How-To

Five Tips for How to Recycle: What Should You Really Do With All That Packaging?

Talia Vicars
How To Recycle

Let’s say it’s a Sunday morning. You go to the corner store and get yourself a cup of coffee, a can of seltzer for later, and a conveniently packaged crunchy snack. By the end of the day, you’ve finished your coffee, seltzer, and the bag of chips, and are ready to part ways with what’s left – the cup, can, and packaging. Do they all go into the recycling bin together? Does only the top of the coffee cup get tossed in? Wait – do they even offer curbside recycling in this city? Heck, what does curbside recycling even mean?! If you’re curious about what recycling means and whether/why recycling is important, you’re in the right place.

All excellent questions – and there are so many scenarios just like this when we have many different types of trash and, as the good samaritans we are, want to dispose of it all properly. In this blog, we’re going to try to answer all of your most pressing recycling-related questions because, as it turns out, recycling is a little bit more complicated than tossing everything into your blue bin and calling it a day. 

Before we get into it, we also want to acknowledge that the United States recycling system is utterly confusing. Each state has its own rules on what, how, and where to recycle, and cities within those states have even more differing and distinct rules on how to recycle. Unfortunately, there aren’t many universal truths that we can point to and there is no uniform guide to recycling, which leaves a lot of room for error and confusion. No wonder our recycling rates in this country are so low, with only about 24% of material solid waste being recycled in recent years. But, not all hope is lost! 


Let’s play a game of truth or myth on general rules of thumb that aren’t so trashy:


#1 Wash your recyclables.

Truth!


#2 The tiny number on your plastics is how many times it has already been recycled.

Myth!


#3 Mixing in food and non-recyclables is a fun game for the sorters to play at the materials recovery facility.

Myth!


#4 Check with your local municipality on its rules and regulations.

Truth!


#5 Pizza boxes and plastic utensils are recyclable. 

Uh… it’s complicated.

Want more information on why? Read on, you recycling wiz, you.


#1 Wash your recyclables.

Too true. Give ‘em a rinse. 

If you’re worried about the water footprint of cleaning out a container, have no fear. Recycled plastic has a lower water footprint than virgin plastic, even when we account for the water used to rinse off our plastic items. We want to avoid contamination – or when the wrong materials are put into the recycling stream, like food waste. A great example is crusty yogurt residue on a plastic container. Make sure your recyclables are actually clean, otherwise it’s considered aspirational recycling and doesn’t end up having the impact intended. Empty out your recyclables and give ‘em a quick rinse. If there’s a sticky substance inside, like a nut butter of sorts, use a spoon to scrape it out. Pro tip? Fill it up partway with warm water, pop the top back on, and give it a hard shake. 

Recycling contamination occurs when materials are sorted into the wrong recycling bin (placing a glass bottle into a mixed paper recycling bin for example), or when materials are not properly cleaned, such as when food residue remains on a plastic yogurt container.

Sound like a lot of work? A study on household waste separation in Malta looked at how folks approached recycling behavior, knowledge gaps, and attitudes around environmentalism (exciting stuff, we know). For some context, Malta has a recycling rate of roughly 10%... anyways, the study found that of all the recyclables, 6% were put into the trash, mainly due to two factors: insufficient knowledge and the additional effort required to clean “dirty” recyclables. C’mon y’all! A little extra elbow grease won’t kill you. 


#2 The tiny number on your plastics is how many times it has already been recycled.

Boooyyyyy, who told you that!? Fake news! 

Are you familiar with the recycling triangle with the tiny number inside that’s on plastic items/packaging? That number is correlated to what kind of plastic it is, which can help give us the information we need for how to recycle it (and if it can be recycled in our city). Let’s back up first, though, and talk about plastic. 

While many people may think of plastics as the devil, they can serve a variety of purposes and uses because of their capacity to change shape, their durability, and how lightweight they are. However, plastics are made from crude oil, AKA fossil fuels (which actually are the devil…in our humble opinion). Because plastic is such a strong material, products made from plastic can take hundreds of years to degrade or decompose. Enter: recycling – because if these bad boys have already extracted those fossil fuels, let’s keep them in use. Plastics are polymers and the different polymer structures (think chains, branches, and 7th-grade science class) dictate what kind of plastic it is, what it's used for, and, ultimately, how it's recycled. 

Let’s take a peek at what these different numbers in triangles mean, aka which plastics they represent, with some examples. A recent study on circularity looked at different material recovery facilities (known by folks in the biz as ‘MRFs’ – like Smurfs without the ‘S’) across the country and how often these different plastics were actually recycled. 


1: Polyethylene Terephthalate, (PET or PETE) - beverage bottles

The study found that these plastics were recycled at 100% of the MRFs surveyed. 


2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE)  - milk jugs, laundry detergent

The study found that these plastics were recycled at 100% of the MRFs surveyed. 


3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) - vinyl, tubing


4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) - laundry baskets, bread bags, plastic bags 


5: Polypropylene (PP) - yogurt containers, coffee cup lids

The study found that tubs made of these plastics were recycled at 53% of the MRFs surveyed.


6: Polystyrene (PS) - solo cups, styrofoam cups

The study found that coffee pods made of these plastics were recycled at 0% of the MRFs surveyed.


7: Other - toys, sippy cups, CDs

The study found that MRFs surveyed had low reprocessing capacities for #7 plastics, with no reasonable likelihood of recycling them into new products. 


