Recycling 101: how to stop creating more waste

by Caroline Fontein

We all want to do our part and help the planet. But if you recycle, there’s a high likelihood you’re probably doing it wrong.

Surely if you have plastic containers and bags, they can all go in the recycling bin along with your pizza box, Starbucks cup and Whole Foods takeaway food container. Wrong. (What? Really?!)

Recycling isn’t as simple as it seems.

In fact:

A recent study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) reported that 92 percent of people surveyed are either unsure or believe that anything plastic with a label can be recycled, even though only two of the seven codes are consistently recyclable. (Wait, there are codes? We’ll get to these later.)

Despite peoples’ concerns for the environment and the fact that they recycle (about 55 percent of people surveyed said they did), contamination in the recycling system is a growing problem.

The National Waste and Recycling Association estimates that 25 percent of all recycling is contaminated. A decade ago, that number was only 7 percent.

How to recycle plastic

What is contamination in recycling?

Contamination is the result of issues like food residue, stray plastic from caps or straws, plastic bags or glass shards and non-recycled items like Styrofoam getting in the way of otherwise recyclable material.

So what happens?

Less material ends up getting recycled (despite your good intentions) and more goes into landfills.

A state of confusion

The main problem is confusion which then leads to contamination.

If left unaddressed, this issue threatens to undermine our nation’s environmental progress.

“Confusion is not a sustainable system,” said GMA President and CEO Geoff Freeman in an April press release by the GMA. “America’s recycling future cannot depend on a patchwork system that undermines good intentions with bad policy.”

So, how do we know what to recycle to help minimize landfill waste?

Most of us are left grasping at straws. (Not literally of course. After all, those are environmental contraband.)

Last year, plastic straws took center stage as the environment’s biggest foe. They’re now outlawed in many cities. Along with spotlighting an environmental issue, the problem with straws also brought the country’s “badly broken recycling system” to the forefront.

The problem with recycling: To reuse or confuse

Our recycling systems are increasingly complicated. According to the GMA's report, recycling is more confusing than: 

  • 26% of people said building Ikea furniture
  • 23% of people said doing your taxes
  • 22% of people said the stock market
  • 20% of people said understanding the opposite sex
  • 1% of people said all of the above
  • 2% of people said other
  • Only 4% said that it was not confusing

This is because the rules on what you can and can’t recycle vary based on where you live and who picks up your recyclables, something I gained a new appreciation of while researching this article.

I started with the intention of creating an easy how-to guide on what you can and can’t recycle (some items might surprise you).

However, recycling rules are not universal. What’s applicable at the SmartyPants headquarters in Venice, Calif. likely won’t apply to the recycling center in your hometown.

So, we thought of a smarter way to help you navigate the recycling conundrum.

Before we get to that. Let’s do a little trash talking.

Recycling Facts

Single-stream Recycling: Why easier isn’t always better

A few stats:

  • Recycling programs began in the United States during the 1960s. Back then, only about 6 percent of waste was recycled.
  • Currently about 34 percent of waste is recycled in the United States.
  • Part of this increase is due to the introduction of single-stream recycling which requires one bin and no sorting by the consumer.
  • Single-stream recycling started in California in the 1990s and is now the most common system in the country.
  • Between 2004 - 2014 single-stream recycling went from covering 29 percent of American communities to about 80 percent according to a survey conducted by the American Forest & Paper Association.

Clearly, recycling rates are on the rise. Yay! However, there’s a setback.

Meet the next generation of recyclers

With single-stream recycling came the birth of the “aspirational” recycler. You know those instances when you’re not sure if something is recyclable, but you throw it in the bin anyway, hoping for the best. It’s something we’re probably all guilty of. According to the GMA study, about 40 percent of Americans follow this philosophy.

In fact, the more concerned someone may be about the environment, the greater the likelihood that they are an aspirational recycler.

On the surface, it makes sense. Not sure if this is recyclable? Toss it in the bin anyway. Worst case scenario, it ends up in a landfill, but at least you gave it a chance. Turns out that method of thinking can do more harm than good. It’s also why contamination rates are on the rise.

Totally wasted

In addition to the confusion and contamination, there’s growing evidence that much of our recycling may be going into landfills anyway. Some of this is due to shifts in the global economy, notably in China, which are forcing cities across the U.S. to reduce or suspend recycling programs that are no longer economically viable.

