How to Follow Confusing Recycling Rules Like a Pro

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"Recycling can often be a confusing process, so we're breaking it down into smaller sections to try and help simplify it a bit."

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.

To help you navigate the world of recycling, we’ve broken down our top tips and tricks that will allow you to conquer the blue can the next time you take out the trash.

people collecting trash in garbage truck

The Definition of Recycling

First of all, what is recycling in the first place? Simply put, it’s 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 can’t be recycled, and we’re here to help you understand these rules.

pile of paper garbages

Recycling Rules of Thumb and Labels

When it comes to recycling, there are plenty of rules of thumb to keep in mind:

  • Anything smaller than a credit card can’t be recycled. The risk of getting caught in recycling machinery is too high.
  • Plastic bags aren’t 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 can’t be recycled normally if it’s 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.

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 PVC (type #3) in credit cards and BPA (type #7) in receipts and packaged foods.


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 and Can’t Be Recycled

Plastic bottles are among the plastics that can be recycled, as seen in the chart above. Just make sure they’re flattened as much as possible and still have a cap on if your recycling center requires.

As for plastic to-go 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, as they’ll be burned off during the recycling process.

Keep these items separate from glass items that aren’t containers like mirrors or windows, which typically aren’t recyclable. It’s important to remember these glass recycling tips, as glass lasts forever.

sprite plastic bottle on table

Takeout Recycling

As takeout and grab-and-go services become more common, so do single-use plastic utensils and rubber bands. But did you know that these utensils aren’t recyclable 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.

How about styrofoam containers? Even though it has a recycling symbol, it’s not generally recyclable in curbside programs. Because of that, a lot winds up in landfills.

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’s on a recyclable material. If possible, compost it.

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!


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Recycling can often be a confusing process, so we're breaking it down into smaller sections to try and help simplify it a bit.

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