Each year, the EPA collects data on waste generation and disposal, this includes the amount of recycling collected. In 2018, Americans generated 292.4 million tons of waste, which breaks down to almost five pounds of waste per person per day. Of that waste, 69 million tons were properly recycled and 25 million tons were composted. That’s a 32% recycling and composting rate. 

Far more waste ends up in the landfill than is properly recycled, and some of this comes down to a misunderstanding of what can and cannot be recycled. While 93% of Americans believe recycling is important, 28% feel it is inconvenient and 20% do not know how to properly recycle

What is and isn’t recycled? To get a better understanding of all of this, it helps to understand what happens to your recyclables when they leave your curbside bin.

Trucks Bring Your Items to Facilities

Do you have a truck that picks up both trash and recyclables? When people see this happening, it’s hard to imagine that recycling is being done properly. That does play a part in the 16% of North Americans who lack trust in their community’s recycling programs.

Once a truck has picked up recyclables, they go to a mixed-waste facility where they’re separated by employees. There are problems with this as it can cause fluids from trash to get into recyclables and create contamination. Some recyclable materials end up in the landfill because of it.

What happens from there depends on the district. Some are more automated than others. Automation can help sort and separate recyclables quickly.

Items Are Sorted and Separated

Other districts have separate trucks for recycling and trash. In this case, trash trucks bring the trash bags to a waste processing facility where waste is processed and either brought to incinerators where it’s burned and used for energy or placed in a landfill to break down over time. 

Recycling trucks bring items to a recycling facility where items are sorted into different categories: cardboard/paper, glass, metal, and plastic. Sometimes, items that are put in recycling containers are not recyclable. This is known as “wish recycling” and it can contaminate loads. 

In an automated facility, all recyclables go onto a conveyor where large magnets pick up metals and deposit them in the metals area. Fans blow paper and cardboard around to collect them for paper and cardboard recycling.

As items continue along conveyors, anything that’s plastic and too small for recycling will fall through the mesh to trash bins. The rest goes into tanks where plastic floats and glass sinks. This makes it easy for those to be separated.

Recycling the Different Items

Once you have pallets of plastic, glass, cardboard/paper, and metal, they’re each recycled appropriately following these general practices.


There are a couple of things that can be done with cardboard and paper. They can be soaked and broken down to make recycled paper items. It’s also a good brown mixture for compost and may be used for that if your district does food composting.

Shredded cardboard and unbleached paper are also useful for anyone who raises worms for fishing or vermicomposting. Before you even recycle it in your bin, you could consider saving it and seeing if any hobbyists could use it. Some people sell bags of shredded cardboard for upwards of $15, so it can be a profitable venture if you have a heavy-duty paper shredder. 


Not all glass can be recycled. Pyrex, canning jars, and colored glass (red, blue, etc.) are often excluded from recycling. The rest of the glass that’s recycled is crushed, melted down, and used for things like tiles, concrete pavers, and paving jobs. It’s also used to make fiberglass insulation and beads for crafting and jewelry making.


Metal food cans and aluminum drink bottles and cans can be melted down and reused. Recycled scrap metal is often used to make the metal in appliances and building materials. It can also be used in automobiles, train tracks, and planes. The actual use depends on if it was steel or aluminum.


Plastic does require additional separation into the type of plastic. The different types of plastic – 1, 2, 3, etc. – are used for different things. 

  • 1 – PETE/PET: Typically bottles for water and carbonated beverages
  • 2 – HDPE/PE-HD: Bottles for detergents, milk, juice, cleaners, and plastic bags
  • 3 – V/PVC: PVC piping, cling wrap, toys, medical tubing, three-ring binders, and detergent bottles
  • 4 – LDPE/PE-LD: Dry cleaning bags, bread bags, frozen food bags, garbage bags, hot and cold beverage cups, and food storage containers and their lids
  • 5 – PP: Baby bottles, reusable drink bottles, disposable diapers, and food containers
  • 6 – PS: Styrofoam packaging and food containers
  • 7 – Other: Other types of plastics or mixed plastics

Plastic can be melted down and turned into plastic pellets that are used to make new plastic items. Support a circular economy by purchasing items made with recycled plastic. Some companies are now ensuring their drink packaging contains recycled plastic. In 2020, California became a leader in recycled plastic in drink bottles by requiring drink bottles to be 15% post-consumer resin by 2022, 25% by 2025, and 50% by 2030.

What Happens With Contaminated Loads?

What happens if a load of recycling is contaminated? This can happen if a bottle of cleaner wasn’t emptied and washed out before recycling. It can also occur if someone puts batteries in the curbside recycling. That load of recyclables is contaminated and is moved to a container to go to the landfill.

Recycled batteries are a growing area of concern. People who put them in their curbside containers don’t realize the risk of a fire. There have been several fires in trucks and facilities where a battery was punctured and sparked, which can quickly light paper and cardboard. Save all of your batteries and bring them to recycling bins at stores like Home Depot, Ace Hardware, etc.

Everyone Needs to Do Their Part

For recycling to work effectively, it’s agreed that public education needs to be improved. As every community has different rules on what is and what isn’t recyclable, it’s confusing. Recycled Nation helps make it a little easier by providing an online tool to help you better understand what to do with different objects. It’s an easy three-step system.

  • Type in the name of the item you want to recycle and choose the best option from the list.
  • Enter your ZIP code.
  • Submit.

You’re taken to another page where you are given a map with the nearest locations for recycling. If there is curbside pick-up available, that’s an option too, as are mail-back programs and pick-up options. 

You can choose the closest location. Clicking on the red pin brings up the website, address, and distance. Scroll to the bottom of the page to get additional information on the different options, including business hours and contact information. Visit Recycle Nation to get started.