Per the EPA, 292.4 million tons of waste were generated during 2018. Of that, approximately 94 million tons were recycled or composted. That’s only a third of the trash that’s generated is actually recycled or composted. If you take out composting rates, only 69 million tons were recycled. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but that’s only a start.

If you look at the 146.1 million tons of items that went to a landfill, approximately:

  • 24% of that waste was food scraps
  • 18% of that waste was plastic
  • 12% was paper or cardboard
  • 11% was yard trimmings and other organic and inorganic wastes
  • 11% was leather, rubber, and textiles
  • 10% was metal
  • 8% was wood
  • 5% was glass

Many cities and towns have recycling programs, so why are recyclable items still ending up in landfills? Many factors can play a part in why your recyclables are ending up in the trash. You may have mistakenly contaminated your recyclables by including waste. You may not realize exactly what’s allowed and not allowed in your area. Even a windy day can impact how much gets recycled. Take these steps to ensure that your recyclables don’t end up in a landfill.

Aim for Clean and Dry

Recyclables that go into your curbside bin should be relatively clean. They don’t have to be spotless, but you can’t have crusted on foods. If they are filthy, it contaminates the stream of recyclables and ends up in the trash. Wash them out with soap and hot water to remove most of the oil or grease and stuck-on foods.

Drop Off Clothing at Participating Retailers

Bring old, worn clothing to stores like H&M or The North Face for recycling. You receive a store coupon towards your next purchase when you do. Levi’s Blue Jeans Go Green program collects old, worn jeans for insulation. You get a 20% discount in return.

Give Away What You Can

Sometimes, items that you see as useless have value to someone else. Suppose you have a case of old colored jars that you haven’t recycled because your district won’t accept colored jars. Post them on community pages. Many crafters need jars for storage.

Old tires can be turned into attractive patio furniture with a bit of creativity. Quilters can turn ripped or stained clothing into fabric squares. People may be looking for beer and soda cans to build unique birdhouses.

Learn What’s Recycled in Your District

Find a list of accepted recyclables at your local waste and recycling district. A new recycling list is essential if you’ve recently moved. Things that you could recycle in your former town may not be allowed in your new town. If possible, ask your trash hauler for an updated list. This is an excellent habit to get into each year as rules may change from one year to the next.

Some items may be made from recyclable plastic but are not accepted by recycling facilities. Automotive oil bottles are a great example of something that should be recyclable but often isn’t. Before you throw them out, see if any of your local auto parts stores take them. Some do have programs that allow you to recycle them. From there, they get washed out so that they can be recycled.

Pay Attention to the Numbers

Plastic items should have a number on them. Often, recycling centers take #1 and #2 without issue. If you’re lucky, your district takes all types of plastic. You should ask which of the plastic types are accepted. The types of plastic include:

  • #1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate: Used in many different food packages and drink bottles
  • #2 – High-Density Polyethylene: Used for milk bottles, detergent bottles, and cleaners
  • #3 – Polyvinyl Chloride: Used in PVC pipes, toys, and plastic furniture
  • #4 – Low-Density Polyethylene: Used in plastic wrap, plastic grocery bags, etc. and are easily recycled in special bins in participating grocery stores and discount retailers.
  • #5 – Polypropylene: Used in clothing, robes, plastic tubs, and some plastic bottles
  • #6 – Polystyrene: Often used to make packing peanuts, food containers, and hot beverage cups
  • #7 – Other: Used frequently in reusable water bottles

If you have plastics that cannot be recycled in your curbside recycling container, you may be able to take them to a local recycling center. If not, ask schools if they accept donations. While your district may not take black plastic containers, they’re great tools for art teachers who need large containers for finger paints.

Remember that Food-Soiled Paper and Cardboard Is Rarely Recycled

It would be best if you remembered that food-soiled papers like napkins and deli paper are not often recyclable. Grease-stained pizza boxes are also not recyclable. These items could be composted in your backyard if you have a compost pile for flower beds and trees but not vegetable gardens.

Some farms accept food scraps for their compost piles. Call around and ask if any of your local farms do. It makes it easy to dispose of food scraps and food-contaminated boxes and papers responsibly. Some farm owners may only take the food scraps and ask that paper products not be included.

Save Other Recyclables for Monthly Trips to a Recycling Facility

Items that you cannot recycle in your bins may be accepted elsewhere. Set them aside in boxes and take them to a local recycling facility each month. This includes items like plastic wrap from cases of drinks, bakery bread bags, dry cleaning bags, light bulbs, and batteries. Plastic film is easy to recycle inside of many grocery stores, too. Look for the green recycling bins in the store’s lobby.

Save batteries after you tape the ends with electrical tape. Stores like Home Depot have bins where you can dispose of dead batteries. Automotive batteries can go to area auto parts stores like Advance Auto for free recycling.

Don’t throw away dead cellphones. Instead, save them and bring them to a local recycling center for proper electronics recycling. If you don’t have a center that takes them, ask area electronics stores like Staples and Best Buy if they accept them.

You may live in a city that offers Amazon and ERI drop-off bins. The Second Chance bins accept used electronics, such as laptops, smartphones, cameras, e-readers, and game controllers, to be processed by ERI. ERI destroys the data before the items are recycled or refurbished. Find Amazon’s Second Chance bins in a handful of cities across the U.S.

Stop Wish Cycling

Wish cycling or “wish recycling” is something many people have done or still do. You think something should be recyclable, so you put it in your curbside bin without a second thought. That item is not recyclable, which means a load of recyclables may get rejected and moved to a trash container.

For example, you have a blue glass jar and think that since it’s glass, they can recycle it. The problem is that your district doesn’t accept colored glass. You now have a load of recyclables with broken blue glass, so it all has to go to the trash. Always call and ask or do your research before automatically recycling something you are not sure is accepted.

Take Time to Learn Where to Bring Items

Use the handy Find a Recycling Location resource at Recycle Nation to learn where you can bring items in your area. Enter your ZIP code and select the item you’re trying to recycle. A list of nearby recycling centers comes up, along with contact information and driving directions. It makes it easy to recycle as many items as possible and keep recyclables out of the landfill.