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Recycling: Why You're Probably Doing It Wrong and 10 Steps to Do It Right

Filipa Rodrigues, KUT
Can you pick out which of these items can go into the recycle bin and which need to be trashed?

It’s a familiar scenario: you’ve finished a product and are ready to dispose of the packaging. But wait… does it go into the recycling bin? Or the trash can? Recycling is something most of us strive to do. But waste management experts say many of us do it wrong – at least some of the time.

Step 1 to better recycling is NOT putting something in the bin if you're not sure it can be recycled:

"Part of the problem with recycling is if you throw it in with doubt, it could be a contaminate and it can slow down the process in the recycling stream," Austin Resource Recovery Director Bob Gedert says.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues, KUT
These paper products can all be recycled.

Step 2 is figuring out what you definitely CAN recycle. This list comes from the National Waste & Recycling Association:

  • Aluminum
  • Paper
  • Cardboard
  • 1 and 2-type plastic bottles         
  • Steel cans
  • Glass containers

Step 3 is knowing what you definitely CANNOT recycle at the curb. Water hoses, Styrofoam, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) and plastic bags CANNOT go into single stream recycling. CFLs may be recyclable at hardware stores and plastic bags may be accepted outside grocery stores… but not in your cart at the curb. That also means anything that’s plastic bag-like is out:

“If it’s flimsy, if it’s film-like, it cannot be recycled because it gets wrapped around the recycling equipment," Gedert says.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues, KUT
The composite products on the left have plastic lining and cannot be recycled. The cup on the right has a wax coating and is OK to recycle.

Step 4 is being able to recognize composites – that’s items made up of more than one material. In some cases, it’s easy to fix that:

"Like a bucket with a metal handle, remove the metal handle, recycle the metal handle, recycle the bucket – but they need to be separated," Gedert says."

Another easy example is a yogurt container with an aluminum foil top – just pull of the top and put them in as two, separate items!

In other cases, it’s impossible – think of a paper oatmeal packet or a frozen container of concentrated juice with an inner plastic lining. Those just need to go in the trash.

Step 5 is being able to tell the difference between a plastic and a wax coating. Wax is OK (think of a paper convenience store cup) but plastic is not (think of that oatmeal packet I mentioned).

Step 6 is knowing the answer to the common pizza box question:

“If the box does not have grease on it, it can be recycled," Gedert says. "So sometimes you can rip of the top and recycle the top and discard the bottom.”

If there's a removable lining underneath the pizza that has protected it from grease, it's OK to recycle the whole thing.

Credit Filipa Rodrigues, KUT
This yogurt container is an easy composite product to make recyclable - just separate the aluminum top from the plastic. The container also needs to be rinsed.

Step 7 is rinsing – yes – even the tough stuff:

"I just finished a plastic peanut butter container and I tried to rinse it out and the remaining peanut butter scraps won't rinse out. I put it in the dishwasher and it cleaned up perfectly," Gedert said.

Step 8 is considering buying products that are easier to recycle. For example, a paperboard egg carton instead of a Styrofoam one.

Step 9 to better recycling is actually not recycling at all – it's thinking about and incorporating the other two r's – reduce and reuse!

Step 10 is taking any questions to your specific provider because some things do vary between municipalities. If you live in Austin, click here for a list of which items are and are not collected.

You can also learn more, and go behind the scenes at a recycling facility, at the National Waste and Recycling Association's website.

Here's a wrap up.

Items that CAN be recycled:

  • Wrapping paper without foil, decorations and ribbons can be recycled.
  • Tissue Paper that does not contain ribbons or foil can be recycled.  
  • Pizza boxes without grease can be recycled.
  • Plastic hangers can be recycled. Instead of tossing them at random, tie the hangers with a bread tie or string to keep them in one bundle.
  • Paper plates that have not been contaminated with food can be recycled. Plastic utensils and plates can be washed before being placed in the bin.
  • Cardboard egg cartons can be recycled.
  • Labels do not need to be removed for recycling items.
  • Shredded paper can be recycled, but can cause problems if not placed in a bag and labeled. 

Items that cannot be recycled:

  • Bubble Wrap is a film plastic so it is not recyclable. It can be re-used or donated. 
  • Frozen from concentrate juice containers are not recyclable.
  • Styrofoam egg cartons are not recyclable.
  • Tinsel cannot be recycled.
  • Plastic ornaments cannot be recycled unless the ball ornament is a hard plastic only (not a composite).
  • Anything with film plastic (unless film plastic can be removed).

Laura first joined the KUT team in April 2012. She now works for the statewide program Texas Standard as a reporter and producer. Laura came to KUT from the world of television news. She has worn many different hats as an anchor, reporter and producer at TV stations in Austin, Amarillo and Toledo, OH. Laura is a proud graduate of the University of Missouri-Columbia, a triathlete and enjoys travel, film and a good beer. She enjoys spending time with her husband and pets.
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