6 Hacks For Figuring Out What Can & Can't Be Recycled

Women are recycling plastic garbage.

Between aluminum cans, compostable spoons, and plastic bottles, recycling isn't always as simple as you think. While lots of people want to recycle, figuring out what can be recycled — and how you should do it — can be kind of daunting. If you're looking for ways to get some clarity on the recycling process, though, there are lots of different tools out there to help you.

Recycling can be hugely beneficial for the environment. As the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) outlines on its website, recycling reduces waste by decreasing the amount of trash that gets put into landfills or burned in incinerators. However, you have to recycle the right way if you want the process to go as planned.

For example, according to Stanford University, lots of recycling gets rejected because it's contaminated. Recycling "contamination happens when non-recyclable items are mixed in with recyclables items or when recyclable items are placed in the wrong recycling bins," the university said. Stanford noted that "manufacturers reject tons of recyclable paper each year" due to contamination, such as when people try to recycle paper products that have food residue on them.

In addition to environmental benefits, recycling can also have positive implications for people, too. In fact, the EPA notes, recycling spurs a lot of economic activity. For example, a 2016 Recycling Economic Information (REI) study found that "recycling and reuse activities in the United States accounted for 757,000 jobs and $36.6 billion in wages," the EPA says. Moreover, as National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes, recycling is one of the many ways that people can help preserve the planet for future generations.

As you can see, recycling has lots of important benefits, but it's absolutely crucial to be proactive when it comes to ensuring that the right materials are processed and reused. If you're looking for some insight into the easiest ways to find out if a certain material you have is recyclable, this list suggests several resources for you to consider.

Use An App

There are several different smartphone apps you can use to help you find out if and how you can recycle specific items. Here are just a few of those apps:

  • Ecofriendly: Recycle Smarter App: This recently-released app lets you take a photo of an item and then provides you with information about whether or not it's typically recyclable.
  • Recycle Nation: This app includes a database of hundreds of recyclable materials. It lets you search this database to see if your material is recyclable and then identifies locations near you where you can bring your recyclable item(s).
  • iRecycle: Similarly to Recycle Nation, iRecycle allows you to enter the material you're hoping to recycle — and then it'll find a place nearby that recycles it, if applicable.

Know Some Key Rules

According to WeWantRefill, a campaign advocating for innovations to make consumers less reliant on single use bottles, every local recycling center technically has specific guidelines for what you can recycle, though most places universally accept certain key items.

WeWantRefill outlines these items in a list, noting the specific types of paper/cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal items you can usually recycle at most centers. So, consider keeping this list handy as you go through your household items. But, as the campaign's website cautions, be sure to contact your local recycling center to get absolute confirmation that they will accept your materials.

Contact Your Local Recycling Center

It's pretty easy to find the contact information for your local recycling center. In fact, Earth 911, which runs the iRecycle app, has a huge online database that lets you enter your zip code and gives you the number for several nearby recycling centers. If you want to double-check and make sure your materials are recyclable, like WeWantRefill suggested, simply give your nearest recycling center a call.

Call A Recycling Hotline

Alternatively, Earth 911 also runs a recycling hotline, a toll-free number you can dial which will allow you to find out if a certain material is recyclable AND where you can recycle it near you. If this option appeals to you, you can simply dial 1-800-CLEANUP.

For Plastics, Check The Container

According to Greenopedia, an environmentally-conscious lifestyle website, the recycling codes (little labels with a number inside a triangle) on plastic containers actually give some insight into how likely it is that your local recycling center will be able to process the material.

The website notes that hard plastics with number 1 label, along with all number 2 plastics, can be recycled at the vast majority of recycling centers. Plastics with these labels include things like water bottles, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and more.

Greenopedia adds that soft plastics with the number 1 label (like microwave dinner trays and plastic cups), along with plastics containing the labels 4 and 5, can typically be recycled by most local centers, but you should call your recycling center to confirm. Number 4 and 5 plastics include things like plastic grocery bags, plastic wrap, disposable diapers, and squeeze bottles.

Finally, Greenopedia notes that most recycling centers cannot process plastic items with the labels 3, 6, and 7, which are found on items like styrofoam containers, plastic cutlery, shower curtains, and lids. However, the website does stress that it's possible your local center might recycle some of these items, so you should still give them a call before you throw them out.

Don't Recycle Compostable Items

While it sounds like you should be able to recycle compostable items, you should definitely not put this type of product into the recycling bin. As a blog post on Sustainable America's website explained, if you, for example, put a compostable cup into a bin that goes to a plastics recycling facility, this cup will contaminate the plastics recycling. This could lead to the recycled material getting rejected.

Instead, if you have certified compostable products, Stanford University says you should put them into public compost bins, if available, so they can be processed in a compost facility. If these types of bins aren't available in your location, consider researching compost facilities near you.

Overall, while knowing what to recycle can sometimes be intimidating, there are many different resources out there to help clarify this process. So, if you have some potentially-recyclable items, consider doing some quick research to see what your next step should be.