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How to Tell What Exactly Can Be Recycled

We all know that the the three arrows making a triangle means that something can be recycled. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that you can just throw any object with that symbol in a recycling bin and expect to have played an important role in conservation. The reality is a little bit messier, since even some items that are both made of plastic might have different procedures to recycle them, which means that they might need to be recycled at different places. Further complicating this situation is the fact that each ZIP code has a different set of guidelines for what can and cannot be recycled.

What Can Be Recycled - How to Tell What Exactly Can Be Recycled

Here are some ways to determine if an object of a certain type of material can be recycled…


Most types of paper are pretty much straightforward, in terms of whether or not you can recycle them. Any kind of paper or cardboard that is used for packaging can be recycled in any general recycling bin. Paper also doesn’t have to be sorted by size or paper, so it is easy for recycling centers to sort through it. However, it is important that paper be clean of certain alienable substances, such as food waste. For this reason, don’t recycle messy napkins, or pizza boxes that have been soaked with grease and have food stuck to it. This can contaminate a batch of paper that would otherwise be recycled.


The two main types of metal that we recycle, in the United States: aluminum and steel. Typically, most aluminum and steel products that can be recycled are used in food or drink cans. Pretty much any of these cans can and should be recycled in a general recycling bin, or at your county drop-off recycling program. As a matter of fact, recycling aluminum is so common, that aluminum drink cans are recycled more than any other thing in the United States. As such, our recycling infrastructure is heavily setup to accommodate this fact; a recycled beer or soda can can be turned into a new can in about 2 months with nearly 70% recycled material.

Just like with plastic and paper, be sure to rinse out any remaining food or drink waste out of the can before you recycle it, whether it is steel or aluminum.

Glass Bottles - How to Tell What Exactly Can Be Recycled


Just like with aluminum and steel, most recycled glass comes from food and drink containers. As a matter of fact, you can’t really recycle many other consumer glass products. For example, light bulbs, dishes, and mirrors all cannot be recycled through most programs.

As a matter of fact, many ZIP codes have curbside recycling programs that do not accept glass. This is for a variety of reasons, such as glass lids and seals are often mixed in with the glass, or because glass needs to be sorted by color before it can be recycled. And, of course, there’s the fact that it is liable to break before arriving. For this reason, most glass containers need to be recycled at a drop-off program.


There are a ton of different recycling labels for plastic materials, so it’s understandable that people might get a little confused about what types of plastic they can and cannot recycle. The general things to remember are that number 1 and 2 plastics, which are polyethylene terephthalate and high-density polyethylene, respectively, can be recycled in pretty much any standard recycling bin or any type of drop-off program in your county.

Plastic Bottles - How to Tell What Exactly Can Be Recycled

These types of plastics are, by far, the most used plastics in the United States. As a matter of fact, plastics with the No. 1 and No. 2 label make up around 96% of all plastic containers in the United States. However, just like with paper, it is important to make sure that the plastic is clean. For the sake of efficiency and convenience, please make sure to rinse out any plastic containers before you recycle them. To learn more about different recycling labels, check out this link.

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