The Guide to What is Recyclable

Recycling is the process of recovering waste or scrap and reprocessing the materials into functional and useful products. But there is confusion surrounding what is recyclable. First, we will look at the reasons for recycling.

The main reason for recycling is to reduce high rates of pollution while putting less pressure on virgin materials to produce brand new products.

For example, 20 new aluminum cans can be made from recycled material using the same amount of energy that it takes to make 1 can from new aluminum.

The second reason to recycle is for our health and the health of the world we live in. With the rise in plastic production, use, and consumption has raised concerns about potential impacts on human health and the environment since at least the 1970s and with growing frequency and urgency in the last two decades.

Reduce and reuse as much as possible! Trash and recycling should be your last resort. I think past generations that made their tools and possessions last, there wasn’t another option. They repaired and reused because their tools would rot and go back to the earth if they left them out in the weather. Now we have the material that lasts for 500 years and we are fine with using them just once and throwing them ”away”.

The effects of our current trajectory.


Areas that have received specific attention relating to plastic are workers exposed to benzene, infants exposed to phthalates and other plastic additives, and consumers exposed to bisphenol A (BPA) in food packaging.

Today, there are up to 500 chemicals in an average human body that was not found in humans before 1920. In a study conducted in 2020, 4 out of 6 women had microplastics in the placentas of their healthy babies.


In 2018, the total recycling rate of aluminum containers and packaging, which includes beverage containers, food containers, foil, and other aluminum packaging, was only 34.9 percent.

Within this number, the most recycled category of aluminum was beer and soft drink cans, at 50.4 percent. Given the amount of energy is needed to produce new cans as opposed to recycling, and the fact that recyclers will pay you to return aluminum, we should have this number a lot higher.


The average American uses seven trees a year in paper, wood, and other products made from trees. Also in 2018, approximately 46 million tons of paper and paperboard were recycled for a rate of 68.2 percent, which was the most recycled material in municipal solid waste. One ton of recycled paper saves 24 trees.


All glass production for 2018, was 12.3 million tons in the United States and the number of recycled glass containers was 3.1 million tons in 2018, for a recycling rate of just 31.3 percent.

Glass can be recycled over and over with no loss of quality, and it is one of the substances that doesn’t leech any chemicals into food or drinks. Also, it takes less energy to recycle glass than to make new glass.

But how do you start?

The truth is, recycling can be confusing. Recycling is a regional enterprise, and each city has different rules, which complicates things for residents who just want to know how to recycle properly.

This is evident as 9 out of 10 people say they would recycle if it were “easier”. Although 75% of America’s waste is recyclable, only around 30% of it gets recycled. The question of “what is recyclable” is answered first by understanding the materials.

Although you have the best intentions, improper recycling (or “wishcycling”) has consequences for the whole waste management system. Plastic bags get caught in equipment and black plastic is hard for the optical sorters to see. This makes the job of the human sorters and the operator’s jobs harder. If they miss something, it is common for a whole bale of recyclables to be rejected by their buyers if there is contamination.

Of the trash in the ocean, plastics cause more than 80% of the negative effects on animals and fish. In 2015, a study by Australian and British scientists determined that 90 percent of seabirds living today have ingested some form of plastic, mistaking it for food. If plastic consumption continues at its current rate, 99 percent of seabirds will carry plastic in their guts by 2050.

That’s not something that should happen.

Recycling helps to conserve resources and diverts plastics from landfills or ending up in nature or our oceans. Landfills are among the biggest contributors to soil pollution and roughly 80% of the items buried in landfills could be recycled.

In England, near buildings from the Iron Age, archeologists have found a “disturbing amount of plastic waste”. It is a place where there were a lot of field trips for schools, and it was clear that the children had dropped much of the plastic. Moving forward, this is only going to become more common, as plastic production from just the last 10 years, has put out more than in the entire last century.