But that’s no reason to stop trying, especially when:

  • The average American generates about 4.48 pounds of trash per day, adding to the about 262 million tons of trash the U.S. accumulates per year, according to How to Recycle.

While we might not be able to help with the global and policy changes, there are still things we can do to help our planet and the environment.

Having a better understanding of our recycling systems is a good place to start. By learning about and practicing clean recycling, we can try to make sure that what we’re doing is helping and not adding to rising contamination rates.

How recycling helps:

  • Saves energy and natural resources. When we recycle, we use fewer natural resources. By reducing the need to process more raw materials, recycling also helps save energy.

    For example, according to the EPA, recycling one ton of office paper can save the energy equivalent of consuming 322 gallons of gasoline. As of 2015, plastic bottles are the most recycled product in the U.S., and recycling just 10 of them saves enough energy to power a laptop for more than 25 hours.

  • Reduces landfill waste. By recycling (sans contaminates), we’re helping cut back on the need for more landfills.

  • Cuts down on pollution. Sourcing and processing raw materials causes greenhouse gas emissions, but recycling can help.

  • Turns trash into treasure. Recycling gives new life to what would otherwise end up in a landfill, and that’s not all. There are a growing number of companies out there that are literally turning trash into sought-after goods.

  • Adds to the economy by creating jobs. By helping to keep the recycling industry alive, we’re also helping to support jobs across the country.

Problem with plastic and recycling

Recycling 101: How to reuse and reduce confusion (and waste)

Below we’re going to give you some overall tips for recycling. However, we recommend checking with your local recycling program for more detailed instructions as every program is unique.

To do this, you can go to sites like Keep America Beautiful, Earth911 and the United States Environmental Protective Agency (EPA) to find recycling information specific to your zip code.

On the Earth911 site you can even search for specific recycling solutions by zip code, like what to do with your old computer, printer or cell phone. (Don’t just put it in the trash.)

Speaking of plastic, when it comes to recycling it, here’s what you need to know:

The Plastics: Code of Conduct

Between your Instagram feed, the latest docuseries popping up on Netflix and even just a walk on the beach, you don’t have to look far to know that plastic is a serious environmental issue.

Here are a few plastic stats from a report by the United Nations Environment Programme:

  • Each year, more than 8 million tons of plastic ends up in the oceans impacting marine wildlife, fisheries and tourism.
  • Scientists have found microplastics in soil, fish, freshwater, tap water and even the air we breathe.
  • Plastic bags have been described as the world’s number one consumer item.
  • In 2015, plastic packaging waste accounted for 47% of the plastic waste generated globally.
  • Plastic that is improperly disposed of can clogs drains and waterways, causing floods during rains and creates habitats for disease-carrying subjects like mosquitoes.

So, the need to properly dispose of and hopefully recycle plastic couldn’t be more important, which is why you need to abide by the codes.

There are seven plastic resin codes that represent different types of plastic and how they should be disposed of. These codes are the little triangles with numbers in them that are imprinted on plastic items.

In most cases, codes one and two are consistently accepted by curbside recycling programs. However, many people assume that plastics imprinted with any code can be recycled. They can’t.

Here’s a breakdown of what each code means:

  1. PET or PETE
    Refers to plastics with a triangle symbol and the number 1 inside and the letters PET or PETE below. PET or PETE is an acronym for polyethylene terephthalate. PET is petroleum-based and globally recognized as a safe, lightweight and flexible material that’s 100 percent recyclable. Yay! As a result, it’s the most widely recycled plastic in the world.

    What it’s used for: This type of plastic is best known as the clear plastic used for water and soda bottles. However, it can be used to package almost anything from food to cosmetics and toys, among many other items. It’s also what we use for our core line (round bottles) SmartyPants supplements.

    PET is also a common component found in fiber or in fabric applications where it’s usually referred to as polyester. Some of these include carpet, clothing, sleeping bags and more. PET is used worldwide making it highly valued and an important part of recycling.

    Can it be recycled? Yes. This type of plastic is picked up through most curbside recycling programs. Make sure to rinse it before tossing in your recycling bin.

  2. HDPE or PE-HD
    This refers to plastics with a triangle symbol and the number 2 inside and the either the letters HDPE or PE-HD below. This means this plastic is made from high-density polyethylene. HDPE is a stronger plastic than PET. It’s relatively inexpensive to make and can be easily recycled.

