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Your One-Stop Guide for Recycling Information

Learn What Is Recyclable and How to Recycle Properly

The U.S. produces about 251 million tons of waste each year. Most of that waste is held in the 3,091 active landfills across the country, where items will take hundreds of years (or in the case of glass, upwards of a million) to decompose. 

Yet nearly 94 percent of Americans have access to some type of recycling program. Why aren’t we using them more often? It’s mainly because a lot of people are confused by the rules. Use this recycling information guide to learn what materials are commonly recyclable, how to recycle them properly and some of the incredible benefits of doing so.

Why Is Recycling Important?

Recycling is an important tool for tackling many environmental issues. 

  • Recycling uses less energy than acquiring and working with raw materials.
  • Recycling lessens our need for raw materials, conserving numerous resources.
  • Lessening our need for raw materials prevents destruction of forests and other habitats. 
  • Diverting materials from landfills reduces greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution.

In 2013 (the last year for which data is available), the U.S. recycled just over 34 percent of its waste. This is one of the lowest recycling rates seen in decades. What we don’t recycle either ends up in a landfill or as litter polluting our environment. Read on to learn how we could benefit by recycling those materials instead.

Recyclable Materials Are Treasure—Not Trash

Glass bottles in the grass.

Many of the products you use every day can be made from recycled materials. Doing so not only conserves important resources but often lowers the cost of those products. And in most cases, products made from recycled materials are the same or even better quality than ones made from raw materials.

Check out this list of commonly recyclable materials to learn the benefits of recycling them.

Paper

Recycled paper can be made into new writing paper, paper plates, napkins, paper towels, paper currency, coffee filters, and even more unusual things like masking tape, car insulation or hospital gowns.

For every ton of paper you recycle, you save:

  • 17 trees.
  • 380 gallons of oil.
  • 4,000 kilowatts of electricity.
Cardboard

Recycled cardboard can be made into new cardboard boxes, paperboard packaging material and paper bags.

For every ton of cardboard you recycle, you save:

  • 7,000 gallons of water.
  • 9 cubic yards of landfill space.
  • 250 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
Plastic Bottles

Recycled plastic bottles can be made into new bottles and other containers, insulation for jackets and sleeping bags, carpeting and upholstery, and even fibers for sweaters or t-shirts.

For every ton of plastic bottles you recycle, you save:

  • 3.8 barrels of oil.
  • 5,774 kilowatt-hours of electricity.
  • 16,000 gallons of water.
Other Plastics

Recycled plastics can be made into a huge variety of items, including new plastic bags, new containers, plastic lumber, playground equipment, synthetic oil and lubricants, and even synthetic fuels.

For every ton of plastics you recycle, you save:

  • 685 gallons of oil.
  • 98 million Btu of energy.
  • 30 cubic yards of landfill space.
Glass

Recycled glass can be made into new glass bottles and containers, dishes and fiberglass. Glass is a material that can be recycled indefinitely without any loss in quality.

For every ton of glass you recycle, you save:

  • 10 gallons of oil.
  • 7.5 pounds of air pollutants.
  • 1,017 pounds of raw materials such as limestone and feldspar.
Aluminum Cans

Recycled aluminum cans are made into new cans, window and door fittings, bicycles, electrical cables and nearly anything that is generally fabricated from aluminum. Like glass, aluminum can be recycled indefinitely without any loss in quality.

For every ton of aluminum cans you recycle, you save:

  • 1.5 tons of raw ore.
  • 14,000 kilowatt-hours of energy.
  • 40 barrels of oil.

What Can You Put in the Recycling Bin?

If you’re convinced of the benefits of recycling and are ready to start filling your recycling bin, use these lists of common recycling mistakes and handy tips to learn how to recycle like a pro.

Common Recycling Mistakes

Curbside recycling rules vary by location but there are a few habits that are a mistake no matter where you live. Usually, these mistakes happen because people are so eager to go green that they put items in their recycling bins that really don’t belong there. To stay on the recycling straight-and-narrow, avoid these mistakes:

1. Don’t put plastic bags in your recycling bin. Plastic bags should be taken to a grocery store for recycling. When mixed in with your curbside recyclables, they gum up the sorting apparatus at the recycling facility.

2. Don’t put cardboard food containers in your recycling bin. Items like pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers should be thrown in the trash. The grease they contain interferes with the recycling process.

3. Don’t recycle the wrong kinds of plastic. Pay attention to the number listed inside the triangular recycling logo on plastic items. In most areas, numbers 3, 4 and 7 CANNOT be recycled. When in doubt, stick to recycling only numbers 1 and 2.

4. Don’t recycle unrinsed food containers. Plastic, glass or metal food containers should be rinsed out before going in your bin. In some locations, your recycling facility will handle rinsing, but when in doubt—rinse.

5. Don’t recycle the wrong kinds of glass. Lightbulbs, mirrors, window glass and glass cookware like Pyrex should not go in your recycling bin. Some of these items might be accepted at specialized drop-off locations.

6. Don’t recycle lids. Lids to plastic or metal bottles are so small that they can slip through the sorting machines at the recycling facility and end up with the wrong materials, contaminating the load.

7. Don’t forget to empty liquids. If you put a container that still contains liquid into your recycling bin, the liquid can spill onto and contaminate other materials. Always empty liquids first.

8. Don’t remove labels. Many people think you need to remove the labels from bottles before recycling them. In reality, this is work you don’t need to do. Save yourself time and skip this step.

What can you put in a recycling bin?

How to Recycle Right

Now that you know what not to do, it’s time for a few pointers about what you should do. While recycling rules vary by location, there are some guidelines that apply almost everywhere. Use these tips to establish simple and effective recycling habits in your home.  

1. Do your homework. To really learn how to recycle properly, research the specific rules in your location. Consider labelling your bin with the materials that are recyclable in your area.

2. Recycle (almost) ALL paper items. From paper plates to giftwrap, if the paper can be torn, it can be recycled. Just remember to place any shredded paper in a paper bag labelled “shredded paper.” Note: pizza boxes and takeout containers are the only exception to this rule. They should NOT be recycled.

3. Have more than one bin. Most people put their recycling bin in the kitchen or garage. Consider placing smaller bins throughout your house. We recycle more when recycling is easy.

4. Flatten large items. Flatten cardboard, plastic jugs and other bulky items before tossing them in the bin. The more space in your bin, the more you’ll recycle.

5. Stop getting junk mail. You can remove yourself from mailing lists at DMAChoice.org. Note that it may take up to 90 days after visiting the site to stop getting junk mail. 

6. Use reusable products. Recycling shouldn’t be our only defense against waste. From water bottles to lunch bags to grocery sacks, there are reusable versions of many of the products we typically view as disposable.

7. Buy recycled products. When you buy products made from recycled materials, you help sustain the market for these products. When demand is high, recyclers can do more work with more materials.

8. Recycle even what can’t go in your bin. Electronics, cell phones, batteries, lightbulbs and many other items that can’t go in your recycling bin can be recycled through specialized programs at various retailers. Use Earth911’s directory to find recyclers near you for a wide variety of items.

The benefits of recycling can’t be overstated. We hope this guide has provided you with the knowledge you need to either start recycling or take your recycling game to the next level. Check out our Learning Center for more waste and recycling resources.

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