Currently about half of this plastic is single-use, meaning the expected life is six months or less. For example, the average plastic bag is used for just 13 minutes before it is discarded.

This has pushed many countries, cities, and even a terrorist group in Somalia, to ban the use of single-use plastic bags. Yes, a terrorist group cares about the earth. We are all connected and share this beautiful earth regardless of religious beliefs.

So here are a few of the common mistakes and how to start recycling better.

Materials: What is Recyclable?

First, we need to know what we are dealing with. There are six common types of plastics. Following are some typical products you will find for each plastic.

1 – PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) – Example: fruit juice and soft drink bottles.

PET is one of the most commonly recycled plastics, clear bottles are likely to be recycled, remove lids first. Clear bottles, look for ‘bubble’ on the bottom of a bottle), food trays (clear, green, black, etc. It is the most common thermoplastic polymer resin of the polyester family and is used in fibers for clothing, containers for liquids and foods, thermoforming for manufacturing, and in combination with glass fiber for engineering resins.

PET is a tough plastic which discolors if you bend it.

2 – HDPE (High-density polyethylene) – Example: shampoo containers or milk bottles.

HDPE is very commonly recycled, but remove lids first. It is used for white milk bottles of all sizes, bleach bottles, washing machine liquids, and some bottle caps. It’s made from petroleum. It is sometimes called “alkathene” or “polythene” when used for pipes. With a high strength-to-density ratio, HDPE is used in the production of plastic bottles, corrosion-resistant piping, geomembranes, and plastic lumber.

HDPE is a thick plastic that will spring back if bent, caps can usually be flexed.

3 – PVC (Plasticised Polyvinyl chloride or polyvinyl chloride)—Example: cordial, juice or squeeze bottles.

PVC is rarely recycled because of the chloride and other toxic chemicals it contains, check your local area. It is used to make clear bottles, look for a line on the bottom of the bottle, food trays, toys, piping, wire insulation. PVC is the world’s third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer, after polyethylene and polypropylene.

The rigid form of PVC is used in construction for pipe and in profile applications such as doors and windows. It is also used in making bottles, non-food packaging, and bank or membership cards.

PVC is fragile and will crack and or star bent if stressed, bottles make a ‘crinkle’ cracking sound if squeezed.

4 – LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) – Example: garbage bins and bags.

Not recommended to put in recycling bins, reuse bags, and look for collection in supermarkets, dispose of materials contaminated with food. LDPE is also widely used for manufacturing various containers, dispensing bottles, wash bottles, tubing, plastic bags for computer components, plastic bags, plastic wrapping, cling film, and various molded laboratory equipment. Its most common use is in plastic bags.

LDPE can be very thin to thick, but usually flexible and easily torn.

5 – PP (Polypropylene) – Example: lunch boxes, take-out food containers, ice cream containers.

It is not generally recycled, but check your local area. Butter and margarine tubs, clear fresh soup containers, some bottle caps, glass jar caps are made from PP. It is a white, mechanically rugged material and has a high chemical resistance. Polypropylene is the second-most widely produced commodity plastic (after polyethylene) and it is often used in packaging and labeling.

It will shatter into stripes if compressed, caps will usually be too hard to flex.

6 – PS (Polystyrene or Styrofoam) – Example: foam hot drink cups, plastic cutlery, containers, and yogurt.

It is not generally recycled, check your local area. Yogurt pots, insulated disposable cups, some trays, parcel packaging are made from polystyrene. Uses include protective packaging (such as packing peanuts and CD and DVD cases), containers (such as “clamshells”), lids, bottles, trays, tumblers, disposable cutlery, and in the making of models.

Polystyrene will tear or pull apart depending on the form.


Reuse of individual items marked as other, is more likely, avoid placing them in your recycling unless specifically instructed to do so. Reading glasses, CDs and DVDs and cases, some electrical connections and wiring, general household plastics are in the category of other. These miscellaneous plastics are often used in medical tools and food storage.

