The majority of U.S. homeowners have two bins in their homes: one for trash and one for recycling. In theory, 100% of what goes into the recycling bin should be recycled, but unfortunately, that’s far from true.
Part of the problem lies with us. We too often toss plastic coffee cups and greasy cardboard pizza boxes into the recycling bin, hopeful that we’re doing the right thing. But this “wishful recycling” — as it’s referred to in the industry — only contaminates the items that truly belong in that bin, dooming it all to the landfill.
Recycling Highlights and Statistics 2023
- America ranks No. 1 in per-capita waste, producing 12% of the world’s trash despite only accounting for 4% of its population.1
- The U.S. ships more than 1 million metric tons of plastic recyclables to Asia each year, but 20–70% ends up in landfill.2
- There are more than 2,600 solid waste landfill sites in the U.S.3
- Of the 40 million tons of plastic waste generated in the U.S. in 2021, only 5% to 6% was recycled.4
- Recycling and reuse accounts for 681,000 U.S. jobs (about nine times that of solid waste).5,6
- Of the 69 million+ tons of items recycled annually, 67% is paper or paperboard, 13% is metal, and 4–5% is comprised of glass, plastic, and wood.7
What Is Recycling?
Recycling is the process of converting waste into reusable materials. There are many examples of recycling that don’t involve putting items into a green bin, like using an old jam jar as a vase for flowers.
Why Should You Recycle?
Everyone has their own reasons for recycling, but here are five major reasons why you should make a habit to recycle properly:
- Reduce your carbon footprint: Throwing away recyclable materials like aluminum cans or newspapers is a huge waste of energy — equivalent to the annual output of 15 power plants. Recycling cans saves 95% of the energy required to make them from a virgin source.8
- Preserve our natural resources and wildlife: The process of mining for raw materials is harmful to natural ecosystems and animals.
- Reduce landfill waste: Most of us have the luxury of never seeing where our bags of trash end up, but it has to go somewhere. Not only are landfills aesthetically displeasing and have adverse effects on tourism, but they’re also wreaking havoc on our environment.
- Prevent pollution: Recycling products to (1) keep them out of landfills and (2) reduce the amount of mining of raw materials prevents air and water pollution.
- Create jobs and stimulate the economy: Recycling and reuse activities account for more than 680,000 jobs, $37.8 billion in wages, and $5.5 billion in tax revenues in the U.S. alone.9
What Can Be Recycled?
Specifics can vary depending on the rules at your local recycling center or curbside recycling program, but the following items can generally be recycled:
Recycling aluminum cans save 95% of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from its virgin source.10 You can recycle the following aluminum materials, but make sure they’re free of residue.
- Beverage cans
- Food cans
- Tin foil
- Scrap metal
If there’s a hard-to-clean substance stuck to an item, you’re better off throwing it away.
Paper and cardboard have a 68% recycling rate in the U.S., which is pretty high compared to other materials. Again, make sure the material is free of food residue before putting it in the recycling bin. And be sure to check with your curbside recycling program’s policy, as some only accept corrugated cardboard.
- Cardboard boxes
- Milk or juice cartons
- Printer paper
- Frozen food boxes
- Ream wrappers
- File folders
- Poster Board
Sadly, only 5–6% of the 46 million tons of plastic generated in the U.S. gets recycled.11 You can help increase that statistic by properly cleaning and recycling the following plastic products:
- Water bottles
- Soda bottles
- Plastic beverage jugs
- Takeout containers
- Plastic jugs and tubs labeled No. 1 or 2*
*Typically, those with the numbers 1 or 2 inside the triangle can be recycled curbside, though some may have to be taken to a recycling center. Plastics numbers 3–7 must be taken to a specific recycling facility.
What Can’t Be Recycled
To avoid wishful recycling, you should trash (or explore alternative options) for the following waste:
- Food scraps (look into composting instead).
- Plastic shopping bags (most retailers offer bag recycling).
- Food-tainted items (pizza boxes, dirty food takeout containers, used paperware, etc.)
