Wait! Are You Sure That’s Recyclable?

Posted on September 10, 2008 by Allie


The following is a post from the archives of the unsinkable Fake Plastic Fish.

Since I started this project, I’ve run across many misconceptions (including my own) about what is and isn’t recyclable. What makes the issue so confusing is that every city has its own rules about what can and can’t be placed in curbside bins. Some areas require more separation of recyclables than others. Even among a few environmental activists I’ve met, there is confusion about recycling. If they can’t figure it out, how is the average person supposed to? So, here are a few clarifications about recycling that might help:

  1. A triangular “chasing arrows” recycling symbol on an item, especially a plastic one, does not mean that it can be recycled! Many, many people make this mistake. The number inside the triangle simply indicates what type of plastic the item is made from and may sometimes be helpful in determining which plastics are and are not recyclable. BUT NOT ALWAYS! For example, my city of Oakland accepts plastic narrow-necked bottles, regardless of the number inside the triangle. And that is the ONLY type of plastic that they accept.FPF reader Radical Garbageman says, “I’ve seen people who have completely deconstructed their old electronics and meticulously placed all of the non-recyclable hard plastic in the bin. ‘A’ for effort, but putting non-recyclables in the bin is just a REALLY expensive way of putting them in the landfill.”
  2. The fact that the word “Recyclable” is printed on an item does not mean that it can actually be recycled where you live. Manufacturers love to make their products look green by advertising them as recyclable. But if there is no recycling market for the item, and if your city will not take it, then it’s not really recyclable, is it? For example, few places will accept those black plastic #1 food trays that frozen meals come in. Yet they are advertised as recyclable because theoretically, they could be.
  3. Be sure you know not only what plastic numbers are accepted by your city, but also what shapes of items. The fact that your city accepts number 5 plastic does not necessarily mean it will accept anything with a number 5. For example, San Francisco accepts #2, #4, and #5 tubs and lids. Those are the types of containers that hold yogurt or cottage cheese or various spreads. But the city would not accept, for example, my little eye drops containers just because they have a #4 on them.
  4. Generally, plastic bottle caps should be removed. I’ve heard that some facilities will not recycle the bottle with the cap left on. In Oakland, they prefer the cap to be removed, but leaving it on will not stop the bottle from being recycled. So what do you do with those caps? That’s a good question. We don’t want them ending up in our waterways and inside the bellies of marine animals, so we should be careful when disposing of them. Make sure they are secured in a bag so as not to fly into the street when the garbage bin is dumped. I’m trying to avoid them altogether and collecting the ones I can’t for later use in a possible art project. But I realize most people aren’t as extreme as I am.
  5. Food containers should be rinsed out. You don’t have to scrub with soap. But especially in single-stream systems, food left in containers can contaminate paper and render theoretically recyclable materials useless. To quote the May 2007 issue of the Marin Sanitary Newsletter, “Simple mistakes like letting pickle jar juice drip on your newspapers makes recycling nearly impossible.”
  6. Not every type of paper can be recycled. Generally, paper towels, tissues, toilet paper, and napkins cannot be recycled, whether they are clean or dirty. Michelle at Conserve Plastic Bags informed me (and Will Crowder at Oakland Recycling confirmed) that the reason has to do with the low quality of these types of papers. The fibers are too thin and short to withstand the recycling process. But these types of papers can often be composted.
  7. Cardboard milk cartons may or may not be accepted for recycling. Some cities accept them, rinsed out, with the paper recycling. Other cities may accept them in a compost bin. Oakland accepts them in either bin, and according to the representative I spoke to today, they don’t have a preference of which bin to put them in.
  8. Other types of food-soiled cardboard or paper cannot be recycled with the regular paper, but they might be composted in areas that will accept them. Oakland allows its residents to put ice cream cartons, milk cartons, paper plates and cups, pizza boxes, and any other type of paper that has been food-soiled into the green compost bin. At the end of the composting process, the material is put through a very fine screen which filters out any plastic coatings or other contaminants from these items.Other cities don’t have the facilities to allow paper in the compost bin, preferring only yard waste or possibly food scraps. Radical Garbageman suggests that when disposing of a pizza box, check and see if the top has food on it. If not, take it off and put it in the paper recycling. “Voila! Your non-recyclable solid waste instantly reduced by half!”
  9. Be careful recycling plastic bags! Most cities do not accept plastic bags for curbside pickup. But in those that do, it’s important to follow the procedures for proper disposal. DO NOT use them to hold your other recycling and don’t put them into the bin individually. Plastic bags cause all kinds of problems for the sorting machines, jamming them up and causing delays. Scott from Least Footprint sent me this enlightening article about the trouble plastic bags can cause in the recycling stream.So what should you do instead? If your city really does accept plastic bags in the bin, they will probably have a rule that you must stuff many bags inside one bag and knot it closed so that they cannot escape. That’s the way it’s done in Daly City, where my office is located. That way, the people sorting the materials can easily grab out the plastic bags before they go through the machine.
  10. Despite Tetra Pak’s propaganda, aseptic packages are very difficult to recycle. Some cities accept them. Others do not. Examples of aseptic packages are juice boxes, wine boxes, some soy and rice milk containers, some soup containers, etc. They are containers that allow normally perishable products to be stored unrefrigerated on grocery store shelves. Tetra Pak promotes them as being better for the environment because they are much lighter than glass and therefore require less fuel to ship. They also may save the energy of refrigeration. While these things might be true, this post is about recycling, and easily recyclable they are not.Policy associate, Bryan Early, from Californians Against Waste wrote me in an e-mail, “the truth is that Tetra Pak containers contain aluminum and other materials that contaminate the paper recycling stream. Tetra Pak has a lot of literature on their method of extracting the various metals and plastics from their aseptic containers, however as far as I know there is only one place in the country that actually does that, in Florida. Therefore, if you toss an aseptic Tetra Pak container into the recycling it will probably either get picked out of the recycling stream and landfilled or will spoil the batch of paper it is recycled with.”Another waste management insider told me that it’s very important that cities sell the collected aseptic packaging “to the right mills — ones whose processes are relatively insensitive to contamination.” So his facility includes Tetra-Paks with their low-grade bulk papers rather than with higher grade materials and the boxes get processed. But if these containers are sold to the wrong kinds of mills, they can indeed contaminate the waste stream and end up in the landfill.