The majority of these plastics are very tough and are likely to shatter if pressure is applied.

That’s a lot of info, but here are the basics.

Currently, only PET and HDPE plastic products are recycled under most curbside recycling programs. PS, PP, PVC, and LDPE typically are not recycled because these plastic materials are more difficult and expensive to process.

Lids and bottle tops cannot be recycled separately from their bottles. The rule of thumb is to not recycle things smaller than a credit card. These small parts can get stuck in the recycling machinery and cause problems.

What Makes Black-Colored Plastic Different?

Clear, white, and light-colored plastics are the most profitable to recyclers because they can be recycled into a variety of different colored plastics. Black plastic — which can only be recycled into other black plastic items — reduces a batch’s value.

Some black plastic is made using electronic waste, which contains toxic materials — not good if the recycled plastic is used to make food containers. Optical sorting machines don’t see black items, which creates more work and expense for the recycler because black plastic items must be hand sorted.

Can You Put It In Your Curbside Bin?

  • First, DON’T recycle wishfully. Putting unrecyclable things in the bin only makes more work for the recycler.
  • DO clean all food residue and liquid from the plastic that you recycle. Many times, plastic is rejected and sent to the landfill if the recycler decides that it is dirty. The cost for them to wash the plastic negates the profit that they would make from it.

“I always tend to tell people that their recyclable material should be clean enough to use again,” says Howard Lee of Washington, D.C.’s Office of Waste Division. “So, if you’re putting things in the bin and you’re concerned about rodents or rats or anything like that, then chances are your recyclables are not clean.”

  • DO try to avoid buying items packaged in black plastic.
  • DO include black plastic bags, plastic film, and plastic wrap in the plastic-bag recycling you drop off at participating supermarkets and other locations. Because plastic bags and film can jam sorting machinery, they aren’t generally sorted by machine so the color isn’t a problem. (This is also why bags shouldn’t go in your curbside bin.)
  • DON’T put black plastics in your curbside recycling bin unless you have clear guidance that they are accepted. If you can’t reuse or repurpose these items, put them in the trash.

The best website I found for recycling centers near me, is Earth911. You can search for your location and the material you are looking to recycle. It seems to have a very extensive database of many places that recycle. It also worked for every material that I tried, unlike most of the other websites that either didn’t work or weren’t easy to use.

Interestingly, a company called Recology runs San Francisco’s highly successful program, which recycles about 80 percent of the city’s waste. They are showing that it can be done.


Aluminum cans make up less than 1% of waste in the United States because they are the #1 recycled item. But in only three months, enough aluminum cans are thrown out in the United States to rebuild all of our commercial air fleets.

There is no limit to the number of times you can recycle an aluminum can.

Soda containers and all carbonated beverages total 4% of the waste stream, but they comprise 40-60% of litter. The Solid Waste Coordinators of Kentucky found that 58% of litter collected consisted of beverage containers, pull tabs, and closures. Deposit laws significantly reduce container litter and other types of litter.

Because of the bottle and can deposit law in Michigan, you rarely see any bottles as litter. Homeless and poor people pick up all of the bottles that could be litter on streets and sidewalks to turn them in to get the deposit money.

Following the implementation of bottle bills in various states, container litter has been reduced by 69 to 84 percent (including in New York), while total litter has been reduced by 34 to 64 percent.

Right now there are only 10 states with bottle and can deposit laws. Oregon was the first state to successfully pass a bottle deposit law in 1971, Vermont was the second state to pass a bottle deposit law in 1973, and Hawaii was the most recent in 2002.

As it is, curbside programs are failing to adequately capture aluminum cans. Despite a tripling in curbside access in the last decade (2,711 programs in 1990, 9,709 in 2000), the U.S. aluminum can recycling rate went from 65% in 1992 to 49% in 2001.9 Curbside programs do not target cans consumed away from home.

