Recycling is a necessary conservation effort that everyone across the United States should participate in regularly and, when properly implemented, can be cost-effective for cities. If it’s done wrong, recycling cannot only get expensive; it’s often sent to landfills.

While some people practice single-stream recycling or mixed recycling where all recyclables go into one container, others practice multi-stream recycling, where the individual sorts recyclables out into distinct types before collection. There are many ways to recycle. Some companies practice specific collection, which means it’s crucial to stay informed on what materials are actually accepted by recycling facilities.

So how can we, as a country, recycle more and ultimately better our communities and environment? A key element is understanding the different recycling options and what items are accepted and what are not.

Get to Know Your Guidelines

Getting serious about recycling means knowing what your community will and will not accept. When in doubt, contact or look up your local waste management, city, or county agencies for the exact protocols and what’s acceptable for recycling. In some communities, putting the wrong recycling material in the incorrect bin or placing something non-recyclable into a recycle bin can result in it being added to the general waste collection. Do not let your efforts go to waste (see what we did there)! Find out how to recycle correctly according to your area’s guidelines. To learn more about confusions and myths when it comes to recycling, check out this National Geographic article.

When it comes to recycling, we’re constantly told how important it is to do so, but do we really know if we’re doing it the right way? Let’s take a pizza box, for example. While it seems that you would intuitively recycle the cardboard box, most if not all states will not accept this because of the grease that has settled into the container, rendering it unrecyclable. So, what can we recycle, and how?

What Recyclables Are Commonly Accepted?

As a general rule, many communities in America accept clean paper, cardboard, and newspaper as recyclable material. Clean is key, though. Many waste management and recycling companies do not take pizza boxes with congealed cheese and pizza toppings. Another trash item that is often recycled, but is not accepted, is used tissues and napkins. The same goes for food waste. Dispose of your food waste in the trash can, or better yet, start a compost pile for appropriate food waste.

Metal, such as aluminum, steel, and tin cans, is also still being accepted in many cities and counties. Some agencies require that the containers be rinsed out; some do not. Again, it is best to contact your local waste management for specific guidelines. Some recycling agencies will recycle your soda cans and also reimburse you for your efforts, so collect those soda cans to protect the earth and line your pockets with some extra cash.

What about plastic?

Recycling plastic is where most people get confused. Still, the Department of Energy (DOE) has announced a challenge to address this problem. The reason it can be so challenging is that plastic comes in different grades. Manufacturers do this for specific products to ensure things like health and safety, to prevent corrosion, or just for a fun presentation.

Plastic bottles and jugs made of #1 plastic (PET), think soda, water, and salad dressing bottles, and #2 plastic (HDPE) like milk jugs, shampoo, and conditioner bottles are the most accepted type of plastics.

The plastics that are not accepted for municipal curbside collection are tubs that sour cream, yogurt, cream cheese, and other soft, spreadable food items come in. This is because these containers are made from #5 plastic known as polypropylene and costs cities significantly more money and effort to recycle compared to #1 and #2 plastics. So use those as leftover containers and do not put them in the recycling. Surprisingly, there are many things that can’t be recycled, but you can read more about that here.

As more information comes out about where our recycling ends up, the biggest problem lies with people who feel that they can recycle anything. Most of this stems from feeling like we’re doing our part in conservation efforts, but if we’re not up to speed on what CAN and CANNOT be recycled, the fact is that our efforts are wasted.

Boxes and Cartons and Glass, Oh My!

Recycling protocols vary from state to state and region to region, so it only makes sense that there would be a gray area when it comes to these items. With any of these, we absolutely encourage you to look at your city’s guidelines, but in the meantime, we’ll break down some of the nuances for you.

Glass. Recycling glass has a storied history in the United States; first, you could recycle glass, and then you couldn’t, but now you can again?! The good news is that it’s generally widely accepted in recycling programs. Just like other recyclables, you can decrease the chance of it going to general waste by thoroughly rinsing out any bottles or jars and removing their lids before you toss them into the bin. Some metal lids can be recycled loosely, but the plastic lids on glass bottles must be thrown in the trash.

Food and Drink Cartons. With cartons being used for broth, juice, coffee, and even wine, it only makes sense to double-check that they’re safe for recycling. And good news, they are! Just like glass, you’ll want to ensure that the carton is empty and clean – and again, most importantly, if it has a cap, you’ll want to keep it on. If anything has a straw, be sure to push it into the carton before disposing of it. Here’s a helpful resource on how to recycle your cartons and the lifecycle of turning them into new products.

