Local laws dictate specific recycling restrictions, but there are several surefire ways to keep things out of a landfill no matter where you're from
Tossing a plastic water bottle in the blue recycling bin may feel like a small drop in the pond of stewardship, but recycling habits go far beyond basic reusability. Every time you properly recycle an item, you cut down on the amount of carbon emissions, water, and raw materials necessary to make an item from scratch.
If you feel daunted by all the rules and local regulations, never fear—we'll get you started on all you need to know about becoming the ultimate recycling champ of the neighborhood.
Recycling 101: How to Get Started
Let's begin with the basics. Where you live significantly impacts what you can and cannot recycle, but there are some hard-and-fast rules across the country.
You can search online for your state and local recycling laws. Typically, there will be a handy guide to print out and hang on your fridge.
Before jumping into locally specific laws about types of plastic and battery disposal, wrap your head around the basic rules of fail-proof recycling.
Separate, Separate, Separate
Depending on where you live, you will either have a single-stream or sorted-stream recycling program. Single stream means you can toss all your recyclable goods in one bin for pickup. Sorted programs prefer that plastic, glass, and metal are kept separate from paper.
Your local recycling company may also request that you separate recycling items with their non-recyclable packaging materials. For example, the tape on a cardboard box, the plastic label on your soda bottle, or the paper wrapping on a can of tuna.
Keep It Clean
Wash off all food and liquids from your items before tossing them in recycling, some food waste can also be used to create biomass fuel. Liquids and food residue can disqualify a bin of recyclables from avoiding the dump—and could get pretty stinky in your bin in the meantime. The majority of overly wet or greasy paper products should, unfortunately, get tossed in the trash, though this is not always the case in all areas—but we'll talk about this below.
Skip the Bag
There's no need to wrap your recycling in a plastic shopping or garbage bag. In fact, this could get the whole container tossed in the trash. Some cities provide or recommend specific clear recycling bags for your whole bin, while others want you to skip it completely.
Recyclable Items by Type of Material
There's a lot of confusion floating around the topic of recycling. Can I recycle glossy magazine paper? What about dirty pizza boxes? Again, your local laws will indicate specific items you can and cannot recycle, but some items are pretty easy to predict.
Paper and cardboard are two of the most straightforward items to recycle. Remember, both of these items should be recycled in a bin separate from plastic, metal, and glass unless you live in an area with single-stream recycling. Common paper items include:
Mail and envelopes
Wrapping paper (in most cases)
Paper food cartons, milk cartons, and juice boxes (highly varies by city and may count as plastic)
Shredded paper (typically if contained separately depending on local laws)
Soft-covered books without spiral bindings
In most places, wet or highly soiled paper cannot go in the recycling bin. However, there are some cities—such as New York—that will accept things like greasy pizza boxes.
We use plastic constantly during the day—from strawberry containers to shampoo bottles. Nearly all plastic containers have a number surrounded by a circle of arrows to indicate what it's made of. Important note: This number does not give you the green light to toss it in recycling, it just indicates its recyclability for your area.
Plastic material numbers range from one through seven. When in doubt, remember that the lower numbers—specifically number one and two plastics—can often head to recycling. Plastics three and up? Well, that depends.
Here's another good way to remember plastic sorting.
Almost Always Recyclable: Number 1 and 2 Plastics
Plastic soda bottles
Peanut butter jars
Cooking oil bottles
Some shampoo, conditioner, and body wash bottles
Some cleaning product bottles (often without the spray pump)
Sometimes Recyclable: Numbers 4, 5, 6, and 7 Plastics
Grocery bags, plastic bag containers, and plastic film wrap (Highly depends on local laws. Some areas have designated drop-offs.)
Sour cream tubs
Disposable coffee cups
Note that number seven plastics fall into an "other" category, so their recyclability highly depends on local laws.
Seldomly Recycled: Number 3 Plastic
Your city is least likely to recycle the number three plastics without a special process, if at all. Common items include:
Kids plastic toys
Many cleaning supply bottles
Some clear food wrap
Metal and Glass
Metal and glass items are far more straightforward. The majority of both are easy to toss in the recycling bin, but you may need to remove plastic caps or paper labels. You can recycle:
Empty steel and aluminum cans
Glass bottles (some restrictions based on the item)
Aerosol cans (remove the plastic cap)
Fabrics and textiles may not have a bin outside your building, but there are ways to cut down on old clothing and towels in landfills. If your items are not in donation-ready condition, search for a textile recycle program in your area. Some organizations will even pick up items or supply packaging to mail in your old goods.
Outside of the kitchen and bathroom, you'll be left with endless odds and ends that are a bit trickier to recycle. Here are some tips:
Batteries: Do not toss batteries in with metal recyclables. Most cities or tech stores have battery retrieval programs.
E-Waste: Cell phones, speakers, and other electronic gadgets can head to your local e-waste program
CFLs: Drop off older CFL light bulbs that contain trace amounts of mercury with designated programs, typically at major home improvement centers
Appliances: Contact your city for specific disposal instructions, especially if it contains certain chemicals such as coolant
Mirrors: Since the glass container has specific chemicals, you'll need to check with your local recycling program about where to bring mirrors
Tips to Up Your Recycling Game
Have you already mastered the recycling basics and are ready to make your home a bunch of eco-conscious pros? Here are some ways to streamline your recycling habits and make an even larger impact on the planet through everyday habits.
Place a recycling bin in more than one room, such as in your home office
Take note of packaging materials at the grocery store
Switch to reusable bottles and food containers wherever possible
Consider a food composter
Post your local recycling instructions in the kitchen
Considering a major home renovation? Recycling items like carpets, drywall, and laminate flooring can be complex, so it's important to have a great junk removal team on your side. With recycling on your mind, send less and less to a landfill each year whether you're finishing a tub of butter or redesigning the kitchen.