Whether you volunteer to pick up litter or regularly tackle the clutter in your own part of the world (hello, long-neglected garage and junk drawers!), you may be interested in knowing what items should be thrown away and which should be recycled. Because it’s not just about knowing what to recycle, but how to recycle properly, that truly helps the planet.
Check out this guide on how to recycle everything from batteries and electronics to the many different types of plastics, and learn where you can bring items that can’t be recycled curbside.
Why Is Recycling so Important?
Recycling helps create jobs, supports American manufacturing and increases economic security, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It also reduces the amount of waste sent to landfills and incinerators – saving municipalities money on the tipping fees paid to landfills – conserves natural resources (such as timber, water and minerals) and prevents pollution by reducing the need to collect new raw materials.
How to Recycle Properly
There are many ways to deal with recyclables, including curbside collection services, deposit or refund programs and local drop-off centers.
Knowing how to recycle properly – that is, knowing what you can and can’t recycle and where to take items that can’t be recycled curbside, will help get you started. Here are some basic guidelines and local resources to ensure you’re recycling correctly.
“Aluminum is one of the most recycled – and most recyclable – materials on the market today,” according to The Aluminum Association. “Nearly 75% of all aluminum produced in the U.S. is still in use.”
Aluminum food and beverage cans are almost always accepted by curbside and municipal collections. Simply rinse and toss them in your recycling bin or take them to a community drop-off center.
Batteries are an item that many people are unsure of how to recycle properly. “Certain batteries should not go in household garbage or recycling bins,” according to the EPA. These include button-cell, coin or lithium single-use batteries, which should instead be taken to a special recycling facility.
While used or “dead” alkaline and zinc-carbon batteries – think 9-volt, AA, AAA, C and D – are often thrown away, you should send them to battery recyclers and/or check with your local or state solid waste authority, according to the EPA.
When it comes to lithium-ion batteries, the EPA recommends taping over battery terminals and/or placing batteries in separate plastic bags.
Did you know AAA recycles car batteries? Learn more.
“Electronic products are made from valuable resources and materials, including metals, plastics and glass, all of which require energy to mine and manufacture,” according to the EPA.
As such, electronics – like laptops, TVs, cellphones, etc. – should be taken to a SERI- certified electronics recycling facility. Some states and municipalities hold special e-scrap waste collection events; check the state resources below for more information.
If you have an old phone that still works, consider putting your old phone to good use rather than throwing it away.
Some recycling collectors want glass separated by color – blue, brown, clear, green, etc. – while others no longer accept glass. If the latter is the case in your area, try to buy fewer products packaged in glass, make sure to reuse glass bottles and/or save recyclable glass for special collection events – like National CleanUp Day.
Check out what happens to your car windshield after it’s been replaced.
Hazardous waste should never be thrown away with regular garbage or poured down the drain or on the ground. Household items like paint, solvents, thermometers and fluorescent lights, motor oil and pesticides are considered hazardous waste.
As with e-waste, many states and municipalities hold special events to collect such waste. Local businesses that sell the products will sometimes accept them for recycling.
The used oil from one oil change can contaminate one million gallons of fresh water, according to the EPA.
Used motor oil should be treated similar to hazardous waste – never dumped down the drain. Many garages and auto-supply stores accept oil for recycling. See EPA resources on how to manage, reuse or recycle your used oil here. Then, find a motor oil recycler near you.
Paper and Cardboard
Paper makes up 23% of municipal solid waste generated each year, more than any other material, according to the EPA.
In order to be recycled, paper and cardboard should be clean (so no soiled pizza boxes or other food containers). Tape, staples and any bits of plastic should be removed if possible.
How to Recycle Plastic Properly
You may see the recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic container and assume it’s 100% recyclable – but there is some nuance.
Only plastics with the numbers “1” and “2” in the middle of the recycling symbol are widely recyclable. Plastics with the numbers “3” through “7” may not be – although “5” is becoming more accepted. This helpful guide from Good Housekeeping breaks down the meaning of every plastic recycling symbol and how to recycle each.
When recycling acceptable plastics, keep or remove the caps on bottles and jugs according to your local guidelines. Compostable plastics should not be placed in the recycling bin. Plastic shopping bags should not be put in your curbside recycling bin either, but they can often be returned to stores for recycling.
State Recycling Resources
• Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
• Massachusetts Recycling Guidelines
• New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services
• New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection
• New York Department of Environmental Conservation
• Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation
How To Be an Informed Recycler
Recycling rules can differ among collection services. If you have questions about what is and isn’t collected where you live, reach out to your county, city, community or town.
Generally, items like plastic and metal utensils, plastic bags, Styrofoam and plastic wraps are not accepted by curbside recycling services – but it doesn’t hurt to double-check.
Resist the urge to recycle everything, since not all products are recyclable. Trying to recycle items that should be trashed can actually contaminate and slow the sorting process.
Make Less Waste
Be mindful of your purchasing and consuming habits. In stores, go for items with the least amount of packaging and only buy goods in containers you know you can recycle. Check the bottoms of plastic containers to make sure they’re easily recyclable (numbered “1” or “2”).
Avoid single-use plastics like straws, soda bottles and food packaging. Instead, consider switching to reusable bags, bottles, containers and straws. When ordering goods online, opt for greener packaging options.
Around the holidays, reach for wrapping paper made from recycled materials. Or, forgo the paper altogether and opt for reusable boxes and bags.
Are you a thoughtful recycler? Tell us in the comments.