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How to recycle: Here are the most basic rules on what can and cannot go in your blue bin

Small changes in behavior can have a massively positive impact.

Blue Bin demonstration on learning how to recycle

Photo Credit: Getty Images

One ton of recycled aluminum cans saves enough energy to power a laptop for more than 77 years

One ton of recycled copy paper saves up to 7,000 gallons of water, or enough water for more than 411 showers.

One ton of recycled plastic saves over 16 barrels of oil, or 304 gallons of gasoline.

Beyond the resources it saves, recycling provides fantastic benefits for the planet, our health, and even the economy.

Although it can be confusing, we've tried to simplify the general rules for recycling — but before diving into the dos and don'ts, it is crucial to understand how recycling helps and why it's so important.

Why recycle? 

In 2018, the U.S. generated a whopping 292.4 million tons of trash, according to Environmental Protection Agency estimates — or about 820 times the weight of the Empire State Building. The problem with that much trash is that we are running out of space to put it all. That same year, Americans recycled 69 million tons, or a little over 23% of the trash produced. A 23% recycling rate is nice, but the EPA estimates that as much as 75% of the trash Americans produce can be recycled.

To improve our recycling systems to reach that 75% target requires federal action to make recycling more accessible, as well as individual action from all of us.

While it may feel like your individual actions don't make much difference to the global trash problem, they do. Small changes in behavior can do a lot. For example, each pound of trash that gets recycled saves approximately 4.9 pounds of harmful carbon pollution from entering our air. And your actions may inspire someone else to do the same, creating a ripple effect of positive action. 

Recycling also improves the physical health of communities by keeping landfills — and the potentially harmful gases and waste they emit — to a minimum for people who live nearby. Such communities report health problems like persistent cough, asthma, recurring flu, and eye irritation, according to a report in the National Library of Medicine. Recycling helps to keep the air clear of these toxins and improve the health of ourselves and our neighbors. 

Recycling also has economic benefits, by helping to balance the country's import-export balance, which is a huge factor given the U.S.'s reliance on international trade. Recycling also accounted for 681,000 jobs, $37.8 billion in wages, and $5.5 billion in tax revenues in 2012, the EPA estimates.

How to recycle 

With all of this in mind, here are the general rules of recycling to help you start today:

  1. The three most important steps of recycling are empty, clean, and dry. Empty containers of debris and food; one food-contaminated recyclable can spoil an entire truckload of recyclables. Clean them to remove any stuck-on particles, like oil. Allow recyclables to dry.

  2. Sites like Earth911 can help you find your local facility's specific recycling restrictions.

  3. If you don't have curbside recycling, you can locate a nearby recycling center and carpool with others or share the drop-off responsibility.

  4. Look up recycling resources for electronics and hazardous household waste like paint, which can't go in your blue recycling bin. Also look for nearby scrap yards if you have larger pieces of metal — they pay you cash for your metals.

  5. Many packages have the How2Recycle label; read these labels or check out the website for clear and concise information on how to recycle a specific material.

  6. Do not bag recyclables. Mixing materials (like putting paper recyclables in a plastic bag) makes the sorting process at the recycling facility more difficult.

  7. Don't recycle items smaller than a credit card because they can disrupt recycling machinery. When in doubt, use the credit card trick.

  8. Make sure your blue recycling bin is free of food and other debris. Your efforts to clean recyclable items will go to waste if they get contaminated in your bin.

  9. Remove labels on metal and plastic recyclables. This process can be tricky, so use label remover and solutions like Goo Gone, or pour hot water into the container to loosen the adhesive to make your life easier.

  10. To conserve space, flatten boxes (you don't have to remove labels or tape), crush plastic water bottles and replace the cap, place metal lids in their corresponding can, and ball up clean aluminum foil.

  11. Check out the TerraCycle website for information on recycling items that your local recycling facility will not accept.

  12. Avoid wish-cycling, or throwing items into a bin that you're unsure about and hoping they'll be accepted for recycling. Don't risk contaminating other perfectly recyclable items if you are uncertain whether an item can or can't be recycled.

With that guidance in mind, here are a few specific items that typically can and cannot go in your blue bin:

CAN go in blue bin:

  • Clean steel and tin cans
  • Clean kitchen and packaging foil
  • Rinsed aluminum cans
  • Paper free of glue, plastic, tape
  • Magazines and newspapers
  • Flattened cardboard boxes
  • Clean aluminum foil baking pans
  • Clean glass jars and bottles (labels do not need to be removed) and their caps
  • Clean plastic bottles
  • Clean plastic food containers, like butter tubs

CANNOT go in blue bin:

  • Electronics and batteries
  • Greasy pizza boxes
  • Paper towels, toilet paper, tissues
  • Light bulbs
  • Dryer sheets
  • Parchment paper
  • Plastic/wax-coated paper
  • Construction paper
  • Paper, metal, and plastic products containing food/drink products
  • Plastic bags, film wrap, and trash bags
  • Most styrofoam
  • String lights and electrical cords
  • Clothing and other textiles
  • Medical waste
  • Pyrex and drinking glasses
  • Broken glass

Reusing items is an alternative to recycling, especially items that can't be recycled, like styrofoam. To take it a step further, consider reducing your use of packages in general. Consider purchasing package-free options, such as loose carrots rather than bagged, or choose metal or glass containers over plastic when available.

Small changes in behavior can have massively positive benefits!

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