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How to recycle plastic bags and other trash-sorting tips everyone should know

Despite our good intentions to protect the environment, many of us are making matters worse by making a variety of recycling mistakes. But if you've ever stared down at your refuse bins wondering if there's too much grease on your pizza box, how to recycle plastic bags, or whether you're supposed to wash the soup can before it goes in, you're certainly not alone. For many of us, it's not a matter of not wanting to recycle, but not knowing all the rules.

According to a recent study commissioned by sustainability company Covanta, the majority of Americans aren’t sure which materials are suitable for recycling, with 62 percent of respondents claiming a lack of education is preventing them from recycling properly. And poor recycling practices are costing us: In the last year, clean plastic exports have decreased by 40 percent largely due to contaminated recycling. Given that China recently halted all imports of American recyclable materials, more and more cans, newspapers, cardboard and glass are piling up in landfills. But that shouldn't deter us from implementing best practices while we can.

“Recycling is easy when you're used to it, but, as with anything, it takes time for it to become a habit,” Professor Małgorzata Grudzińska-Jurczak, scientist, professor of ecology at Jagiellonian University and co-creator of Quit Plastic, tells Mic. “You should begin by recycling all of an easy-to-recycle item you use, like tin cans or plastic bottles, and then build up to recycling as much as you can. Doing this would not overwhelm you and would guarantee eventual success.”

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, recycling isn’t only a way to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfills: It helps conserve natural resources like timber and water, it boosts the economy by reusing resources instead of tapping into new ones, and it supports at least 757,000 jobs per year in the recycling and manufacturing industries alone.

With approximately 9,800 curbside recycling programs across the country covering 70 percent of the population, access to recycling programs isn’t the issue. It’s mixed messages and lack of education that’s preventing Americans from optimizing their recycling efforts. According to the Pew Research Center, recycling policies only exist at the state and local level, rendering national campaigns promoting solutions to recycling ineffective. But there are certain guidelines that ring true for all municipalities across the country.

Here are some recycling mistakes you might not even realize you’re making, and how to fix them.

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Not washing before recycling

If you notice any debris or lingering product on the material, briefly run it under water, and only toss it in the recycle once it’s dry. “Some degree of prewashing is always welcome. If not taken, it has to be done at the segregation center, just before the product is recycled,” says Grudzińska-Jurczak. She adds that unwashed items may also make other products in the container dirty, which will decrease their value as a material for recycling.

Over-washing before recycling

We already know we’re supposed to give the materials a quick rinse to wash off any debris, but excessive washing with hot water and soap is not economical. “The energy spent on heating the water would exceed the profitability of recycling, so a quick rinse is satisfactory,” says Grudzińska-Jurczak.

Recycling materials in poor condition

Hanna Pamuła, creator of the Plastic Footprint Calculator and expert at the Omni Calculator Project, says that one of the most common recycling mistakes includes trying to recycle used Kleenex, napkins, or paper towels. “We can’t recycle them, as they’re contaminated with food, germs, bodily fluids or other substances,” she tells Mic. The same rule applies to all soiled food containers including your pizza box. However, you can always try to tear off the greasy part of the cardboard and recycle the rest.

Wet materials are also unfit for recycling. “Try to only dispose of high-quality waste. I know it sounds a bit sarcastic, but each piece of waste to be recycled needs to be good quality material," says Grudzińska-Jurczak. She adds that if poor-quality products make their way into recycling system, sorting at the plant becomes a lot more ineffective and costly.

Incorrectly recycling sharp materials

When in doubt, think of the factory worker at the recycling plant manually handling the item, and any potential injuries it may cause. According to Princeton University Environmental Health and Safety, always insert sharp objects like broken class within a closed cardboard box. Needles used for medical reasons are a little trickier: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends inquiring about any pharmacy mail-back programs, public household hazardous waste collection sites, or waste pick-up services to safely dispose of the needles.

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Recycling Styrofoam

It’s soft, plush, and pillowy, so you’d think it belongs in the same bin as paper and (clean) tissue. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. “Styrofoam cups aren’t appropriate for recycling, [and] paper coffee cups are not much better,” says Pamuła. “They're lined with polyethylene, which prevents the liquid from leaking, but at the same time, it makes the cups really difficult to recycle, requiring specialist plants.” Your best bet? Bring your own containers or thermoses instead of purchasing new single-use ones. It eradicates the need to recycle altogether, which is a bonus in and of itself.

Not separating materials

Unfortunately, that ubiquitous blue box at your curb is doubling the national rates of contamination since it encourages single-stream recycling, Susan Robinson, Waste Management's director of public affairs, told Wired. You’ll ideally have a bin for each type of recyclable material, like glass, plastic, and paper, since they will need to be separated at the plant anyway. “If your packaging is made from multiple categories, like a glass container with a metal or a plastic lid, then separate them as best you can and put them into the appropriate container,” says Grudzińska-Jurczak. “For some waste, this is impossible. Milk and juice cartoons are good examples, [since they’re] a tightly made mix of paper, aluminum and plastic foil.”

She recommends sorting your recyclables into the following five categories:

  1. Solid waste
  2. Paper
  3. Glass
  4. Metal and plastic
  5. Bio-waste and mixed waste

Taking that extra step to separate materials yourself means less work needs to be done at the processing plant, saving money and increasing efficiency in the long run.

Recycling toxic containers yourself

If you have, say, a can of motor oil you need to get rid of, rinsing out the container in the sink is dangerous since the oil can contaminate the water, according to the EPA. Even once you rinse it out, the container will still contain trace amounts of the oil, making it unfit for recycling anyway. Your best bet is to call your trash and recycling facility and ask about the best practices given your circumstance, whether they pick it up directly at your home, or have you bring it to the waste collection plant yourself.

For pharmaceutical waste, ask your pharmacist about a drug take-back program so they can dispose of your medication safely, and for batteries, look for in-store recycling bins or community events designed for safe collection and disposal.

Recycling flimsy materials

See, technically, a plastic bag’s material is suitable for the recycling bin. But as “choking hazards for the sorting line,” according to USA TODAY, plastic bags — especially flimsy grocery bags — can get tangled among other objects. This decreases productivity, requiring that factory workers stop the conveyor belt and extract the items. Instead, use a tightly-tied plastic bag as a container for other plastic bags. Apply that same strategy to other loose materials like plastic wrap or decorative streamers. And for the love of our planet, place straws into a larger sealed container after checking that your recycling program actually accepts them.

We all make mistakes when it comes to recycling, but with a little practice and a quick call to your local environmental agency, you'll be well on your way to making this planet a cleaner place — one blue bin at a time.