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Recycling has been around for decades, so you might be surprised to hear a lot of people still haven’t figured out how it works. However when you look closer and see how complex recycling rules can be, you might start to understand. Some mistakes are obvious (like when we found a clown costume in a recycling bin) but other times our errors aren’t so glaring like a receipt from the grocery store (sadly not recyclable).

The list of what we can recycle has grown over the last few years so less things need to be wasted. The downside is when the rules change so quickly that we don’t always have time to catch up. To make it more difficult, what’s recyclable also changes from location to location. This means even the greenest environmentalist can still get confused over what is recyclable and what isn’t. When writing this blog we still came across inconsistent and outdated information.

If you want to learn more about recycling in you area, Earth 911 is a great resource that allows you to put in your zip code to find a list of recycling centers near you and the materials they take. You can even search by specific items if you’re wondering what you can recycle.

To help you navigate this confusing process, we’ve put together some of the 13 most common recycling mistakes and how to avoid them.

Not recycling

This one is pretty obvious, but it’s still worth noting this is one of the most common and easiest mistakes to avoid. Recycling can be confusing, and some people just avoid it all together. Sometimes there are barriers like not having a curbside pickup or if your apartment complex doesn’t offer designated receptacles. You still can recycle by storing your recycling in a separate container and bringing it to a recycling center as needed. If you’re worried about smell, as long as your recyclables have been properly rinsed, you shouldn’t have a problem. You can find your local center here: http://www.iwanttoberecycled.org/search. Even better, using a large bin doesn’t only cut down on the number of trips, it cuts down on gas.

Food stained containers

Greasy pizza boxes, Chinese takeout boxes, and unwashed peanut butter jars are not recyclable. These items can’t be reused, they’re gross, and the leftover food particles can even damage the equipment. Be sure to thoroughly clean and dry all jars, foil, and any other recyclable that has come in contact with your food. This also means you should rinse and dry all of your cans and bottles. You can tear the lid off the pizza box, if it’s free of grease stains but the bottom goes always gets tossed. While there are centers that take greasy pizza boxes, there are only a handful so it’s better to assume they don’t until you research the rules in your area.

Shredded Paper

Just like at home, shredded paper gets everywhere in a recycling facility. It’s too small to sort so it falls onto the floor, or even worse it mixes in with other recyclables like glass. Some facilities do take shredded paper if it’s in a labeled separate paper bag, but never put it in loosely in a commingled bin. If you compost, you’re welcome to include shredded paper in the compost bin. Unless a document contains private information, try and keep it whole so you can easily recycle it.

Thinking all glass is recyclable

Ceramics, mirrors, and window panes are not the same as bottle glass. Glass bottles go in the recycling while your chipped china, broken windows, and mirrors go in the trash. Or if they’re salvageable or not too badly damaged, think about repairing, upcycling, or donating before you send them to the landfill.

Including caps and lids

Just because a container is recyclable doesn’t mean that the lid is. Often caps and lids are made of a different kind of plastic than the container. If it’s a large lid, like the one on a yogurt tub, there should be a number that will indicate if it’s recyclable in your area or not. Always be sure to check to see before you put the lid in the recycling or garbage.

Not including caps and lids

The good news is plastic bottle caps like the ones found on water bottles are increasingly recyclable! As always, check with your center but most centers now accept water bottle caps. Always be sure to unscrew the caps first, the plastics are usually made of different materials that melt at different temperatures. Also, leaving the caps on could trap liquid (see rule 2) or even pop off under pressure and act as a projectile. More and more centers are able to recycle plastic caps that are still attached, but it’s best to leave them off for now.

Thinking the numbers on plastic mean it is automatically recyclable

It’s true the numbers you find on the bottom of plastics look like the recycling symbol, but unfortunately that doesn’t mean they are automatically recyclable in your area. The numbers were put there to indicate what kind of plastic each item is made of, this helps people at recycling centers sort what’s recyclable there and what isn’t. While they don’t mean ‘automatically recyclable’ they can help you sort what’s recyclable too. To help you decode what can go in the bin you can use this rule of thumb for what numbers are recyclable in most communities. Recyclable numbers: 1, 2, 5, 6

recycling numbers

Not recycling your old electronics

Many people fail to recycle their electronics, because it’s not as easy as curbside recycling. Be sure to delete all personal information off of your item before recycling and often you must remove batteries as they need to be recycled separately. The EPA has conveniently put together instructions and a list of companies that host recycling events or accept used electronics. But be sure to remember it’s always better to try and repair your electronics before going out and getting a new model. New isn’t always better!

Recycling grocery bags with other plastic

Plastic bags are not frequently accepted by local centers. Luckily, you can bring these to a grocery store that accepts plastic bags, you can usually find marked bins at the front of the store. Or even better, opt for a reusable bag and skip the disposable plastic, it’s pretty easy to find ones made out of recycled materials too. These bags are bigger meaning less trips to and from the car and they’re sturdier so they’re much less likely to rip causing your groceries to spill all over the ground. There’s not much reason to stick to the flimsy, disposable ones anyway.

Not recycling motor oil

Not disposing of oil properly is wasteful and can have a number of environmental consequences, including water pollution. If you change your own oil, the best thing to do is to recycle it at a garage or auto supply store. Save yourself some trouble by calling before to see if they accept used motor oil first (many do). Not only are you preventing environmental pollution, you’re reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil because your used motor oil can be recycled to make more motor oil!

Thinking the color of paper matters

There’s a common misconception that colored paper isn’t recyclable and all white paper is. Not true! Good news, dyed paper or paper with ink is recyclable. Bad news is any mixed material paper isn’t recyclable even if it’s white, like tissues, waxy paper, or receipts. For instance, store receipts are often printed on thermal paper that cannot be recycled. Luckily, in 2016 we can often have receipts e-mailed or texted to us, use this option when possible or if you can, decline a receipt all together to avoid unnecessary waste.

Not purchasing recycled goods

You can reduce your carbon footprint further and can support recycling efforts by purchasing goods that are at least partially made of recycled, or even better, post consumer materials. Post consumer means that the materials have been used and recycled by an individual like you when recycled goods might just be leftovers from manufacturing that were never used but would be leftover materials or scraps. Purchasing post consumer materials means fewer resources were needed to be used to produce these products and is a easy way to make your footprint smaller. You can find recycled material in paper, plastics, glass, car parts, and even clothes.

Forgetting about other ways to recycle

Don’t just think about paper, plastic, metal, and other obvious recyclables. Clothes, home goods, and trinkets can be gifted, donated, traded, or re-purposed at home. Clean out your closet and host a clothing swap with your friends. You can get rid of your unwanted clothes, and get some new (to you) stuff to take home. Don’t want more clutter? Take your clothes and other unwanted household items to a donation center or consignment shop where you might even get some cash for stuff you didn’t want anyway.

Remember to keep these rules in mind at the store and at home. Don’t buy things that have non-recyclable packaging or are single use, even if plastic bottles and their caps are recyclable it’s still better to use a reusable bottle. Recycling still uses energy that could be saved by purchasing multi-use items instead. Reduce, reuse, and recycle is in that order for a reason!