of using brown bags for lunch, get a reusable lunch box.
  • Consider using cloth diapers instead of disposable ones.
  • Avoid disposable k-cups and use a reusable k-cup instead.
  • Buy organic cotton produce bags instead of using the plastic ones provided at the grocery store.
  • Buy reusable metal or glass straws instead of the plastic ones.

Buy Recycled

It is important that we consider how we can support recycling by using recycled products. It is estimated that we would save 544,000 trees if every household in the US replaced their paper towels with 100% recycled ones! Likewise, based on the average use per household, if every household in the US used just one roll of recycled toilet paper it would save 423,900 trees!

Let’s talk about the reasons to recycle, how to properly recycle and lastly, what not to recycle.

How to Recycle

It is important that we understand how to recycle, because when we get it wrong, it makes our recycling less effective.

In 2019 officials in India announced that they would no longer accept plastic recycling imports from the US. They made this decision to help fight the pollution that is emitted in processing the often highly contaminated recycling imports sent by the US.  

In 2018 China stopped accepting almost all recycling that was imported from the US, included paper and plastic, mainly due to how contaminated the imports contained.

So, here are few guidelines to keep in mind, to be sure that you are recycling the right way:

Recycling Should be Clean and Dry

Make sure that anything that you put out for your curbside recycling is clean, empty and dry. A general rule of thumb is that your recycling should be clean enough to use again. This prevent contaminants from getting into the recycling process. If contaminants get into the recycling process, it can cause the recycling company to send an entire load to the landfill, because it won’t produce useable recycling.   

The EPA estimates that 21% of what is in a landfill is food, making it the largest component of a landfill. Before throwing food out, consider if it is worth saving, donating or even using a compost.

Saving, Donating or Reusing

General Paper Products

Most paper goods can be recycled. In most cities curbside recycling will accept most grades of paper. The only things to keep in mind is to try to avoid getting the paper wet.

Glass Bottles & Jars

Clean glass bottles and jars can be recycled curbside. Many providers do ask that the glass and paper be cleaned and separated into proper bins.

Paper Bags

Brown paper bags can be recycled in your curbside bins. Just be sure that your paper bags don’t have grease or food on them. Ideally, if you notice dirt on them, remove those sections before putting them in the recycle bin.


You can put magazines in your curbside bin. But it might be better if you see if you can donate them to your local library or non-profit. Just make sure to throw out any magazines that have water damage.

Aluminum Cans

You can recycle can curbside. Just be sure to rinse them before you place them in the bin.

Aluminum Foil

You can’t recycle things that have food or grease one them. Since Aluminum foil is usually used to cover or cook food, it usually has bits that are stuck to it. In some cases, you might be able to rinse the foil. But, most of the time, you are going to need to throw foil away.  

Things You Should Never Recycle

Sometimes recycling is simple. You know you can recycle a cardboard box, or a soda can. But sometimes it’s not that easy. There are somethings that we tend to think can be recycled, that simply can’t be. While, if you’re not sure if something can be recycled, it might be tempting to just add it to the bin in the hope that there’s a way to recycle it. This is called “wishcycling,” and it does more harm than good.

In order to keep our recycling system healthy, it is just as important to leave stuff out of the recycling bin as it is to correctly recycle. If you try to recycle items that shouldn’t or can’t be recycled, it harms the recycling process. Sometimes these items really slow down the recycling facility operations so that fewer overall materials can be processed by the facility each day, which hurts the health of the recycling business and by default, the environment.

By paying attention to what you’re putting in the recycling bin you can help keep the recycling system strong, clean and free from contaminants

Here are some of the things that either need a special process to recycle or can’t be recycled and should never be put in your curbside recycling bin.

1) Styrofoam

This is one of the items that many people know not to recycle. It’s made of a materiel called polystyrene, which isn’t biodegradable. The best solution is to avoid Styrofoam altogether, if possible.

2) Cords

Unless you take the time to separate cords, they can’t be recycled. If you would like to take them apart, there are several sources that will show you how to recycle cords. If you don’t want to, or are unable to take the cord apart, there are many places that accept used electronics and cords. You can, however, find somewhere that recycles electronics and cords.

3) Batteries

Most batteries can’t be recycled using the standard recycling service that comes to your home. However, single-use batteries can be recycled at many locations or using mail-in programs

4) Mirrors

Mirrors can’t be recycled due to the coating used on the glass to make it reflective. If mirror glass gets into the same process as regular glass, it will make the normal glass unusable. As a general rule, unless you can find a use for broken pieces, such as a craft project, you will want to wrap up the pieces in newspaper or some other paper and just throw them away.

5) Wire Hangers

If you didn’t know, wire hangers can’t usually be recycled because they aren’t made of pure metal. A few places like New York City will allow you to toss your wire hangers in with the rest of your recycling, but most places won’t accept them. The best way to recycle wire hangers is to donate them to a thrift store or charity.

6) Pizza Boxes

The cardboard boxes pizzas come in are recyclable. However, the food that’s still left inside them, is not. In order to recycle a pizza box, it needs to be completely free of grease and cheese. If these are clinging to the box, it is best to throw the box away.

7) Plastic Bottle Caps

While you can recycle the bottle, the plastic bottle cap probably isn’t recyclable. This is because they’re often made from a type of plastic that can’t be recycled. It is also best to make sure that plastic bottles are crushed before adding them to your recycling.

8) Plastic Bags

Plastic bags require a different collection system and processing equipment than many curbside recycling programs provide. In a typical recycling center, these bags get wrapped around the gears of the equipment and can cause major issues. Plastic bags are useful to have around, though. There are many other ways to reuse plastic bags.

9) Polystyrene Foam

While you may not know what this is immediately, it is the type of foam that is used in egg cartons, takeout containers and cups.

10) Diapers

Many people try to put their dirty diapers in recycling. They are not recyclable. They are made of various woven materials and as with food, the idea with recycling is that the items going through the process needs to be clean, so that they don’t contaminate the output. Obviously, dirty diapers are not clean.

11) Multi-layers Bags

This is one that shocks many people, but most flexible packaging, like a potato chip bag, or granola bar wrapper are not recyclable. This is because they are made of many layers of different types of materiel, not just plastic.

12) Anything smaller than credit card

Small items are impossible to separate in the recycling process, so anything smaller than a credit card should not be put in the recycling bin. This includes straws, bottle caps, plastic cutlery and even coffee pods.

13) Anything that can easily tangle around stuff

The machines that recycle can get jammed up by things that are durable and can tangle around their machinery. Basically, if you can tie it in the knot, don’t recycle it. This includes things like Christmas lights, garden hoses, chains and headphones.

There are a few programs that can help you “upcycle” items that otherwise should not be recycled. Companies like TerraCycle, Preserve and, Aveda Corporation have built a demand for hard-to-recycle products, like the ones mentioned above.

Other companies are beginning see that consumers do value green products and are starting to create more of them.

Bottom Line

If you follow the tips outlined above, you will be a responsible recycler. It is important that we understand when to reduce or reuse, versus recycle, and that we follow the guidelines for what can be picked up curbside, versus what needs special handling. Remember that you vote with your dollar, so try to buy items that are packaged with recycled materials and opt for reusable options whenever they are available.