Reduce, reuse, recycle. So many of us heard those three words repeatedly when growing up. And yet, despite the simple phrase, recycling in the U.S. is anything but. In fact, the complexities of U.S. recycling have many of us constantly asking ourselves whether we can actually recycle countless items — styrofoam, pizza boxes, bubble wrap, lotion bottles, and more — that seem like they’re recyclable but may not actually be.
One result of a confusing and broken system: According to the EPA, only 32.1% of waste produced in the U.S. gets recycled or composted. The rest is sent to landfills, incinerated, or processed through other means. And, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association, approximately 25% of recyclable materials Americans toss in their blue bins goes to the landfill anyway because they’re too contaminated. “In theory, any [plastic] can be recycled,” Matt Prindiville, the CEO and “chief solutioneer” at environmental nonprofit Upstream, tells Mic. In practice, though, waste management companies only find certain “recyclables” valuable — and if they’re mixed with nonrecyclables or not properly cleaned out, the entire batch will get thrown out. The cost of sorting and processing is simply too high.
Making matters worse, the U.S. doesn’t currently have a federal recycling program, which means recycling policies and practices vary across the country — from cities that divert more than half of their potentially recyclable materials from landfills, to those that lack curbside recycling programs serving every household. Stijn van Ewijk, a postdoctoral associate at the Center for Industrial Ecology at Yale University, tells Mic the inconsistencies come down to several factors, including population, funding, and even transportation. “Politics play a role too, because regulation and public investment are a big part of waste management,” van Ewijk says. Simply put: Progressive cities are more likely to fund comprehensive sustainability programs, as a 2019 Axios/Survey Monkey poll found.
So, where does that leave us? Our first step in combating our waste problem should be cutting out single-use plastics and other difficult-to-recycle materials wholesale. Then, we focus on what to do with the rest. Because despite the complexities, recycling is worth it — and necessary. Here’s how to handle some of the most commonly confusing items to increase your chances of recycling successfully.
Can you recycle styrofoam? Styrofoam is technically recyclable — in fact, you may notice many styrofoam containers have the telltale recycling symbol stamped onto the bottom — but many municipal recycling programs don’t accept it, at least not in curbside bins. As DNA Info reported, the material is simply too much work to process, so recycling centers reject it and send it the way of landfills instead. If your local recycling program doesn’t accept foam (fun fact: Styrofoam is actually a specific brand name), there are some independent centers that do — though it’s best to make sure they’re clean. Foam Facts provides resources on how to handle different foam types, including a map of relevant recycling centers in the U.S.
Plastic bags and plastic film
Plastic bags and film — like bubble wrap and cling wrap — can also technically be recycled, but it often requires special handling. The material can jam and damage sorting machines, an issue that many curbside programs won’t risk. Plus, like many other items, if these films aren’t cleaned properly, they’re more likely to be discarded. Some states, like New York, do recycle plastic film items that are completely clean — but in most cases, your best bet is to take the material to a designated plastic film recycling bin (often a local grocery store) in your area.
Sure, pizza boxes are made from recyclable cardboard — but they’re also usually covered in non-recyclable grease, which can’t be easily separated from the clean cardboard fibers. So, can you recycle pizza boxes? Some cities, including several in New York and New Jersey, will recycle pizza boxes along with other cardboard, but before you toss it in your blue bin, do a quick search for your city’s rules. Even better: Just compost it. Cardboard — including greasy pizza boxes — can be composted, which avoids the possibility of ending up in a landfill altogether. If your city doesn’t offer municipal composting, you may be able to get started with worm composting or indoor composting at home.
Personal care containers
According to Terracycle, many personal care items — like lotion bottles, toothpaste tubes, and makeup containers — have recycling symbols on them and can be recycled, but only if they’re cleaned out. The best way to make sure your packaging actually gets recycled is to drop it off with a specialty program. Terracycle’s website includes an interactive map where you can find drop-off locations for containers that contain the number 1 or 2 within the recycling symbol; if nothing comes up, the company offers a program for shipping your empties using a (free) provided label.
Many electronic devices, like phones and printers, contain plastic, but that doesn’t mean you can throw the entire thing in a curbside bin — or that you should toss them in the garbage instead. E-waste is a massive problem, so it’s crucial to discard your old tech properly.
Many companies, including Best Buy, Staples, and Nimble, accept outdated devices and accessories for recycling. And Pela Case will take your old plastic phone cases — regardless of what other materials may be mixed in — if you buy one of their compostable cases.
It can be tempting to toss any unwanted catalogs and other snail mail right into your home recycling bin — after all, according to the EPA, paper is one of the most common items that can be recycled through curbside recycling programs. That said, avoid blue-binning advertising mail with foil and plastic (think: fake credit cards or plastic magazine wrappers), as well as envelopes padded with bubble wrap or other plastic. While some recycling programs may sort out catalogue staples, plastic envelope windows, and perfume samples, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of removing them in case they contaminate an entire bin. And, as with all other recyclables, make sure your paper doesn’t have food or other non-recyclable materials on it. When in doubt, you can go the way of your pizza boxes and opt for composting. Glossy and colored paper shouldn’t be composted, but most other paper — including newspapers — can be mixed into compost piles.