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What Should You Put In Your Recycling Bin – Curbside Recycling 101

A broad overview of the ins and outs of curbside recycling.

Recycling reduces the amount of waste that ends up in our landfills, conserves our natural resources, and so much more. Taking advantage of your curbside recycling program is a quick and easy way to protect our environment.

What Is Curbside Recycling?

Curbside recycling is a collection program offered to households and businesses for the disposal of refuse, particularly recyclables. Recyclables such as plastics can take up to 400 years to break down naturally. As our landfills continue to fill up with municipal solid waste at an alarming rate, recycling is becoming more and more important.

Municipal recycling programs offer homeowners the opportunity to separate their recyclable waste from the rest of their municipal waste and send it to a facility that is capable of salvaging the material for reuse. Some homeowners do not have access to curbside recycling due to their remote location or due to local economic restrictions such as reasonable access to a recycling facility.

In some areas, recycling may be required by law. Although there are no federal regulations that require homeowners to recycle, there may be local ordinances that require homeowners to recycle. If your local government doesn’t require recycling, then your local waste management company might.

The types of materials that are picked up as part of a curbside recycling program vary from home to home. It’s important to check with your local government and local waste pickup company for regulations and requirements that apply to your residence.

Why Should I Use Curbside Recycling?

The benefits of curbside recycling include reducing the amount of waste that goes to our landfills, conserving our natural resources, increasing your nation’s economic security, and more. Many people write off recycling as off as a strictly environmental topic, but it has far-reaching economic benefits as well.

According to the EPA, approximately 292 million tons of municipal household waste was generated in 2018. Paper and cardboard recyclable waste make up 23% of that figure alone. The national recycling rate is a dismal 34% in the United States. That results in a lot of unnecessary waste ending up in our landfills.

Recycling preserves our natural resources and virgin materials through reuse. Recycled materials can be reused in manufacturing processes, effectively reducing the need to produce new plastics or other recyclables altogether. Curbside recycling empowers homeowners to participate in a closed-loop system where our refuse becomes a nutrient for new products.

Economic benefits of recycling include stimulating the local economy. Operation National Sword is a policy that the Chinese put into place in 2018 which effectively halted the exportation of recyclables from the United States to China. This policy forced Americans to expand upon their existing recycling programs.

Recycling not only helps create jobs and stimulate the local economy, but also helps increase economic security by reducing our dependence on foreign nations for manufacturing materials. As mentioned previously, recycled materials can be reused in the manufacturing process.

What Can I Put In The Recycling Bin?

The types of materials that you can dispose of into your curbside recycling bin will depend on what your local curbside recycling company allows. This varies from household to household, so it’s important to check with your waste pickup company.

Putting the wrong materials in your recycling bin may result in the contamination of other recyclables. If the wrong materials are improperly disposed of in the curbside recycling container, then you can effectively contaminate the whole load. A contaminated load cannot be recycled, so please be careful.

The rule of thumb is that if you’re not sure if it’s recyclable or not, just throw it in the regular garbage to be safe!

Most curbside recycling programs are single-stream, meaning that all recyclables can be disposed of into the same bin and are later separated by material type at the recycling facility. Once again, please check with your local waste management company to inquire about what is accepted and what isn’t.

Recyclables that are typically accepted as part of a curbside recycling program include (but are not limited to):

  • Plastic bottles and containers: Water bottles, milk jugs, to-go containers, etc.
  • Food & beverage cans: Empty tin, aluminum, and steel cans such as soda cans, canned vegetable containers, etc.
  • Paper products: Newspaper, magazines, school papers, etc.
  • Flattened cardboard: Broken down cardboard boxes from Amazon, etc.
  • Food & beverage containers: Milk cartons, juice boxes, etc.
  • Glass bottles & containers: Empty beer bottles, wine bottles, etc.

