Recycling goes back farther than you might think. In the 1800s, collectors were known as “ragmen.” They would go from home to home looking to purchase people’s old rags. The ragmen sold those rags to industries that turned them into paper.

At the same time, workers at local garbage sites would sort through the trash that was delivered and pull out items that could be sold for reuse. Food scraps went to animals for food. By the 1920s, this ended. Other than metal, little was separated and reused. Most items simply went into a dump where they would slowly break down. World War II increased the practice as items like rags, scrap paper, scrap metal, and rubber were reused in the war effort.

It wouldn’t be until the 1960s that people started to think about the value of recycling to help the environment. At that point, only 6% of waste was being recycled. Still, curbside recycling didn’t start to appear in cities until the 1970s, and smaller towns wouldn’t recycle for several more years. By 1980, only 10% of household and business waste was recycled. Compare that to about 52% just four years ago.

There’s a problem, however. Between 2017 and 2018, the recycling rates barely increased. The amount of trash has increased. In 2017, 140.47 million tons of waste went to the landfill. In 2018, that amount increased to 146.12 million tons. It leads to questions about where things are going wrong. One issue is that people have become confused by what’s recyclable and what isn’t. That leads to trash ending up in the recycling stream, which contaminates recyclable materials.

How do you know when to recycle something and when to put it in the trash? The best way to learn is by looking at what happens during recycling in your district. To do that, it’s essential to know if your trash is single-stream or dual-stream.

Single-Stream vs. Dual-Stream Facilities

Single-stream processing is most likely what you have. Most cities and towns moved to single-stream processing because it’s easiest for consumers. Put all of your recyclables into one container, and the workers at the processing center separate everything. More workers or specialized equipment is needed to sort items in the facility.

Dual-stream processing requires people to sort at home. You usually have a bin for metals, plastics, and glass and a second bin for paper and cardboard. You have to do some of the work. While dual-stream may reduce the number of workers needed for separating, the cost of the extra bins goes up. Plus, it takes longer for trucks to collect the containers and make sure the recyclables are placed in the proper area of the truck.

While there is debate on whether or not the cost of single-stream or dual-stream is lower, one thing is happening in both. It’s a situation where people hope something is recyclable and put it into the recycling bin. Wish-cycling, also called aspirational recycling, increases the cost of recycling because one contaminated item slows recycling down. Plus, improper recycling may lead to items ending up in the trash instead of being recycled.

Learn How Items Are Recycled

Do you know what happens once items leave your home? Trucks bring the recyclables to the local processing facility. There, forklifts move the recyclables onto a conveyor belt. Recyclables are blown around, shaken, or floated in water to help separate items. Magnets draw metal items away from plastic, metal, and glass. Glass will sink in water while plastic floats. Fans blow the paper off the conveyor belt and off to their area. Workers are lined up along a conveyor belt to pull out trash and contaminated recyclables.

As items are separated, they end up in different bins where they are bundled or packaged for the next stage. They’re shipped to manufacturers who return the materials to raw materials.

Glass, metal, and plastic are ground up and melted. Sometimes, new materials are mixed with the recycled items to add strength. Paper is boiled with water to break up the fibers. It’s then turned into rolls of paper or cardboard sheets that get used for new materials.

Items like batteries and electronics require special handling. They must be carefully taken apart to separate the metal, plastic, and glass. While you can’t put those in your curbside containers, that doesn’t mean you should put them in the trash. Batteries can cause some damage if you put them in the trash. Many trash truck fires occur due to the improper disposal of batteries.

Carefully Choose the Items You Purchase

Consumers need to purchase items made with recyclable materials in order to continue the cycle. Buying items made with recycled materials helps reduce the need for new materials. It’s also helpful to purchase items made with recyclable plastics. Manufacturers prefer items made with 1, 2, 4, and 5 plastics. Number 7 isn’t as easy to reuse. If you start with easily recycled plastics, you help out.

When possible, avoid using and buying single-use items. Instead of buying a case of water bottles, purchase a reusable water bottle for everyone in your family. When it’s empty, refill it. Wash it at the end of the day and fill it in the morning. When you buy vegetables at the grocery store, don’t get a clear plastic produce bag. Bring your own reusable mesh or canvas bags.

Frequent a bulk food store to purchase items like flour, sugar, spices, and grains. Bring the jars or containers you store them in. Have a store worker weigh the container first. Fill it without using a plastic bag. When it’s weighed at the register, the weight of the jar or container is deducted. You’ve avoided taking a plastic bag, but you still have the food items you need.

Look for retailers that are committed to recycling. If you shop at The North Face, you can bring your ripped, stained, and damaged clothing and get a discount on new things. Clothing items that are in like-new condition can be resold as used clothing. It keeps fabrics from the landfill.

Know What is Recyclable

It’s important to know exactly what you can recycle in your district. Visit your local waste district’s website and look for the “A to Z List.” That gives you a list of what you can recycle vs. what you cannot. If it’s not recyclable, it needs to go in the trash. Wishing it’s recyclable isn’t enough.

If you’re not sure you have an updated list, call your local hauler. They will have a printable checklist for you to use. Choose your hauler’s list as some districts may take items that your district doesn’t.

For example, some areas take pizza boxes with grease stains. Another district may require you to put them in the trash. If you live in a community where grease stains are not allowed, you can contaminate the recycling stream if you try to recycle it anyway. Washing out containers is required in most districts. If you don’t do it, you’re adding more contaminated recyclables to the recycling stream.

You can also find a comprehensive guide on what to recycle at Recycle Nation. Enter your ZIP, choose the item from the list, and see where it goes. You may be able to put it in your curbside container, but some things may need to be dropped off at a local recycling center or a participating retailer. This includes single-use plastic bags you get at dry cleaners and retailers. You can recycle packaging materials in boxes you get shipped to your home. You can also recycle batteries, cleaning fluids, motor oil, and broken electronics.