Curbside is still not available to 50% of the American population and doesn’t address away-from-home consumption.


While the United States celebrates the holidays, Americans produce an additional 5 million tons of waste and four million of that consists of wrapping paper and shopping bags. And each American on average consumes roughly two trees annually in paper products.

Americans make up about 5% of the world´s population but produce as much as 30% of the world´s waste and use about a quarter of the world´s natural resources. And the amount of wood and paper we throw away each year is enough to heat 50,000,000 homes for 20 years.

The average household throws away 13,000 separate pieces of paper each year. Most are packaging and junk mail. Out of every $10 spent buying things, $1 (10%) goes for packaging that is thrown away. Packaging represents about 65% of household trash. About one-third of an average dump is made up of packaging material!

Brown paper

Boxes and brown paper can be recycled, but it is always recommended to use the box as much as possible. Though not always necessary, it’s a good practice to remove plastic tape and always break the boxes down.

While they often display recycling symbols and cardboard itself is recyclable, pizza boxes are often not accepted in local pick-up programs. Why? It all comes down to the grease. The food and grease that accumulates on the box make the paper product unrecyclable—that is unless you can remove the pizza remnants from the box. With grease, that’s pretty much impossible.

White and colored paper

Office paper, envelopes without the plastic window, bills, and junk mail can be recycled. If it seems to have a plastic-like texture, it’s best to throw it away. Buyers of paper for recycling are requiring less than 1% contamination rates. Interestingly shredded paper is not recyclable, as the fibers are cut too short to be reused.

Shredded paper is great to use as box filler when shipping things or gifts. Also, you can bring it to office supply stores that have companies that will recycle it. Or put it in a composter with kitchen scraps and make good soil for your plants.

Paper cups, milk jugs, wax paper and photographs

If it has a coating to keep it from absorbing liquid, it is not recyclable. This coating is plastic or petroleum-based paraffin. The paper coffee cups are not recyclable, and the same with photographs, there is too much plastic to recycle as paper and too much paper to be recycled as plastic.

As with everything else, the paper needs to be clean, dry, and free of any food or plastic bits.


Glass is made from readily-available domestic materials, such as sand, soda ash, limestone, and “cullet,” the industry term for furnace-ready recycled glass.

Recycled glass is always part of the recipe for glass, and the more that is used, the greater the decrease in energy used in the furnace. This makes using recycled glass profitable in the long run, lowering costs for glass container manufacturers—and benefiting the environment.

Over a ton of natural resources are saved for every ton of glass recycled.

States with container deposit legislation have an average glass container recycling rate of just over 63%, while non-deposit states only reach about 24%, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

It is necessary to know if the glass needs to be sorted by color when recycling. If they do not require sorting, this is called single-stream recycling, meaning that all glass products can be combined into one bin, and the material will be separated later. Not all recyclers, however, offer single-stream recycling.

Normally, only beverage and food bottles and jars are accepted. No glass vases, glass drinking cups, window glass, Pyrex, lab glass, or test tubes. These types of glass have a different melting temperature than beverage and food glass containers. These are very serious contaminants and can cause a whole load of glass to be rejected by the glass buyer.

Do your reasearch if you have questions about what is recyclable

There is no universal recycling program, and there is no silver-bullet solution. But even as we increase our reducing and reusing habits, we can’t avoid recycling, so we should try to do it right.

Again, Earth911 is a great site to find local recyclers near you. I was surprised to find some local businesses accepting odd things to recycle. It’s better to ask questions. There are no stupid questions, and share what you learn with your family and friends, they probably have the same questions that you do.

“There’s definitely a long-term attempt to educate and go further, what other signage can we do, what other incentives can we provide to help kids understand why they’re doing this,” said Anne Laughlin, area director of public relations and field communications at Republic. “As we see generations grow, recycling is going to get that much better.”

If you found this article helpful, please share it with someone, together we can make a difference. Thank you.

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