Keep in mind that just because a plastic has a number on it, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable. That same study found that many MRFs only accept two types of post-consumer plastic items (PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs). Yikes. This is largely due to changes in market demand (like when we stopped sending our recyclables overseas when China enacted new policies around plastic waste imports) and the capacity of our reprocessing facilities here at home. 


#3 Mixing in food and non-recyclables is a fun game for the sorters to play at the materials recovery facility.

This gives the same energy as the people who leave their shopping carts in the parking lot when they really could easily just push them to the spot designated for carts. Lame. Remember aspirational recycling from #1? It works on the idea that somehow, what needs to get done will, but with very little effort on our part (i.e., someone else will do it for us). Fun fact? In a study on return rates of shopping carts, researchers left paper flyers on the windshield of cars in a parking garage. In the scenario when there were shopping carts left around the garage, 58% of participants threw the flyers on the ground vs 30% when all carts were where they were supposed to be. Lesson? Separate out your food and non-recyclables from your recyclables and don’t be a non-returner/litterer maniac!

But, let’s get to the point. What happens if something that isn’t recyclable gets into the recycling? As you might imagine, this is dependent upon the location. Some MRFs have hand sorters that check through the sea of materials for trash. Some MRFs use cool AI imaging to spot non-recyclables from a mile away and scoop ‘em out! And some MRFs, if they spot a bag of recyclables with garbage in it, dump the whole bag into the trash. The contamination rate in the United States is very high at one in every four items. Even though some MRFs are better equipped to handle some contamination, don’t make more work for the hand sorters or robots who have to deal with your materials after they leave you. Take the time to sort out your recyclables from your non-recyclables, and, if possible, separate and collect your food scraps and organic materials for composting.


#4 Check with your local municipality on its specific rules and regulations.

Yep! Recycling really depends on where you’re located…

If you haven’t caught on yet, there are a lot of ifs, ands, and buts when it comes to how to recycle your materials and it differs greatly from state to state. Even on a more granular level: from municipality to municipality. A recent study on a state-by-state assessment of recycling rates found that the 10 states with the lowest rates of recycling started at about 2% in West Virginia, to 8% in South Carolina, to 13% in New Mexico. The state with the highest rate of recycling is Maine, at a cool 72%, with Vermont coming in at a close second at 62% and New York hitting around 51%. Shout out to the Northeast! 

So, what does this mean for the individual consumer who is trying to toss out their Sunday morning snackage? You just have to check with your local municipality. Earth911 is a great resource that lets you sort by zip code. Additionally, here at Finch, we’re working on a comprehensive, easy-to-use, recycling resource center with more helpful recycling tips and tricks, so stay tuned!


#5 Pizza boxes and plastic utensils are recyclable. 

Sorry… trick question. Pizza boxes are often recyclable (we have no idea when that myth started getting kicked around), but plastic utensils often are not. 

Theoretically, plastic utensils should be recyclable, but because of their weird shapes and variety of materials, they can jam machines at MRFs and are considered a top source of contamination. One might assume that all plastic utensils are made from the same kind of plastic, but this isn’t the case. Some are made of #6, some are made of #7, and some aren’t even marked with the kind of plastic they are so it’s impossible to know if it would actually be recycled. 

As for those pesky “compostable” utensils, they’re only actually compostable in an industrial composting facility. Because they look like, feel like, and talk like plastics, we may even be inclined to toss them into the recycling bin. DON’T!! Because compostables are inherently made out of organic materials, they end up as a contaminant in the recycling system. The batch of recyclables with those annoyingly similar “compostable” forks and spoons would probably end up in a landfill, where the utensil doesn’t break down properly, it releases more methane, and the planet has another sad day. Even worse, some of these “compostable” utensils are actually coated with plastic, so they’re a whole mess of mixed materials that definitely cannot be recycled. Off to the landfill they go. Sigh. 

As for the pizza box, a study in 2020 found that 93% of AFPA (American Forest & Paper Association)-member recycling facilities actually do accept pizza boxes. Just make sure to get all those ‘za toppings off the box first, including the sauce, cheese, and pineapple (yes, pineapple belongs on pizza. No contest.). As always, this can depend facility to facility though, so make sure to re-read Tip #4 before putting your pizza party evidence in the blue bin. 

Our point here is that there’s a lot of misinformation out there when it comes to a lot of things sustainability-related, and it’s not always as straightforward as going with our gut. TLDR; check the carfax. 


So…how important is recycling actually?

Recycling does have a real impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resource conservation. But, recycling, unfortunately, isn’t that magical sustainability catch-all or silver bullet when it comes to waste and plastic use in the United States, not to mention the world.

We’ve looked at how to do the infamous third R, so let’s shed some light on the others before wrapping up. Reduce, Reuse…Refuse, kind of catchy, no? Because our recycling infrastructure is a little lackluster, we can work to use less and reuse more of what we already have. But, most of us don’t want to (or can’t) live our lives collecting all of our trash and putting it into tiny mason jars – that’s because the creation of trash is a symptom of modern capitalism. Remember those “compostable” utensils masquerading as plastic? There’s a lot of money in the industry; the global bioplastics market is estimated to reach a valuation of $13.1 billion by 2027. So yes, some companies are invested in creating waste. The more we ‘Refuse’ to participate in single-use economics and the less we fall for false marketing, the more we can do to lessen the burden placed on our local MRFs, hand sorters, waste haulers, and trash pickers.

While we work to sort all of this out (i.e. revolution, baby!), reduce and reuse where you can, follow our list of must-dos, and feel good about recycling the materials you do use.