    As for Oakland, I got differing stories from the two representatives I spoke with. One indicated that yes, Oakland accepts them, but they are a problem in the waste stream. The other told me that Oakland doesn’t accept them at all.

    My gut feeling is that we should avoid them as much as possible. They are, after all, made up of layers of paper, aluminum, and plastic, the last component being a non-renewable resource. And they just seem to me like more trouble than they are worth.

  11. Just because a new bio-plastic is touted as compostable doesn’t mean your city will accept it in the compost bin (if you have one) or that it will break down sufficiently in your small, backyard compost. Ask your facility if they will accept bio-plastics made from corn, sugar, or potato starch. These products are new and may not show up yet in the recycling guides provided by your city. Oakland’s guide does not list compostable bio-plastic as accepted in our green bins. Yet when I called the city, I was told that we can in fact put the new compostable plastic food containers in there.
  12. Just because your city accepts certain items for recycling does not necessarily mean that they are actually recycled. My insider also told me that single stream recyclers (those that pick up all recycling in the same bin) sometimes claim to accept more things than are actually recycled because doing that can increase the recovery rate. They figure that if folks don’t have to figure out which plastics, for example, to put in the bin, they will put everything in and the recyclers will remove everything that they can use. What they can’t use gets landfilled.I understand the reason for doing this. They’d rather get too much than too little. But my feeling is that understanding which items are actually recyclable might have an affect on people’s purchasing decisions. If we know that a particular type of packaging is not recyclable, we might be less likely to buy it. On the other hand, if our recycling facility leads us to believe that everything is recyclable, we may end up creating more landfill waste through our purchasing decisions than we otherwise would have.

The bottom line is that we all need to be educated as to what items each of our cities and towns actually accepts for recycling and composting. This information is readily available online, usually through your city’s web site. Just a few weeks ago, I helped my sister figure out what gets recycled in her town in Maryland and how she could go about getting herself a bin. If you would like help figuring out what your city will and will not accept, e-mail me or leave a comment. I am very happy to assist!

If you have time, find out if your recycling center gives tours of the facility so that you can see first-hand how your recycling is handled. This morning, I made an appointment to tour our Davis Street Transfer Station. I’ll be going there on October 8, and I hope to take pictures and gain an even better understanding of what happens to the items we toss in Oakland’s gray bin.

And thanks to my readers whose e-mails and comments help my own understanding of these issues. Keep them coming!


  1. wow…while very informative and appreciated, this is also very disheartening.

    September 10th, 2008 at 2:43 pm
    Comment by erikka
  2. I posted about this last week it’s about three blogs down on my blog if you want to check it out. I even broke down the different types of plastic near the bottom of that blog. No snide remarks this time please.

    September 10th, 2008 at 4:58 pm
    Comment by Sunshine
  3. Thank you for this! It definitely drives me bonkers that different cities have different rules for recycling.

    September 11th, 2008 at 5:11 pm
    Comment by MrsTwink
  4. [...] I started this project, I’ve run across many misconceptions (including my own) about what is and isn’t recyclable. What makes the issue so confusing is that every city has its own rules about what can and can’t [...]

    September 12th, 2008 at 1:01 pm
    Pingback by Quick Green Reads For The Weekend Volume Eighty Two. | The Good Human
  5. I’m pretty sure the garbage people just dump my recycling right into the garbage truck, but I’ve never actually caught them doing it. YET.

    September 12th, 2008 at 4:52 pm
    Comment by nancypearlwannabe
  6. Oh, dear.

    Austin (TX, USA) is in the process of converting to single-stream recycling, and reading this made me realize how poorly informed I am about the shift–I know that it’s happening, and that it means cereal boxes/paperboard will now be accepted (it was news to me that they hadn’t been before!), but have no idea about possible changes in the plastics…and now I’m not all that sure I know which plastics are really recyclable in my area at all.

    Thanks for the wake-up. Off to do some research, I think.


    October 4th, 2008 at 6:32 pm
    Comment by DSF
  7. Regarding Tetra Paks -

    Have you seen this? http://onedrinkatatime.com/

    A bottled water company using tetra paks to claim green cred. I’m curious to hear your opinion!

    June 15th, 2010 at 7:34 pm
    Comment by Paulson D

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