    What it’s used for: This type of plastic is most commonly used for milk jugs, but it has many other uses too. HDPE can be both translucent and opaque. As an opaque, colored plastic, it resists cracking and corroding, making it a good option for things like bleach and other household cleaners. HDPE is also a food-grade plastic, safe for storing perishable food items, like milk, butter and yogurt.

    In addition to that, it can be used to make everything from shampoo bottles to cereal box liners and even our certified-organic SmartyPants supplements (square bottle). Plus, our Organic line is made with 80 percent post-consumer recycled plastic.

    Can it be recycled? Yes. Plastic items coded with No. 2 are picked up through most curbside recycling programs. Simply give a light rinse, and put it in the bin.

  3. V or PVC
    This refers to plastics with a triangle symbol and the number 3 inside. V or PVC means this plastic is made from polyvinyl chloride. Unfortunately, this type of plastic is rarely recyclable.

    What it’s used for: PVC is a cheap and strong yet lightweight plastic that’s versatile and resistant to chemicals. For these reasons, it’s a common material used in a variety of applications in construction, electronics, automobiles and even healthcare including piping, medical tubing, hoses, shower curtain, wire and cable insulation and the like.

    Can it be recycled? Maybe. This type of plastic is rarely recyclable. We recommend checking with your local recycling center for more information specific to your community. Even if you can’t recycle your item, you can find other ways to sustainable dispose of it on Earth911.

  4. LDPE
    This refers to plastics with a triangle symbol and the number 4 inside. LDPE stands for low-density polyethylene, a tough but flexible plastic with various applications.

    What’s it used for: LDPE is used mainly in film applications because it’s tough, flexible and relatively transparent. For these reasons it’s also popular in applications where heat sealing is necessary.

    Some common uses include bags for dry cleaning, newspapers, frozen foods, fresh produce and household garbage. It’s also common in container lids, squeezable bottles (condiments, honey) and as coatings for paper milk cartons and cold beverage cups.

    Can it be recycled? Possibly. This type of plastic is not usually accepted by curbside programs. However, you might be able to recycle things like plastic bags at your local grocery store.

    Check with your local recycling program to see how to best dispose of this type pf plastic. Even if you can’t put it in recycling, there may be other sustainable ways to dispose of this type of plastic.

  5. PP
    If you have a plastic item that has a triangle and a 5 in the middle of it, you’ve got polypropylene or PP. This type of plastic is strong with a high melting point, making it good for hot liquids.

    What’s it used for: It’s commonly in straws; containers for yogurt, margarine and takeout meals; and in bottle caps for medicine, syrup and ketchup.

    Can it be recycled? Maybe. This type of plastic is accepted by some curbside recycling programs. Check with your local recycling center to see of your community is one of them.

  6. PS
    This refers to plastic that has a triangle with a 6 in the middle of it. PP stands for polystyrene, a versatile plastic that can be both rigid and foamed. It has an excellent moisture barrier for short shelf life products.

    What’s it used for: PS is typically used for protective packaging, food service packaging, food containers and bottles. These include cups, plates, bowls, utensils and takeout containers. It’s also used for egg cartons, grocery store meat trays and medicine bottles.

    Can it be recycled? Maybe. This type of plastic is accepted at some local curbside programs. We recommend checking locally to see if and where you can recycle No. 6 plastics in your area.

  7. Other
    This is exactly what it sounds like. All other types of plastics that don’t fit into any of the above categories. Some of these include nylon (PA), acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), polycarbonate (PC) and layered or multi-material mixed polymers.

    What’s it used for: This is used in a range of items including three to five-gallon water bottles, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and some food containers.

    Can it be recycled? There’s a chance. Typically, this type of plastic is not recyclable, but more recently, some curbside programs are now accepting these items. Check with your local program to see if you can recycle these items via curbside pickup.

Ok so now you know the code. But what about everything else? Even if you have a code 2 plastic, like your shampoo bottle, what’s the best way to recycle it? Does it need to be rinsed first? Do you have to remove the label?

Here are some things to keep in mind for the smarter way to recycle plastic and everything else...

Clean recycling tips

10 Clean Recycling Tips

  1. Rinse. Recycle. Repeat. When it comes to plastic, metal and glass, make sure that they are empty and rinsed clean of food debris. Paper materials need to also be clean and dry before being recycled.

