How to Follow Confusing Recycling Rules in 2020 and Beyond

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"Recycling can often be a confusing process, so I've decided to break it down into smaller sections to try and help simplify it a bit. Enjoy!"

It’s hard to understand which items can and can’t be recycled – different areas have different rules and recycling labels and numbers can get confusing, leading to an overall stressful situation. We’ve broken down top tips and tricks to help you conquer the blue can the next time it’s time to take out the trash.

people collecting trash in garbage truck

The Definition of Recycling

First of all, what even is recycling? In the EPA’s words, “recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.” This process serves to save energy and spare the landfill and its surrounding ecosystem from more harm. In other words, the recyclable materials that you set aside to be collected will be repurposed and reused. The key term here is ‘recyclable materials,’ meaning not everything can be recycled. There are actually some pretty strict rules in place as to what can and cannot be recycled. We’re here to help you understand these rules.

pile of paper garbages

Recycling Rules of Thumb & Labels

Anything smaller than a bottle cap should not be recycled (i.e. paper shreds, etc.). They risk getting caught in recycling machinery. Plastic bags are not curbside recyclable due to their potential to ruin recycling equipment, but they can be recycled at plastic drop off centers in places like Target. Wood can be recycled into your landscape or reused, but it cannot be recycled normally if it is painted, stained, or contaminated. Cardboard (make sure boxes are fully flattened out), metal cans, paper, and plastic containers (labeled with a 1 or 2) are the most-widespread recyclable products. Just note that paper napkins cannot be recycled because if they’re used they’re contaminated, and if they’re unused, their fibers are too short to make new paper (the same goes with paper towels and tissues, so try using reusable or compostable ones instead).

You may be asking yourself what those labels mean. Products packaged in plastic have numbers on them in between the standard recycling symbol (♻). These numbers range from one to seven and are all telling of whether or not the product can actually be recycled, despite the recycling symbol around them. Additionally, some perceived recyclable products may be deceiving in their inclusion of plastic. Examples include PVCA (label 3) in credit cards and BPA (label 7) in receipts and packaged foods.

Source: The Huffington Post. Note: number 3 is now rarely accepted by some plastic lumber makers so make sure to call your local waste management service before throwing it away.

For more of the specifics on each of the different plastic recycling labels, visit:

And for more about recycling labels in general, click here.

Sorting through all of these plastics can often be expensive for the manufacturer at hand. The costs of sorting it and recycling it are often dismissed as being too high. In addition, plastic degrades each time it is reused, causing it to eventually end up in landfills anyway. All in all, it’s best to avoid plastic and even go plastic-free if the circumstances allow. Find some tips on how to cut down on plastic here.

Drink Packaging 101: What Can & Cannot Be Recycled

Plastic bottles are among the plastics that can be recycled, as seen in the chart above. Just make sure that they are flattened as much as possible and still have a cap on if your recycling center requires. As for plastic coffee cups, most are not recyclable. These cups typically contain a plastic or wax lining to stop them from leaking which in turn makes them not recyclable.

Beer, wine, and other glass bottles can be recycled, just make sure not to break the glass. Wine corks and metal caps should be removed. The foil can stay on the bottles because it is 100% recyclable. The labels on the bottles can also be kept on them as they will be burned off during the recycling process. Keep these items separate from glass items that are not containers like mirrors or windows which are typically not recyclable. It is important to remember these glass recycling tips as glass lasts forever.

sprite plastic bottle on table

The Impact of 2020’s Increased Food Delivery on Recycling

2020 has seen a sharp increase in the number of food deliveries, and by default, single-use plastic utensils, and rubber bands. But did you know that these utensils are actually not able to be recycled because of their shape and size? At recycling centers, machines are used to sort different materials into separate categories of recycled goods. The narrow nature of these single-use plastics could cause an unwanted jam in the machines. Rubber bands are a bit more complicated to recycle than rubber, so reusing them is the best practice.

bunch of assorted produce in brown wicker basket

In addition to the utensils and rubber bands that come with your delivered or takeout meals and groceries, pizza deliveries, which usually feature no utensils also have some recycling nuances that you should be aware of. Generally, pizza boxes with grease and/or food on them should not be recycled. This goes as a general rule across the board that food should not be recycled even if it is on recyclable material. If possible, compost or propagate the excess food.

Make sure to always rinse out, dry, and dispose of any food or liquid left on an item you intend to recycle. And if you want to go the extra mile and tear the parts of your pizza box with no food or grease off so you can recycle them, we won’t stop you. Happy recycling!

baked pepperoni pizza with French fries
Recycling can often be a confusing process, so I've decided to break it down into smaller sections to try and help simplify it a bit. Enjoy!

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