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6 Common Recycling Myths It's Time to Stop Believing

So many recycling myths are floating around, and that's only harming the planet. Here are the top ones, debunked by experts.

Written by
Brightly Staff

While there are plenty of sustainability topics that can be confusing (like the environmental impact of NFTs, for instance), recycling ranks pretty high on the list. Take plastic, for instance. There are seven different types, and not all of them can be recycled. On top of that, even materials that can be recycled can't always be recycled. Does your brain hurt, too?

In the latest Good Together podcast, Liza Moiseeva, Brightly’s CMO and co-founder, discussed the ins and outs of recycling with two experts from Eco-Cycle, one of the oldest and largest nonprofit recyclers and zero-waste organizations in the United States: Rosie Briggs, the community education and engagement manager, and Kylie Byrd, the Center for Hard to Recycle Materials communications specialist.

While Briggs and Byrd shard many important recycling tips and tricks during the episode, something that really stands out is all the common recycling myths floating around. Read through their top myths below and you're bound to be a more confident recycler.

The 6 Biggest Recycling Myths

Myth #1: Anything With a Recycling Symbol On It Is Recyclable

Contrary to popular belief, just because something has a recycling symbol on it doesn't mean it's recyclable. "The resin identification code, which is that number inside of the symbol on plastic items, helps us understand what type of plastic an item is made of. But that piece of information is just one of many that determines an item's recyclability," Byrd says. "Equally important factors include size, color, whether there are mixed materials present that are attached to that, the condition of the item (for instance, how clean it is), and the infrastructure that region has in place for processing that item."

Myth #2: Only Machines Sort Materials in Recycling Facilities

Briggs says people often forget there are real people working in recycling facilities. "So if you throw in your toxic waste, or even your hamburger that's about to go moldy, someone is going to have to grab it, and someone's going to have to deal with it," she says. "So it's more than an environmental issue for many reasons. But one of those reasons for which it's a human issue is because there are real, live workers that have to touch your stuff."

Myth #3: Recyclable Materials Can Always Be Recycled

Recycling is complicated for many reasons. One of the main ones being that just because a material is recyclable doesn't mean it's always going to be recycled. In reality, recycling only works if there's a demand for a recycled material to be turned into a new product.

"It's not just about whether that item inherently is good at being turned into something else," Briggs says. "It depends on whether there's local infrastructure and facilities that can manage and sort those materials. And whether there's a market for those materials, which will buy them and turn them into something new."

Take glass, for instance. Briggs says it's an inherently good material at being melted down and turned into a new product. You can recycle it over and over again. "But if we don't have a way to collect that glass and to sort it from other materials, to find someone to buy it to turn into the new glass products, and then a way to get it there, then we can't recycle glass," she says. "Within every community, there's going to be a different set of guidelines, because it depends on all of those different factors."

Myth #4: Plastic Bags Can Go in Your Recycling Bin

While plastic bags are recyclable, they typically aren't allowed in curbside bins. "We have all these moving gears and wheels in our facility, and when you put in a plastic bag, it does a great job of jamming that machinery up," Briggs says. "We have to shut everything down and send someone in there to try to cut out all the plastic bags. It's a huge waste of time and energy—not to mention kind of a safety hazard."

Instead, look for drop-off bins in your area where you can recycle plastic bags. They're commonly found at supermarkets, retailers like Target and Walmart, co-ops, and smaller recycling centers. To find a location near you, use this directory.

Myth #5: Recycling Centers Accept Containers With Food in Them

There's a huge reason why recycling centers say to clean out your jars and other food containers: If you don't, they won't be recycled. "That's because we have real folks working at our facility. So when you give us things that are going to spill on other materials, and we can't sell those materials," Briggs says. While you don't need to thoroughly scrub every container, make sure to rinse them out and get rid of any visible food. That way, they'll be able to get processed.

Myth #6: You Should Crush Your Cans Before Recycling Them

The best practices for recycling change over time. According to Briggs, crushing cans is no longer necessary. In fact, it can cause issues for recycling centers. "It can cause cans to be missorted as a flat," Bryd says. After the materials get brought into the facility, they get separated out into two groups: flat items (like paper and cardboard) and non-flat items (like metal, glass, and plastic). "If the cans have been crushed, they have a high likelihood of getting missorted as paper and cardboard and contaminating that stream."