- Snack bags or candy wrappers
- Paint buckets
- Ceramics and kitchenware
- Glassware (non-bottles or jars)
- Broken glass
- Windows or mirrors
- Plastic wrap
- Bubble wrap or packing peanuts
- Medical waste
- Yard waste
- Six-pack rings
- Frozen food bags
Other Materials and Recycling
There are other materials that can be recycled but must be taken to a special recycling center to do so properly. (In other words, don’t put these items in your recycling bin.)
These items may include:
- Light bulbs
- Fluorescent tubes
A quick internet search of “how to recycle [item] near me” should direct you toward the proper recycling facility or drop-off center for these items.
Do’s and Don’ts of Recycling
We cannot stress this enough: the rules of recycling vary based on your local recycling center or curbside recycling program, so be sure to check what guidelines you need to follow to avoid recycling contamination.
However, the following are common dos and don’ts when it comes to proper recycling.
- Check with your local recycling center for guidelines.
- Empty and clean all containers before recycling, making sure there’s no leftover food or beverage residue.
- Break down cardboard boxes.
- Keep the lid of metal cans attached and fold them inwards so the sharp edge isn’t exposed.
- Separate your materials by type.
- Put any of the materials listed in the above section, “What can’t be recycled,” into a recycling bin.
- Recycle plastics No. 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7 in a curbside recycling bin (these plastics must be taken to a specific recycling facility).
- Flatten cartons or bottles.
- Recycle the glass from windows, mirrors, vases, or drinkware.
How Are Products Recycled?
You now know what can and cannot be recycled, but have you ever wondered how things are recycled? Let’s take a look at some of the processes for the most common items below.
Aluminum cans and other metal materials are taken to special treatment plants. After being sorted and cleaned, the metals are remelted to remove colorings, coatings, and shapes.
Once in liquid form, the aluminum is then made into giant blocks called “ingots.” Ingots get shipped out to mills, where they get rolled out into sheets before being fashioned into their new shapes. In all, it takes just a few weeks for aluminum to be recycled.
Cardboard is first sorted by type, either boxboard (i.e., a cereal box) or corrugated (i.e., a standard shipping box). The material is then shredded and poured into big water tanks to be turned into a pulp, with all other materials (metal, tape, etc.) getting filtered out in this process.
After the filtering process, more water and chemicals are added to further pulverize the material before it gets rolled, dried, and pressed into sheets. The sheets are then cut into the proper shapes and sizes.
Paper (Office and Newspaper)
Similar to cardboard, newspapers or magazine paper are brought to a mill, where they are fed into a fiber preparation plant. From there, the paper is mixed in with water and chemicals that dissolve the ink and contaminants and turns into a soggy, mushy pulp.
The pulp is then injected between mesh sheets to form a wet sheet of paper. Once dried, the paper gets polished and rolled into big reels, later to be cut into smaller sizes and sold off.
Once sorted by type, plastics are cleaned and then ground up and shredded. Once in bits, the plastic gets melted down and formed into small pellets about the size of a grain of rice.
The plastic pellets are then sold to companies to melt and mold into whatever container or shape they need to create.
How to Create a Home Recycling System
Having an organized and functional recycling system is important to promote proper recycling habits while also maintaining a healthier home (and planet). Here are a few steps to help get you started:
Step 1: Find Out the Recycling Pickup Schedule and Guidelines
If your city offers curbside recycling, make sure you’re aware of what items it accepts and what day your recycling pickup is.
Step 2: Figure Out Which Bins to Use and Label Them
Many cities require that curbside recycling be separated into separate bins. If you’re in charge of bringing recyclables to a recycling center, you’re better off buying separate recycling bins and labeling them by type (i.e., plastic, cans, cardboard, paper).
Step 3: Analyze (and Reduce) Your Waste
Do you get a lot of junk mail? Do you buy unnecessary plastic products? Perhaps you have a lot of items shipped to your home? There are ways you can reduce your waste to create fewer recycling headaches.
- See if you can get a “no junk mail” sticker for your mailbox.
- Opt out of junk mail by going to the website DMAchoice.org or calling 1-888-5-OPTOUT to stop receiving credit card offers.
- When you order a product online, see if there are options for reduced shipping materials (Amazon offers this).
