10 Things You’re Recycling Wrong, According to an Expert

A waste-management vet on pizza boxes, envelopes and more

April 1, 2019 9:00 am

Recycling in America, at least at home, couldn’t be easier. Back in the day, you had to bundle up the newspaper and seperate your glass, plastic and aluminum. Now, most of the country has single-stream recycling, where all recyclables go in one bin.

That simplicity has made most of us bad recyclers. Don’t deny it. Every single day, people walk over to their waste bins holding some piece of refuse, look back and forth between the recycling and the trash, then make an arbitrary decision about which to throw it in. Whether it’s a pizza box, bottle cap or paper envelope with that plastic see-through panel, there are innumerable commonplace items you’re not sure what to do with.

So we enlisted expert Randy Hartmann to solve your recycling quandaries. He’s Senior Director of Affiliate Operations at Keep America Beautiful, but more importantly, he’s a 30-year waste-management vet who has been asked these questions his entire career.

Below, find 10 things you’re probably recycling wrong at home, and Hartmann’s final word on what to do with them. (Nota bene: As Hartmann notes here and in our larger recycling guide, always double check with your local recycling rules.)

  1. Plastic bottle with a cap: Cap on and recycle it.
  2. Envelopes with a see-through plastic panel: Recycle it with paper.
  3. Sriracha bottle, or other hot sauce in a plastic bottle: If it’s composite materials, it becomes more challenging, but if it’s got a number one or two on it, I would throw it in the recycling bin. Otherwise, if in doubt, I would throw it out.
  4. Styrofoam: It’s very locally dependent and very difficult to recycle in the curb. That would be one that would probably not be easily done.
  5. Light bulbs: Light bulbs, especially if they contain mercury, should not be thrown away, and they should not be put in the recycling container. A lot of our hardware stores, Home Depot and Lowe’s, actually have programs to take those back. They should be taken to a qualified place that can handle them.
  6. Mirrors: Mirrors cannot be recycled.
  7. Shredded paper: No, it should not go on the curb for the same reason why hoses and wires don’t go into a recycling process. The best thing to do with shredded paper is compost it or use it for animal bedding if you’re out there in a rural area.
  8. Orange juice cartons: For the most part, yes. But again, that’s one of those that you need to check locally. Cartons, both food and beverage, with the gabled top like the orange carton, can be recycled in a lot of programs today. They have about 60-percent coverage across the country.
  9. Scrap wood: The best thing to do is reuse. Potentially, if you can grind it and mulch it, that’s an option for it, but no, that’s not something that should go in a recycling bin.
  10. Pizza boxes: Yes, it’s made out of paper. It can be recycled and it should be recycled. Most corrugated cardboard manufacturers want that cardboard and they can recycle it. Now, if it’s got half a pizza in it, no, throw it away. They can’t recycle the pizza. Paper manufacturing is a waterborne process, so by the same token, if you’ve got a pizza box and it’s one of those greasy pizzas, and you can almost wring out the corrugated cardboard of the grease, no, throw that away. That is not something that should go in the recycling stream.

Main photo by Evelyn on Unsplash

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