12 Common Myths about Single-Stream Recycling | and what the plastic numbers actually mean

First, what is single-stream recycling?  Single stream recycling starts with curbside pick-up at your house and single blue bins you see in public places. Single stream recycling is where people toss congregated recyclables together into one bin and the items are sorted later at a facility then sent back to their respective distributors to actually be recycled (most often overseas). You might be thinking, “Isn’t that the only way things are recycled?” Well, not quite – there are facilities where people take their items already sorted and put them in their respective bins – glass, aluminum, plastic, etc. This method tends to give way to much cleaner recycling and a better chance of the items actually being recycled. 

Here, I will be referring to single-stream recycling as it is the most common and accessible.

 

An example of a single stream blue bin in a park.

 

#1 Everything I put in the recycling bin will be recycled FALSE

Theoretically, everything could be recycled, but we don’t have the time, resources, or infrastructure to sort and recycle some materials. It is important to check with local recycling guidelines, but generally always recycle plastic bottles made from #1 and #2 plastics, aluminum cans, and glass bottles.

Most items (especially plastics) are actually down-cycled, which means instead of being melted and reshaped into the same item, they are melted into a lower quality plastic. Our food and household items come in so many different kinds and sizes of packaging 

#2  Recycling symbol with number inside means it can be recycled FALSE

This is probably the most common recycling myth I have seen because it is SO CONFUSING. I feel your pain, I’ve been there, but here’s the truth. 

On the bottom of plastic containers, there are triangles with a number inside. Most places only accept  #1 and #2 plastic – this can depend on your area, but generally these are the only kinds of plastics recycled. 

Here’s a rundown of what the plastic numbers actually mean:

  1. PET (PETE) 

Commonly found in soda-water-juice bottles, cooking oil bottles, peanut butter jars, cosmetic containers, mouthwash bottles. Known as the most common forms of single-use plastic and  should not be used more than once for risk of bacterial growth and chemical leaching (yuck!) 

Easy to recycle.

  2. HDPE 

Commonly found in: detergent bottles, milk jugs, shampoo-soap-lotion bottles. Considered the safest form of plastic. Also easy to recycle.

  3. PVC, Vinyl  

Commonly used for plastic packaging, credit cards, meat wrap, wire insulation, garden hose, raincoats, shower curtains. 

Very durable plastic.

Most places do not accept #3 for recycling. 

  4. LDPE

Commonly found it toys, squeeze bottles, piping and plastic packaging, sixpack rings, bread bags, food wrap, trash bags. 

Reusable and weatherproof.

Seldom recyclable

  5. PP 

Commonly found in food containers, like condiment bottles, yogurt cups, cereal, straws liner and bottle caps. 

Considered safe for reuse 

Sometimes recyclable 

  6. Styrofoam  

Commonly found in to-go containers, food packaging, egg cartons, packing peanuts, single use cutlery 

Low density plastics, not meant to be reused 

not recycled because of great energy required per weight of these low density plastics 

  7. Everything else that wasn’t listed above. This can vary from nylons to baby bottles to car parts to mobile phones to compostable, plant based plastics. 

Not recyclable because of the wide variety of what it could be….

#3 I should bag my recyclables FALSE

Super false! Bagged recycling slows down the sorting process. Plastic bags can get tangled or stuck in machinery and cause major damage to recycling sorting equipment. Also, if the sorting facility cannot see what is in the bag they will not open it because it could be trash and they are not willing to take that risk and waste time and possibly contaminate the rest of their recycling. 

So – bagged recycling ends up in the landfill. What a drag! Ditch the bag.

 

Bagged paper shreddings that will not be accepted at the sorting facility. 

#4 Styrofoam is recyclable FALSE

First of all, just NO. I get really heated about styrofoam.  Styrofoam is an incredible single use insulator and very cheap to make because it is mainly air, which means it is also virtually impossible to recycle. Styrofoam does not belong in the recycling bin. We already learned this when we busted myth #2, but for real please do not put styrofoam in your recycling bin. 

#5 It doesn’t matter if I rinse containers before tossing them in the recycling bin FALSE

One item that is dirty or containing liquid can contaminate an entire truckload of recycling – the majority of those recyclables could be properly cleaned, but sorting facilities are not going to take the time to sort through a load if they see there are soiled items. Recyclables should be rinsed and dried before entering the recycling bin.

