I feel like I am a person who is reasonably educated about recycling. I've been doing it since I was a kid, and reporting on it for at least a decade.
But to this day, I pause when it's time to put select items in the trash. What's OK to recycle — and what is OK to trash? The rules seem to change a lot.
The rules can also vary depending on where you live, because everything's recycled at the local level. Plus, very few recyclable-looking things have just one element to them — aluminum cans are wrapped in paper, paper cartons are coated in plastic, plastic containers have cardboard in them. It's confusing.
So I reached out to the pros. I got on the phone with Caroline Cox and Jessica Edington, project managers at How2Recycle, a membership-based labeling program initiated by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition that's working to demystify the process by putting detailed recycling labels on packaged goods.
They've got the buy-in from more than 70 major companies, including General Mills, Target, Nestle, and Procter & Gamble. You might not have noticed the change, but I saw it when I went through my cupboards: Now, a cereal box doesn't just say "recyclable," it gives you instructions about the cardboard outside and the plastic liner inside. Finally, clarity!
While there are many, many factors that go into determining recyclability (and hopefully I'll get to write a longer piece on that in the future), there are a few roadblocks that can really gum up the works. So here are a few things you should never recycle — and why.
6 Things You Should Never Recycle
1. Ceramic mugs
What to do with a bunch of ceramic mugs you no longer want around? While some recycling centers that take concrete or brick may take ceramic, not all are equipped to handle them. Your best bet is to donate them if they're not chipped or broken.
2. Polystyrene containers
While many food retailers have phased out polystyrene containers (you probably know them by the brand name Styrofoam) in favor of recyclable or compostable containers, they're still a sturdy, cheap food packaging option that many a deli can't quit. While polystyrene is sometimes technically recyclable, the facilities that recycle it aren't easily accessible to most normal consumers, so the How2Recycle team recently downgraded it from "Check Locally," to "Not yet Recyclable." High hopes we get there soon!
3. Some totally assembled bottles of cleaning products.
You look at that empty bottle of Windex, see the little #1 inside the triangle on the bottom, and just toss it into the bin — but wait! Inside the sprayer is a little metal spring that pumps out the good stuff. If you throw the whole thing in the plastic bin, if that bit of metal is melted with a bale of plastic it could contaminate the whole lot.
So going forward, look for the more detailed How2Recycle label, look extra-closely at the whole bottle, and follow your local guidelines to recycle each piece properly.
4. Loose bottle caps and small balls of foil
Yes, plastic bottle caps and (clean) balls of aluminum foil are recyclable. The problem is they're so itty-bitty that they can fall right through recycling equipment — meaning they'll end up in a landfill instead.
So before you toss anything smaller than three inches in diameter in the bin, screw caps back onto bottles (most of the time; sometimes they are not recyclable — look at the labeling) and save your bits of foil to bundle together bit by bit until you have a decent-sized ball to recycle. Unfortunately, the foil bit doesn't refer to the lids of yogurt containers, because those are often foil with layers of plastic in between, so they're not always recyclable.
5. Shrink-sleeved containers
You might not know what the term "shrink-sleeve containers" means, but you've seen them: It's a label that perfectly fits around bottle or carton to wrap it in a vibrant design. (Like the label around a bottle of Nesquik, for example.) Problem is, while the bottle or carton may be recyclable, the shrink-sleeve is not — and it can confuse the sorting sensors at the recycling center as they try to determine what kind of material it is. So get out your scissors and snip away those labels before putting your bottle in the bin!
6. Broken glass
Glass is obviously recyclable. Broken glass is not because it can be dangerous to the workers who collect or work with your recyclables. If you have broken glass, sweep it up and put it in a paper bag before you throw it in the trash.
An important note: It's up to us, the consumers, to get educated about what we can recycle. Initiatives like How2Recycle can make it easier for us — and for that we heartily thank them — but I encourage you to visit your local government's site and learn the rules. They just might be surprising.