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Are You Recycling Wrong? Probably! 6 Common Recycling Mistakes to Avoid

Clare and Harrison Mill Valley Kitchen Remodel Photo by Andres Gonzalez

What’s the big deal about throwing a greasy pizza box or two into the recycling bin? Well, according to a New York Times article, too many of these verboten items can contaminate an entire batch of recycling, making it hard for waste managers to find a buyer for the recyclable waste. Instead of heading for a recycling plant, these tainted batches get sent to the landfill. Oops.

So, yes, there is a right and wrong way to do your recycling. If you’re one of the so-called “aspirational recyclers” who throw iffy objects into blue bins in hopes that—fingers crossed!—they’re recyclable, it’s time to align your good intentions with your ultimate goal: making sure recyclables actually get recycled.

N.B.: Featured photograph by Andres Gonzalez for Remodelista, from Kitchen of the Week: A New-Build Kitchen in Mill Valley, CA, the Six-Month Check-Up.

Here are six common recycling mistakes—and how to avoid them.

1. Not separating your recyclables.

Every municipality has different recycling rules. Figure out if yours uses a single- or multi-stream recycling system. Single stream means you DON’T need to separate your paper and cardboard from your cans and bottles (everything goes into one container), while multi-stream means you DO. While many cities have gone the single-stream route to cut costs and make it easier for residents to recycle, others—like Portland, Oregon—still require separating your paper, metal, plastic, and glass recyclables, citing higher contamination rates when people are encouraged to put everything into one bin.

 Swedish company Ballingslöv’s Bistro kitchen system features a garbage drawer with separate recycling compartments for glass, paper, food waste, and metal. See A Swedish Kitchen with a Place for Everything. Photograph courtesy of Ballingslöv.
Above: Swedish company Ballingslöv’s Bistro kitchen system features a garbage drawer with separate recycling compartments for glass, paper, food waste, and metal. See A Swedish Kitchen with a Place for Everything. Photograph courtesy of Ballingslöv.

2. Practicing wishful recycling.

If you’re reading this, then you have access to the Internet, and that means there’s absolutely no excuse for not knowing what is and what isn’t recyclable in your area. You don’t need to call and talk to anyone. You don’t need to send away for literature. You just need to Google your town’s recycling rules. But it’s not enough to just study the list of what can be recycled. Print it out and tape it to a convenient spot so that there’s no confusion. No more tossing something into the recycling bin and wishing for the best (it’s not a fountain, after all).

3. Assuming if it’s not on the list, it’s not recyclable.

Here’s where you go from being an average recycler to a superstar recycler. Just because you can’t toss batteries, electronics, and wire hangers into the recycling bin for curbside pickup doesn’t mean they have to end up at the landfill. There may be other places that will accept and recycle objects normally not picked up. For instance, many dry cleaners accept used wire hangers; Home Depot accepts rechargeable batteries and cell phones; Best Buy accepts electronics; and many grocery stores accept plastic bags (the Whole Foods near me also accepts #5 plastics). Not sure of the alternative recycling resources around you? Go to Earth911, where you can find nearby places to recycle specific objects (mattresses, toothbrushes, and more). Also, be sure to check for special recycling days in your municipality. In my township, there are six scheduled days a year when residents can bring electronics to the local recycling center. In addition, though I can’t leave an air conditioner or scrap metal out for curbside pickup, I can drop them off at our public works yard.

4. Leaving food residue on recyclables.

Like I said, greasy pizza boxes can contaminate a batch of recyclables. A few crumbs and small amounts of grease are acceptable but anything more should be tossed in the trash; or you can snip out the especially greasy parts and recycle the unaffected portions. This is because oil impedes proper recycling of paper. And even though food residue in plastic, metal, and glass containers doesn’t pose a big threat at the recycling plant, in single-stream recycling systems, the food residue from these containers can contaminate the paper and cardboard waste that’s placed in the same bin.

Having a dedicated waste-sorting station in your home encourages proper and robust recycling. Here, homeowners repurposed drawers from an old grain bin in a country store into a family recycling center. See The Architect Is In: Romancing the Country in Nashville, Music and Porches Included. Photograph by Ruth and Marcus Di Pietro.
Above: Having a dedicated waste-sorting station in your home encourages proper and robust recycling. Here, homeowners repurposed drawers from an old grain bin in a country store into a family recycling center. See The Architect Is In: Romancing the Country in Nashville, Music and Porches Included. Photograph by Ruth and Marcus Di Pietro.

5. Putting recyclables in a plastic bag.

Either place your recyclables directly in a bin, paper bag, or clear large plastic bag made for recyclables, if that’s preferred by your town. Just don’t put them in small plastic grocery bags, as they can jam up the machinery in the recycling plant.

6. Letting paper and cardboard get wet.

The guys who pick up our recycling every Monday morning seem to revel in tossing the lid of our recycling bin any which way after unloading the contents into their truck. Where the cover lands, nobody knows. That’s why we started to leave our can at the curb without its lid—even when rain is in the forecast. We will do this no more. Turns out wet cardboard and paper is basically useless when it comes to recycling. Water weakens the fibers, which decreases their value, which is why many recycling plants will reject soggy cardboard and paper. If you think it’s going to rain overnight, it’s best to wait till the morning to take out the recycling. And if it’s still raining, put your paper and cardboard in a covered bin.

N.B.: This post is an update; it was first published on June 7, 2018.

Looking to revamp your current recycling setup? Check out these stylish recycling bins:

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