These plastic cups will not be recycled because of the random contaiminatino of food and trash inside. They were also placed in a compost bin. Be aware of where the bin is going to end up!

#6 I should smash my aluminum cans before recycling FALSE

Single stream sorting facilities tend to use optical sorters, meaning recyclables are sent down a conveyer belt and recognized by shape. An optical sorter might recognize a crushed can as a crumpled piece of paper and move it into the wrong bin. 

**if you are taking your aluminum cans to a redemption center crushed is sometimes preferred because it saves space during transport**

#7 I should put plastic bags and wrappers in my recycling bin FALSE

If you can poke your finger through the plastic and it stretches, it definitely doesn’t belong in your curbside pick-up recycling bin. Some stores (I’ve seen them in the front of Target, Walmart, City Market etc.) have bins for plastic bags. If you can stretch the plastic by poking your finger through it and it doesn’t break, you can recycle it in these bins. 

Examples:

  • Plastic shopping bags
  • Bread bags
  • Single-use sandwich bags
  • Saran wrap

Candy wrappers, hard plastic wrapping, mixed material wrapping (ie. plastic-paper-foil combos) do not belong in recycling bins. 

#8 I should leave caps on bottles FALSE

Tops are often made of different types of plastic than their plastic bottle counterparts. Most places actually say to rinse and dry the bottles and throw the caps into the garbage.  Plastic caps should especially be removed from glass bottles (like kombucha bottles). Glass bottles typically have metal lids and sorting facilities are able to use a magnet to separate those lids, however there is no efficient method of removing the plastic lids from glass bottles, thus contaminating the glass that could be recycled. 

#9 I can recycle my almond milk container FALSE

This is a no from me, dog. Some of the manufacturers claim that the cartons are recyclable, but many sorting facilities do not accept them. Check-in your area to see if your curbside pick-up accepts them, otherwise do not put them in the recycling bin.

A poorly photoshopped photo of myself looking at compostable plastic cups. 

#10 compostable plastics go in the recycling bin FALSE

Absolutely not. If compostable plastics are mixed with regular plastics, they degrade the quality of plastic because they can’t be processed the same way. Compostable plastics are plant-based plastic that belong in commercial compost facilities. Compostable plastics will have that printed somewhere on the product, (maybe the bottom) and tend to have a green stripe or green leaf. They will also be labeled as #7/PLA (which means plant-based resin). 

Pay close attention because they can look exactly like traditional plastic!

#11 I can recycle my cardboard pizza box GREASY??

It depends! Again, if something is contaminated, it risks contaminating the entire load of recyclables. If the cardboard box is greasy and has cheese crusted to it, throw it out, or better yet Compost it!! If the box is free of grease, cheese, and crumbs then it is perfect for the recycling bin. 

#12 I can recycle mixed materials items FALSE

Items made of mixed materials like a padded envelope, milk carton, mailing envelope with a plastic address window cannot be placed into single stream. If you can separate the plastic from the paper – like envelopes, you can put the paper in the recycling and toss the plastic film in the landfill bin. 

When in Doubt Throw it Out

I am going to leave you with one motto “When in doubt, throw it out.” Now that might sound counterintuitive, but let me explain. In order for materials to be recycled they need to be very clean and sorted properly, which hasn’t been happening hence the recycling crisis -more on this later – but basically China stopped accepting our recycling because the contamination rate of our recycling was too high and it wasn’t worth their time and energy to sort it for us. So if we can have clean, properly sorted recycling it actually has a much greater chance of being recycled for new materials. If a truckload of recycling arrives to a sorting facility with a few contaminants, the entire load could be sent to the landfill because of the risk of contaminating all of the recycling and wasting time and energy. 

A snapchat from Nick, showing off his reusable bags. This photo also shows how many different types of packaging our groceries can come in, from cardboard to paperboard to chip bags to plastic yogurt containers. It is important to understand what we are buying and if the packaging can be recycled. 

*disclaimer: I strongly believe recycling is not the best solution to our current waste and climate problems, however if we are able to create clean recycling, the recycling facilities would be much more inclined to take our recyclables (China stopped taking our recycling because our contamination rate was too high)*

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