All recyclable containers must be completed empty to prevent contamination. It is recommended that you rinse off your recyclables to prevent contamination. Pressurized cans such as aerosols can be recycled, but must be emptied and depressurized. Paper products cannot be wet or damp. Boxes must be broken down and flattened.

What Do The Recycling Symbols Mean?

The recycling symbols, or the three arrows, found on recyclables indicate what type of plastic you’re dealing with and how to properly dispose of it. The seven types of recyclable plastics include:

  1. PET or PETE: This is the most commonly used plastic for single-use materials such as water bottles, peanut butter containers, etc. The recycling rate of these plastics is a measly 20%. #1 plastics can typically be safely recycled via curbside pickup.
  2. HDPE: A versatile high-density polyethylene plastic is typically found in products like milk jugs, juices, detergent bottles, etc. #2 plastics can typically be recycled via curbside pickup.
  3. PVC or V: Polyvinyl chloride or vinyl are resilient and strong. This is found most commonly in PVC pipes, flooring, piping, or even vegetable oil. #3 plastics are not typically accepted through curbside pickup and are difficult to recycle.
  4. LDPE: Low-density polyethylene is flexible and typically found in plastic shopping bags, grocery bags, bread, sandwich baggies, etc. #4 plastics are typically not accepted through curbside pickup and are difficult to recycle. #4 plastics such as shopping bags are known to clog and damage the machinery at recycling centers. Many grocery stores accept LDPE plastics for no charge.
  5. PP: Polypropylene has a high melting point and is generally becoming accepted in curbside pickups. #5 plastics are commonly found in medicine bottles, caps, etc.
  6. PS: Polystyrene is popularly known as Styrofoam. This is notoriously difficult to recycle. #6 plastics are typically not accepted by curbside recycling programs.
  7. Miscellaneous: This covers a plethora of various plastics, ranging from sunglasses, to cd players, to computer cases. #7 recyclables are rarely recycled and are typically not accepted by curbside recycling programs.

Remember that just because your waste has a recycling symbol on it does not mean that it can be recycled via curbside recycling!

How Do I Curbside Recycle?

It’s important that you don’t bag your recyclables. Dispose of your items into a trash bin and do not line the trash bin with a plastic bag. Plastic garbage bags may be #4 recyclable, but are oftentimes not accepted by curbside recycling programs. Plastic garbage bags are notorious for damaging equipment at recycling centers. If you bag your recyclables, then there entire contents are at risk of being separated and not recycled.

Other plastics such as plastic wrap, bubble wrap, or other films should not be recycled through your curbside recycling program. Flexible packaging like chip bags may also damage recycling center equipment. Cups with waxes and their lids are similarly not recyclable. Lastly, waste that is easily tangled like hoses should not be recycled.

Participating in your curbside recycling program is as easy as separating your waste and taking walking a recycling bin down to the curb. Please reach out to your local waste management company to learn more!

In Summary

The most important takeaways from this article are highlighted below:

  • Do check with your local municipality to inquire if there are any curbside recycling laws that apply to your residence.
  • Do check with your local waste management company to inquire about which items can be safely recycled and which items cannot be safely recycled.
  • Do break down cardboard boxes so that they are completely flat.
  • Do not use a plastic bag to line your recycling bin. Recyclables should be disposed of in the bin loosely. It’s easier to sort at the recycling center this way.
  • Do not throw anything and everything into the recycling bin. If you’re not 100% sure that it can be recycled, then quickly conduct a Google search or throw it in the garbage instead.
  • Do not recycle any wet paper or cardboards. Let it dry first!
  • Do not recycle any bottles or containers that aren’t completely empty. Rinse out containers if needed.
  • Do not recycle any pressurized containers. Do depressurize or empty them first.

Curbside recycling 101 is designed to give you a broad overview of curbside recycling. We recommend reaching out to your local waste management company for information on local laws and regulations as well as requirements specific to your household.

Further reading:

Our recent articles about Climate change and Pollution and waste .

Check out our resources library.

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