- Sign up for e-notifications or statements for your bank or other service providers.
Reducing your home waste (especially ridding of those cardboard boxes) can help keep your home free of pests as well.
Step 4: Keep It Organized
Stay on top of your recycling by breaking down your materials and sorting them into their respective bins. If you have curbside recycling, set a phone reminder to move your bins to the curb the night before pickup.
Teaching Kids How To Recycle
Maintaining a home recycling system is a great chore for children, but the chore doesn’t have to be a bore. Here are some tips to make recycling more exciting for kids.
Make Smaller Recycling Bins Just for Kids
If possible, make smaller recycling bins for your kids’ bedrooms or playroom and teach them how to break down materials and properly sort them. The night before recycling day, they can add their separate stashes to the bigger bins.
Go on a Recycling Scavenger Hunt
A recycling scavenger hunt is a sneaky way to get your kids to help you clean the house. Have them go around your home and find different items that can be recycled, like the opened boxes from online purchases or the soda cans left in the TV room.
You can also hide recycled materials around the house to make it a little more interactive.
Create DIY Projects With Recyclable Materials
There are plenty of ways to upcycle recycled materials, especially those that can’t go into curbside recycling. You could make seed starters out of egg cartons, sew door drafts, or heating pads from old clothing. If you use recycled materials for general arts and crafts, the possibilities are endless.
Donate Toys and Clothes
Make a habit of going through the toys and clothes that your children have outgrown and asking them how these items may better serve other children in your community. Whether that be a neighbor or schoolmate or drop off at a donation center or thrift store.
Make a Bird Feeder
You can use plastic jugs or bottles to make homemade bird feeders. All you need is a pair of scissors or X-acto knife, a long stick, a piece of used wire (or string or twine), a nail, and some birdseed.
- Cut a hole in the side and the top of the bottle or jug.
- Poke a hole through the plastic with the nail.
- Put the long stick through both holes (this will act as the t perch for the birds to stand on).
- Use the nail again to poke holes in the top of the feeder.
- Insert the string through the top hole to make a hanger.
- Fill the bottom of the bottle with birdseed.
- Hang your bird feeder outside!
Play Zero Waste Games
You can recycle materials to make games for children. Many of these work best in bigger group settings, ideal for the classroom or parties. Here are some ideas:
- Fill empty bottles with sand for bottle bowling.
- Create towers with aluminum cans and see who can make theirs the tallest.
- Do a recycling relay, where you give each kid a pile of mixed recyclables and trash and see who can properly sort their items into the correct bin the fastest.
- Make three signs (plastic, glass, paper) and put them in different areas of the room. Call out different recycled items (like, “milk carton”) and have the kids run to whichever sign resembles the bin that item would go in.
Recycling and Eco Terms Glossary
Below are some helpful recycling and eco terms to know and teach to your kids.
- Bin: A small container used to hold limited amounts of waste, typically specified by type (compost bin, paper bin, plastics bin, etc.)
- Biodegradable: When a material can naturally be broken down by microorganisms and turned into water or carbon dioxide.
- Commingled container: A single waste container that holds a blended collection of recyclable materials (any combination of paper, cardboard, aluminum, steel, glass, and plastic).
- Compactor: A machine that uses pressure to compress materials into a dense mass.
- Conserve: Protect something (especially an environmentally or culturally important place or thing) from harm or destruction.
- Decompose: To rot or break down into essential elements.
- E-waste: Electronic components that can be disassembled and recycled (including computers, monitors, keyboards, computer mice, TVs, cell phones, etc.)
- Fossil fuels: Compound mixtures made of fossilized plant and animal remnants (coal, oil, and natural gas) that are extracted from the earth and burned as a fuel source.
- Hazardous waste: Poisonous or toxic materials that can cause harm to humans, ecosystems, and wildlife if not properly disposed of.
- Landfill: A place where trash and solid waste are dumped, buried, controlled, and managed. This trash can take decades or even centuries to break down.
- Renewable energy: Alternative forms of energy from natural resources, like the sun (solar power), wind or water (hydropower).
- Textiles: A type of cloth or fiber-based that may be composed of woven fabrics, yarns, or threads.