Healthy Living

Top 10 Recycling FAQs Answered

Girl drinking soda through a red strawI am not great about remembering my reusable water bottle. Unless I’m going on a picnic, I tend to forget it in the car whenever I resort to plastic bottles or cups, I make sure to recycle them—even if it means carting them home in my purse.

You might think I’m crazy, but the truth is nearly 80% of plastic water bottles aren’t recycled, and plastic makes up 80% of the trash that pollutes our oceans. Hopefully the fact that I just signed Food & Water Watch’s Take Back the Tap pledge to pack reusable water bottles this summer will keep me in line. (Want to join me? Sign here!)

But what about the rest of the plastic? Even the most seasoned treehugger can be stumped by a straw. Does it go in the blue bin or the black? If I’m recycling, do I need to wash it first? Here are easy answers to some frequently asked questions.

Even a treehugger can be stumped by recycling. Does it go in the blue bin or the black? Do I need to wash it first? 1. What do those arrows and numbers on the bottom of plastic bottles mean?

That’s the “chasing arrow” symbol, and the number in the middle indicates the type of plastic the container is made from. Typically, numbers one and two are the most widely recyclable plastics, and some recycling programs even take Stryofoam!

2. Why do I have to wash out my recycling before I put it in the bin?

First, to remove possible contaminants and second to keep your recycling bin from getting stinky. However, you won’t prevent a can from being recycled if you leave it dirty.

3. Can I recycle small pieces of paper—like facial tissues?

Facial tissue can’t be recycled. The fibers are too weak to be turned into usable paper. And tissue is often contaminated with oils that make them unable to be recycled—the same problem is inherent in trying to recycle paper towels.

4. What about plastic bags. Can I recycle those?

Plastic bags can be recycled. However, unlike plastic bottles, many curbside programs will not accept plastic bags. Because they’re so light, these bags can get stuck inside machinery during the recycling process. The good news is that many major grocery chains now accept plastic bags and plastic wrap at their stores. Look for special plastic bag recycling bins.

5. Can I recycle small pieces of hard plastic? What about bottle caps?

Yes, you can recycle small pieces of hard plastic like bottle tops. Bottle caps are metal, but they’re typically lined with plastic—items made from mixed materials can’t be recycled because the materials can’t be separated. Same thing goes for juice boxes and coated cardboard drink containers—although there are new versions specially marked for recycling or composting, which are indicated on the label.

6. I’m buying a soda. Bottle or can?

Can, definitely. Most cans contain 50% or more recycled aluminum. And a used aluminum can is recycled and back on the grocery shelf as a new can in as little as 60 days.

7. I recycle about half of my trash. Could I be doing more?

You’re doing great! According to the EPA, nearly 75% of the 6,000 pounds of trash the average American household generates each year is recyclable and/or compostable, yet we typically only recycle and compost 34%. But yes, you can always do more.

8. I know how to recycle my bottles and cans, but what about the office?

Your cell phones, office equipment, batteries and ink cartridges can be recycled, but you can’t just dump them in your blue bin; find out where to recycle them at Office equipment like phones and computers can also be recycled through general electronics collections at places like the Goodwill.

9. What can I recycle from my closet?

In the closet, recycle your metal hangers by bringing them back to your dry cleaners. Dry cleaning bags are recyclable in those plastic bag collections bins we talked about earlier. And if you sell or donate your used clothing to a thrift store, you’ll cut down on the nearly 70 pounds of clothing and textiles that the average American tosses into the landfill each year.

10. So what can’t I recycle?

Aerosol cans (you aren’t still using those, right?), ceramics, diapers (as if), household glass like window panes and mirrors, light bulbs and CFLs (because of the mercury) and tires. Oh, and hazardous waste, of course. Earth911 can help with locations where those can be safely disposed of.

I’m still confused by the straw.

When in doubt, simply type your zip code into, enter the item you want to dispose of, and the site will tell you where and how to do it.

Oh and p.s. to avoid plastic altogether, try a Glass Dharma Glass Drinking Straw or Stainless Steel Drink Straws. Love!

Photo: Prevention


  • environment t

    You could certainly see your skills in the article you write.
    The arena hopes for more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid
    to say how they believe. Always go after your heart.

  • Nadine

    What a great article, and I love the eco-friendly straw alternatives! One thing about CFLs. They should never be thrown in the trash because of the toxic mercury inside. Home Depot, ACE Hardware and Lowe’s all offer CFL recycling thank goodness so you can take them there. Be very careful that the CFL does not break and release mercury gas. The new LED lightbulbs are a safer and more efficient solution all around. Thanks for spreading the good green word about recycling. In SF, we have curb-side composting so we can put paper towels and other food-soiled paper in the green bin but not the dreaded Tetra Paks as you mention above!

    • Rachel Sarnoff

      That is a good point! My recommendation was to look at Earth911 but this is REALLY important information to add. Thank you Nadine!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *