Three Big Mistakes We Make With Recycling

By: Dave Roos
pizza box, soda can, garbage bin
Many of the items pictured here cannot be recycled. GSO Images/Getty Images

Recycling is a civic and moral duty, but it also can be a pain in the neck. Consider the humble plastic coffee cup. Many of us dutifully toss our coffee shop cups and lids in the recycle bin, assuming that the discarded cups will be refashioned into some kind of eco-friendly baby toy for needy children. Truth is, it's probably going to the landfill. Plastic coffee cups have a waterproof lining that's difficult to recycle, so most recycling facilities toss them in the trash.

We all want to be good recyclers; we want to do the right thing. But if you rush to recycle — without understanding how recycling actually works — you'll end up sending even more stuff to the garbage heap. Sorry to break it to you, but most likely, you're recycling wrong.


Don't take it from us. We spoke with Erica Deyarmin-Young, Western Pennsylvania public affairs coordinator for Waste Management, the largest residential recycler in North America. Every week, fleets of green Waste Management trucks pick up millions of curbside recycling bins. She gave us some insight into the mistakes consumers most often make.

1. Employing 'Wishful Recycling'

Deyarmin-Young says her crew has seen it all in the recycling bin: bowling balls, Styrofoam coolers, curling irons, electronic kids' toys with lights and bells, rubber hoses, car parts — you name it.

"We see a lot of 'wishful recycling,'" says Deyarmin-Young. "People think, 'I don't know what this material is. It could be plastic or some type of glass. I really want this to be recycled, so I'm going to put this in my container and hopefully my recycling team will be able to find a reuse for it.' They're 'wishing' that an item can be recycled. Unfortunately, when those unrecoverable items come into our facility, we pull them out as contamination."


"Contamination" is recycling industry lingo for anything that can't be recycled in a conventional single-stream recycling facility. In a single-stream facility, truckloads of material arrive all mixed together — plastics, paper, metals, glass — and a sequence of smart machines and quick-handed workers sort out the salvageable from the trash. So when you drop a bowling ball into the recycling bin in an act of wishful recycling, all you're doing is temporarily delaying its trip to the landfill. You're better off donating it to Goodwill.

2. Disposing Not-quite-clean Containers

Here's a "dirty little secret" about the recycling industry. They're not doing this as a public service out of the goodness of their corporate hearts. Recycling is a business. Waste Management and every other residential recycler make money by selling giant crushed cubes of recycled material — commodities like plastic, paper, metal, glass — to companies that turn that material into new products. Waste Management's "product" is the stuff in your recycling bin. And if the product is dirty, greasy, wet or otherwise weird, no one will want to buy it.

"One bad apple can spoil the whole bunch," says Deyarmin-Young. "If you have one bad item in your load of material, it can contaminate everything else around it."


Liquid and food debris are the worst culprits. If a full bottle of water or detergent spills onto a stack of cardboard, the soggy cardboard will become a useless mush in the sorting machines. Leftover yogurt in your Chobani container will get smeared on everything around it, and the company buying that bale of plastic will reject it. To save time and money, workers in the Waste Management recycling facility will search out and throw away anything contaminated with food or liquid. So if you don't empty and wash out your recyclables, your best intentions are going straight to the landfill. 

3. Wrapping Stuff Up in Plastic Bags

Perhaps the biggest mistake made by well-meaning recyclers is to wrap items up in plastic grocery bags. We're so accustomed to bagging our trash that it's only natural to neatly wrap up a stack of cat food cans in a grocery bag before dropping it in the recycling bin. In truth, all you're really doing is sending those bagged cans straight to the garbage heap.

Plastic bags can get jammed in the large sorting machines at a single-stream recycling facility, says Deyarmin-Young. "When that happens, we have to shut down the plant and have employees go in and manually remove that film plastic. Not only is it a problem for our efficiency, but it's a safety issue for our employees that have to remove the material."


Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, says Deyarmin-Young, just not in your curbside recycling bin. There's even a handy website,, where you can find local grocery stores and retailers that will take your old plastic grocery bags. Just remember, anything you try to recycle in a bag will end up getting tossed in the trash.


More Recycling Do's and Don'ts

Plastic bottle caps are recyclable now, but only if they're attached to the bottle.

Cardboard boxes need to be flattened at home or else they trap other items in the sorting machines.


Broken glass isn't recyclable, because the machines can't sort the small pieces by color (plus it's a danger to recycling facility workers).

Plastic utensils, clamshell containers (like the ones that hold berries from the grocery store), chip bags and candy wrappers can't be recycled for various reasons.

Clean pizza boxes (without food or the paper liner) can be recycled.

If you're not sure if something is recyclable, don't put it in the recycling bin.