Three Big Mistakes We Make With Recycling

Recycling is good for the planet, but it can also be a pain in the neck. Consider the humble plastic coffee cup. Many of us dutifully toss our coffee shop cups and lids in the recycle bin, assuming that they’ll be refashioned into some kind of eco-friendly baby toy for needy children. The truth is, they're probably going straight to the landfill. That’s because plastic coffee cups have a waterproof lining that’s difficult to recycle, so most recycling facilities toss them in the trash. If we recycle without truly understanding the process, we’ll end up sending even more stuff to  landfills. So, here are three things you could be doing wrong when it comes to recycling: 


  1. 1. Employing “Wishful Recycling” — Recycling companies routinely find Styrofoam coolers, curling irons, toys with lights and bells, rubber hoses, and car parts. Those things are part of “wishful recycling” — when you really want something recycled that just isn’t able to be. Unfortunately, those things are pulled out of the recycling process and marked as “contamination.” That’s the word that’s used for anything that can’t be recycled in a conventional recycling facility. So, when you drop a bowling ball into your recycling bin, all you’re doing is delaying its trip to the landfill. You’re better off donating it to Goodwill. 
  2. 2. Disposing of Dirty Containers — Commodities like plastic, paper, metal, and glass can be turned into new products. However, if they’re put into your recycle bin dirty, they can contaminate everything around them. To save time and money, workers in the Waste Management recycling facility will search out and throw away anything contaminated with food or liquid. So if you don't empty and wash out your recyclables, your best intentions are going straight to the landfill. 
  3. 3. Wrapping Stuff Up In Plastic Bags — Perhaps the biggest mistake made by well-meaning recyclers is to wrap items up in plastic grocery bags. We're so accustomed to bagging our trash that it's only natural to neatly wrap up a stack of cat food cans in a grocery bag before dropping it in the recycling bin. When you do that, all you're really doing is sending those bagged cans straight to the garbage heap. Plastic bags can get jammed in the large sorting machines at a single-stream recycling facility, and when that happens the recycling plant has to shut down and employees have to go in and manually remove the plastic film. 


  • Plastic bottle caps are recyclable, but only if they're attached to the bottle. 
  • Cardboard boxes need to be flattened at home or else they trap other items in the sorting machines. 
  • Broken glass isn't recyclable, because the machines can't sort the small pieces by color. 
  • Plastic utensils, clamshell containers (like the ones that hold berries from the grocery store), chip bags and candy wrappers can't be recycled for various reasons. 
  •  Greasy, cheese-stained pizza boxes can’t be recycled.