Cardboard Boxes. US eCommerce grew 44 percent in 2020, which is no surprise given the high demand for products during a global pandemic. With that demand comes a lot of cardboard boxes. Even as we slowly navigate back to a post-pandemic lifestyle, the demand for online goods still remains. So once again, we ask, ‘can I recycle that?’ to which we give a resounding ‘Yes!’ Some key things you’ll want to do before adding boxes to your bins is to break them down, flatten any exceptionally larger boxes in half and for food-soiled boxes from meal-kit or food deliveries, cut out any oil stains to avoid it being sorted into the trash.

Where Does My Recycling Go?

For decades, the United States and the world sent our recycling to China, but after failed recycling left dirty materials (that ultimately piled up at their processing facilities) increased costs and created an even bigger environmental nightmare for their own country, they finally said enough is enough. From there, China implemented the “National Sword” policy in 2018, and governments were left to deal with their own trash.

Can you blame them? We don’t want our country to be covered in trash, and they didn’t either. So, this brings us back to why proper recycling is so important. If we fail to sort and clean out our recycling, that means all of it inevitably ends up in a landfill – NEAR YOU!

Some people think that their single efforts will not make a difference when it comes to recycling, but if everyone who recycled did it correctly, that means there could be four pounds less a day going to the landfill. Just imagine what we could accomplish if we all pitched in and took recycling seriously. Consider being an earth-conscious consumer the next time you buy and them dispose of the things you buy. It could make all the difference.

Do My Recycling Efforts Even Matter?

Of course! Thankfully, more research has been done, and we are able to decipher what to do within the recycling world. Recycling is expensive and dirty. While some states are considering the cost and benefit of keeping recycling available, you still play an important role. Your efforts can make for a better community and a better planet. Each state has a guideline for what they will and won’t accept.

It can be a grueling task to figure out where to go, but all that effort from everyone is wasted if we don’t learn. But don’t worry; we’ve provided links for each state below. In Captain Planet’s words, ‘the power is yours!’, so locate your state your recycling awaits!!!

ALABAMA; (205) 252-7581

ALASKA; (907) 269-7802​

ARIZONA; (602) 771-2300

ARKANSAS; (501) 682-0744

CALIFORNIA; (800) 732-9253

COLORADO; (303) 692-2000

CONNECTICUT; (860) 424-3000

DELAWARE; (302) 739-9403

FLORIDA; (850) 245-2118

GEORGIA; (404) 656-4713

HAWAII; (808) 586-4226

IDAHO; (208) 373-0146

ILLINOIS; (217) 782-3397

INDIANA; (317) 232-8172

IOWA; (515) 725-8200

KANSAS; (785) 296-1600

KENTUCKY; (502) 782-6385

LOUISIANA; (225) 219-5337

MAINE 287-2870

MARYLAND; (410) 537-3000

MASSACHUSETTES; (617) 292-5500

MICHIGAN; (800) 662-9278

MINNESOTA; (651) 201-2603

MISSISSIPPPI; (601) 961-5171

MISSOURI; (573) 751-3384

MONTANA; (406) 444-5345

NEBRASKA; (402) 471-2431

NEVADA; (800) 597-5865

NEW HAMPSHIRE; (603) 271-6467

NEW JERSEY; (866) 337-5669

NEW MEXICO; (505) 827-0197

NEW YORK; (518) 402-8706



OHIO; (614) 644-2873

OKLAHOMA; (405) 702-0100

OREGON; (503) 229-5696

PENNSYLVANIA; (717) 783-2300

RHODE ISLAND; (401) 942-1430

SOUTH CAROLINA; (803) 898-3432

SOUTH DAKOTA; (605) 773-3153

TENNESSEE; (615) 532-0780

TEXAS; (512) 239-2300

UTAH; (801) 536-4400

VERMONT; (802) 828-1138

VIRGINIA; (804) 698-4000

WASHINGTON; (360) 407-6000

WASHINGTON, D.C; (202) 673-6833

WEST VIRGINIA; (304) 926-0440

WISCONSIN; (888) 936-7463

WYOMING; (307) 777-7937