Home & Style

Are You Making These Common Recycling Mistakes?

These things don’t belong in your home recycling bin.

Photograph by Jeff Elkins

“People are ‘wish-cycling,’ ” says Cody Marshall, vice president of technical assistance for the Recycling Partnership, a national nonprofit. “They think if it goes in the recycling bin, it will somehow get recycled.” In reality, throwing things that aren’t recyclable into the bin can hinder recycling efforts, because it requires extra energy to pluck them out. Here are some of the most common pet peeves of the people who sort recyclables.

Plastic grocery bags. Same goes for bubble wrap and other plastic bags such as Ziplocs, as well as those for bread and dry cleaning. They can be taken to special recycling bins at grocery stores.

Small bits of plastic. A good rule of thumb, says Bryan Staley, head of the Environmental Research & Education Foundation, is not to recycle anything less than two by two inches because that’s too small to sort.

Plastic toys. Action figures and other molded-plastic toys contain additives that make them hard to melt into new items.

Sticky food containers. Recyclables don’t need to be spotless, but you should at least get most of the gunk out or they’ll gum up the processing equipment.

Pizza boxes. DC just added them to its list of recyclable items, but in most places greasy paper still isn’t recyclable, so if you live outside the District, throw them in the trash.

Wet stuff. Wet paper is harder to separate and less valuable to recycle because the fibers break down.

Unflattened boxes. A growing problem in the Amazon economy—they’re difficult both to haul and to sort.

This article appears in the February 2018 issue of Washingtonian.

Tamara Lytle

Tamara Lytle is a freelance writer and editor based in Washington. She now takes her plastic bags to the grocery store collection bins instead of sticking them in her home recycling.