  2. Be aspirational just not when it comes to recycling. Don’t guess. Check with your local recycling program to see what they actually accept. Contaminates disrupt the recycling process and can result in otherwise recyclable materials ending up in a landfill.

  3. Don’t toss in the towel. Donate it. We get it. When you need to unload old junk (especially if you’re moving), dumping everything in the trash is the easiest option.

    However, by taking the extra little step to drop off things like clothes, household items, old electronics, etc. at your local thrift store or donation center, you can save them from taking up space in a landfill.

    Plus, by donating unwanted items, you’re giving new life to those what-was-I-thinking shoes, jeans, lamp… for someone else to enjoy. For more information on how to discard household items, we recommend Earth911.

    BONUS TIP: Donate and save. Look for brands that might reward you for giving back, like H&M. For every bag of donated textiles (basically all clothing) you drop off at H&M, you can get a discount card for 15% off your next in-store purchase. Their website says, “all brands are welcome - any brand, any condition.”) It’s part of their global garment collection program.

  4. Don’t assume plastic bags, wraps and flexible wraps (also known as“film”) can go in the recycling bin. More often than not, these items are NOT accepted in curbside recycling and are considered to be contaminates. Instead, look for a local grocery store or other retail locations that accepts these items for recycling. You can search for a Drop Off location here.

  5. Don’t worry about the label. It’s a common misconception that you need to remove all labels before recycling glass containers. Not true. The heat generated in the manufacturing process takes care of that. Just make sure what you’re tossing is acceptable for recycling.

  6. Put a lid (or cap) on it. In many instances, like with liquid bottle caps and milk jugs, you don’t need to worry about tossing the cap. In fact, according to Keep American Beautiful, recyclers want your caps and lids too.

    So make sure you screw or put the cap back on securely before putting it in the recycling bin. This will help prevent it from slipping off the conveyor belt during the recycling process. However, we also recommend checking with your local recycler for more detailed information.

  7. Let pumps perish. For things like lotion bottles and other items with pumps (as long as their code is accepted at your curbside pickup), empty the contents, discard the pump and recycle the bottle.

  8. Don’t be foiled. Aluminum can be recycled. About 1 billion pounds of aluminum or 32 billion cans end up in landfills every year. That wasted energy could power 1.5 million homes for a year. Remember, before tossing in the recycling bin, check to see if your local recycler accepts it. You can search for a Drop Off Directory here.

    Pro Tip: If cans are accepted at your curbside pickup, don’t worry about removing the tab. Both can and tab can be recycled. It’s better to leave them attached to ensure both parts make it through the recycling process.

  9. Don’t forget about the paper. Almost every form of paper from newspapers to laundry detergent boxes, magazines and toilet paper rolls can be recycled. Every ton of paper recycled saves about 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space.

    Pro Tip: No need to worry about removing staples, labels or stickers. The recycling process will handle that.

  10. Look for clues. No need to get out the magnifying glass. We’re talking about the How2Recycle Label program.

    It launched in 2012 and created a standardized labeling system to empower consumers when it comes to recycling. Their labels include simple directions like “rinse and replace” or “remove label before recycling.” How2Recycle works with numerous brands.

    Check to see if your item is one of them, and follow the directions before putting it in the recycling bin.

By now, we can probably all agree that recycling isn’t hard, but it’s not easy.

As a consumer, you have to do a little research to empower yourself to know how to make a difference for the greater good. It’s something we strive for every day at our SmartyPants headquarters.

Our office managers have gone to great lengths to post informational signage above all our trash cans to help indicate to employees what does and doesn’t belong in the recycling bin:

  • No to used paper towels and soiled food containers.

  • Yes to plastics (rinsed) with codes 1 to 7. (We’re lucky here in Los Angeles how accepting the recycling center is.)

Yet, announcements still go out on a regular basis reminding people not to contaminate the recycling bins with items that don’t belong.

Just like you, we’re working on it.

Because we believe that little changes over time can make a big difference, especially when it comes to the health of our planet.

Do you have your own recycling tips to share? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
Show Comments

Looks Like You Need a Pick Me Up

Our delicious all-in-one vitamin supplements are packed with the nutrients you need to live the good life.

Shop smartypants vitamins

Caroline Fontein