Recycling 101

Are your efforts to save the planet contaminating it instead?


Five Figures to Consider

25% of items put in recycling bins are not recyclable
0.5% level of contamination China will accept in recycling shipments
6 billion Starbucks coffee cups distributed annually
4 billion Starbucks coffee cups end up in landfills annually
80% of community recycling programs are single-stream

With a pat on the back, he chucks his daily Starbucks takeaway cup (hold the lid and the sleeve) into a recycling bin. Thinking he is doing his part to save the planet, one 5F beloved is instead engaging in what waste managers call “wish-cycling or aspirational recycling” — that is when we put something in a recycling bin because we think it is or want it to be recyclable but it actually isn’t. (In this case the cup isn’t usually recyclable but the lid is.) The result? An entire recycling load can be contaminated rendering it difficult to resell and hastening its journey to the landfill. Waste Management estimates 25% of all items put in recycling bins are not recyclable. Meanwhile China, a major importer of our recyclables, now rejects shipments more than 0.5% impure (in part because we were sending them boatloads of contaminated trash that was too difficult and expensive to reprocess.) That means we need to reduce our 25% contamination rate to almost zero for those otherwise recyclable items not to end up as landfill trash. (See Reduce, Reuse, China-Cycle.) How can we clean up our recycling stream?

Better educating ourselves on what belongs in the recycling bin is a start. Since the advent of single-stream recycling (where we dump everything that we think can be recycled into one bin and let the recycling facility sort it), America’s recycling rate has soared from less than 7% in 1960 to 35% today. However, our waste contamination rates (due to not sorting materials properly) have steadily climbed over the years, too, undercutting the impact of our recycling efforts. Single-stream now accounts for 80% of community recycling programs. Common contaminators?  Plastic bags, disposable cups, greasy boxes, plastic food containers and items that can only be recycled through specialty drop-off programs.

Thin plastic bags get stuck in recycling processing machines slowing down operations and reducing the amount of material that can be recycled. When you take your recyclables to the bin, it is important that none of it is bagged. Drop the recyclables loose into the bin. Do not drop the entire bag in. To recycle plastic bags and the plastic “film” that is used to wrap items like toilet paper, paper towels and dry cleaning, you can go to one of the 18,000 plastic bag drop-off sites located across the United States. To find the one nearest you, click here.  Back to that Starbucks cup. It does seem like it can be recycled (and it can be under the right circumstances) but most are not. The cups are lined with a thin film of polyurethane which to be recycled must be separated from the paper. Most recyclers decide doing so is more trouble than it’s worth. What’s the upshot? Four billion of the 6 billion cups Starbucks distributes annually end life in a landfill. Even worse, if the cups are put into the recycling bin, there is a good chance they end up contaminating the other materials in the bin. The plastic lid on the cup however is often recyclable (Read 5F’s Is This Plastic Yours?) On the top of the lid (and on the bottom of most plastic containers) is a number inside a triangle. This number indicates what type of plastic the container is made of and aids recyclers (and you) in the sorting process. Without China as a guaranteed buyer of used plastic, many cities and towns no longer accept plastics numbered 3 to 7, which means things like yogurt cups and butter tubs need to stay out of the recycling bin. Check the number inside the triangle to see if your local recycler will take it. The Sierra Club provides a list of specialty recyclers that will take your numbered 3 to 7 plastics if your local recycler won’t.

Think twice before you toss Friday night’s pizza or Sunday’s Chinese takeout in the recycling bin. Food residue left in pizza boxes and takeout containers is among the most common recycling contaminants. Instead of tossing the whole box into the recycling bin, throw out the oily liner and then tear the box in half and just recycle the non-oily side. (The little plastic supporter in the middle of the pizza can also be recycled.) And those scraps of lo mein and last sips of juice? They need to be washed out before being recycled. Too many bits of food and drops of liquid can contaminate a recyclable can or container and send it, along with the entire load it’s being recycled with, to the landfill. Same thing can happen if you dump electronics, batteries, hoses and cords in with the recyclables. These items can usually be recycled but require a specialty pick-up or drop-off.  New York City residents can go to the Department of Sanitation website to find out about specialty recycling.

In an effort to curb recycling contamination, cities and towns across the country have responded in different ways. One of the most promising — an “Oops” campaign as seen in Chicago, Atlanta and Des Moines. A recycling coordinator inspects recycling bins for contamination. If there are items in the bin, that shouldn’t be there, the bin is tagged with an “Oops” sticker and the homeowner is given information on what can and can’t be recycled. Depending on the municipality, repeat offenders can be fined or their bins left at curbside. According to the National Recycling Coalition, “When in doubt, throw it out.”



American Forest & Paper Association, Environmental Protection Agency, National Recycling Coalition, New York City Department of Sanitation,, Starbucks,, The Sierra Club,, Waste Management