The Top 5 Ways You (Might Be) Failing at Recycling

It’s safe to say we all have the best intentions when it comes to recycling. We put items into our recycling container in the hopes that the item can be repurposed, reused or made into a new item through the recycling process. However, recycling programs as we know it are at risk, and the problem is growing. 

Why? China, as one of the world’s biggest recycled goods buyers, has increased its standards for the recycled goods they import. Standards have gotten so tough that even one dirty pizza box or plastic bag (no, you cannot recycle those) can contaminate an entire truckload of items—sending everything directly to the landfill.

Many brands are on a push to eliminate wasteful packaging, and some cities have even banned plastic straws in recent months. But is this enough?

“People are shocked when they learn how much of what they place in their recycle bin actually ends up in the garbage,” explains Pete Keller, vice president of Republic Services. “Currently, over 30% of what people try to recycle are items that simply cannot be recycled – like yard waste – or are contaminated because they are wet, dirty or still filled with product of some sort.”

Some of the craziest items he’s seen come through the recycling stream? Dirty diapers, brand new bicycles and automotive batteries. A basic rule of thumb when it comes to recycling is, “When in doubt … throw it out.”

Are you committing a recycle FAIL? Check out some of the most common mistakes even the greenest of us are making every day.

  1. FAIL: Recycling your pizza box

Can a pizza box be recycled? This question comes up a lot. And the answer is – it depends. Chances are, the bottom of the box is greasy, making it too contaminated to be recycled. The solution? Rip or cut the box apart. If the top of the pizza box is clean and dry, it’s recyclable. The bottom of the box with the pizza grease and leftover food can go right in the trash.

  1. FAIL: Confusing “recycling” with “rummage”

Most of us have endless tees and shoes that although still perfectly wearable, we’re deciding to purge and get them out the door— those items belong in a dedicated reuse collection bin, not in your curbside recycling container. Reuse bins can often be found in mall or school parking lots, or can even be taken to your local Goodwill and other charitable organizations.

Recycling companies don’t have the resources to direct non-recyclables like clothing, shoes, toys or books to the proper venue. Not sure whether an item is recyclable or rummage? Visit to find out, or to learn where you can donate usable items in your area.

  1. FAIL: Forgetting “empty, clean and dry”

Unfortunately, many perfectly good recyclables like cardboard or newspapers are ruined because they come into contact with other items that are wet or dirty. Just one bottle of ketchup with residue can contaminate an entire truckload of items that could otherwise be recycled! So, what is the proper way to ensure your recyclables don’t end up in a landfill? Remember:

  1. Empty the contents (food or liquid) of the container
  2. Clean with a quick rinse using only a little bit of water so the item is free of food or other residue
  3. Dry before placing items in the recycling container


  1. FAIL: Plastic over paper

Contrary to popular belief, plastic grocery bags or thin plastic film are not recyclable items. Mixing these items into your recycling bins is a sure way to hide items that can be recycled or contaminate other items – making all your do-gooding go to waste (literally)! Instead, reuse plastic grocery bags and when ready to discard them, place in the trash or return to your local grocery store.

Even better, purchase reusable grocery bags for trips to the pharmacy or supermarket, and encourage friends and family to do the same. States such as California and Hawaii have banned the use of plastic grocery bags altogether, but there’s still a long way to go before we eliminate plastic bags completely.

Finally, don’t bag your recyclables up. If you collect them in a bag, dump the bag’s contents into the recycling container loosely.

  1. FAIL: Recycling yard waste

With the end of summer approaching, yard trimmings may be piling up in your backyard. Yard waste (including flowers, house plants, rocks and even Christmas trees) does not belong in the recycle container. Composting options for tree trimmings and other yard waste are offered in every community, but not via your recycling container.

If you’re interested in composting, contact your local community resource or look for options online. Garden hoses cannot be recycled either– when worn out, put them in your trash can.

For more quick and easy guidelines to becoming a better recycler, please visit

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