Top Recycling Faux Pas

Many people wonder why there is such a fuss around recycling and what “proper” recycling really means. I mean there is a bin and you just throw plastics, paper, cardboard, aluminum, glass into it, right?

Not quite.

Well, recycling is recycling — I can just throw everything into one container, right? Garbage+plastic+paper? My municipality even has “single stream” recycling!

The answer is “it depends” globally. But in the US the answer is a very solid No. Even with “single-stream” recycling we need to separate waste/organics/non-recyclables from recyclables (paper, plastic, glass, aluminum). A rule of thumb — nothing wet goes into recycling — that includes coke, juices, and water. 😉

Single-Stream Recycling Poster

Check the recycling numbers

Are they recyclable? Go to Earth911 and check if a plastic of a certain type is recyclable in your area. Recyclable plastics have a number (1 through 7), usually under the product/container/bottle, inside a recycling logo. Many municipalities in the US only recycle 1,2 and 5s, or sometimes just 1 and 2. Best way to find out is to check on Earth911.

In general any black plastics — are not recyclable. That plastic container the chicken comes in? Nope. Toss it. The black take-out containers? Garbage.

Plastic Codes — In the US mostly 1,2 & 5s are curbside. Never 4, 6 & 7s.


It is not recyclable in most areas. They are too lightweight to be of value to anybody. So what do you do with the Styrofoam you get? Toss it! Best — don’t get it.

Styrofoam is not recyclable.

Coffee cups are paper, right?

This usually goes into wishful recycling. No. They are not recyclable — except if you’re in certain areas around Washington State and Oregon. Most of the coffee cups include a plastic lining to keep the hot beverage from getting through the paper, and that makes it “not paper” anymore.

Melbourne Tram — Filled with Coffee cups showing volume used in a day in Melbourne.

Straws — I can recycle straws!

Nope. No straws, please. Nowhere. Not in your drink, not in the recycling bin and definitely not on the sorting conveyor belts.

Straws may be colorful. They are not recyclable

Plastic utensils! Now THAT I can definitely recycle. Right?

Not quite. The majority of the utensils are made of #6 Polystyrene type of plastics. They are known as rigid plastics and the majority of the facilities in the US cannot process them. China is no longer taking them. And if you resort to wishful recycling then we’re in trouble. This material can very easily clog multi-million dollar machines in the sorting facilities.

Plastic Utensils cannot be recycled.

Coffee lids?

This depends. SOME are made of #1 or #2 type of plastic and then they are recyclable. But if you see a 5,6,7 on it then nope, that’s into the garbage bin.

Variety types of coffee lids. Not recyclable in most places.

Oh I know — the infamous Iced Coffee cups! They are all plastic and they are all recyclable!

Not so fast! they are actually not recyclable in curbside programs. These cups are made of #5 type of plastic and, although recycl-able, they are not so in the majority of the US municipalities. However, you can take them to facilities in your area that DO recycle #5 type of plastics.

The popular iced coffee cups. Not recyclable.

I collect all my plastics in a plastic bag and recycle all of it together. That way even the plastic bag is taken care of.

Absolutely not. Two major issues with this approach. ONE (1) — plastic bags are NOT recyclable in general except at the grocery store take back programs. TWO (2) — If there are too many non-recyclable stuff in a bag, or the bag is difficult to open, OR the sorting line is too busy the entire BAG will go into trash/landfill. It is best to NEVER place recyclables into a plastic bag.

Throwing recyclables in a plastic bag leads to landfill.

I only had a little bit of coffee, coke, juice, milk, <insert other liquids>, left in the bottle — that doesn’t matter.

Absolutely not true! This is the one that most people don’t know, or understand. Leaving any kind of liquid in a bottle, can or container is a contaminant to recycling. Most of those bottles will reach the sorting facilities with that residue, and that will contaminate an entire line or bale. When manufacturers are making new products for YOU to use, they don’t use “dirty plastic” all the raw materials have to be clean — I mean squeaky clean to be bought and sold. Especially with current technologies, the buyers of recyclable plastics have optic readers to determine the amount of dirt/contamination in a bale. If it’s “too high” they will reject the entire batch — sometimes just half a bottle/can of coke is enough for the material to be rejected. There they go to landfill.

An ad campaign from Auckland NZ. Don’t recycle items with food and drinks.

Biodegradables/compostable plastics!

No. Don’t put that stuff into the recycling bin. They actually cause the recycling to become more contaminated. The material used in a biodegradable or compostable plastics are much different than the recyclable original plastics. Most are made of corn, sugar cane, bamboo, avocado, etc. That material isn’t recyclable and they are difficult to tell apart in the sorting systems. When they are mixed in with pure plastics they reduce the quality of the final recycled material.

While recycling is not the answer for changing the state of our environment, it is also an integral part of the process to change, and eventually stop, the flow of plastics that go into the environment every day.

Ocean Actionist. Circular Economy Consultant. Reuse and Plastic recycling SME. Entrepreneur. Speaker. Underwater Photographer. NYC.

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