Recycling 411 from Sophie Uliano, Author of NYT Best-Selling Gorgeously Green


recycling rules 300x225 Gloss How To: Follow Recycling RulesThis week, I’ve found myself with a number of bulky materials that I cannot toss into my curbside recycling bin. I made a big box of these items, alongside a smaller box containing items that need to go to the hazardous waste unit (batteries, paint cans etc)–I’ve been putting off that trip for quite some time!

I’ve just got back from the UK and I was so impressed with their whole recycling deal there. Everything is recycled and the local council provides all the bins, bags and a mega collection service to this end. They even provide a small kitchen bin for ALL your food scraps, which you bag up and put in a larger bin on a daily basis. Virtually nothing goes to landfill.

So back in the US,  I decided to refresh my memory on the items that I cannot — or should not — throw into the recycling bin…items that mess things up considerably for the guys in the recycling depot. In the US there are no general guidelines across the board because each city will have a different policy. For example, here in the City of Los Angeles they now (quite recently,) have started accepting juice and milk cartons, and even the long life juice containers (aseptic, which is a mix of paper and foil,) whereas in many other cities across the country, they don’t. To my amazement, they also now accept polystyrene, whereas most cities across the Nation don’t. So Google your local bureau of sanitation to see what can’t go in to your curbside recycling. If you haven’t checked in the last year, check again as things change pretty quickly.

Oh – remember that you don’t  need to thoroughly rinse out every jar you put in the recycling bin. They tell you to rinse them out, but frankly, once they get to the depot, they use a mega powerful water spray to clean everything anyway. The amount of water that I would use to rinse out one peanut butter jar is ridiculous – so I don’t waste my time or my expensive water!

No-no’s across the Nation:

For the most part, the following items should not be placed in your curbside recycling period.

Contaminated Paper:

Any paper that is covered with grease, food or any other gross substance cannot be recycled. So no greasy pizza boxes, soiled kitchen towel or parchment paper, sanitary products etc.

Broken Glass:

Broken glass is not supposed to be put  in the recycling bin and can be really dangerous for the people handling it. The glass in bottles is also different from the glass used in mirrors, glasses etc and these different types of materials cannot be mixed. The best way to deal with broken glass is: Get a large piece of old cloth (the thicker the better,) and place the pieces of glass in it. Wrap the glass up and use a hammer to break the glass into smaller pieces. Find a box with lid and place the whole lot in. Seal it and write in big letters (a red marker is good,) “Broken Glass”.  Put the box in your regular trash can.

Some plastics: Ugh – it gets so complicated with the numbers, so to keep things really simple, just know that the easiest plastics to recycle are the #’s 1 & 2 in the chasing arrows on the container. Other numbers are a little more complicated in that some cities accept them (like plastic grocery bags and tupperware containers,) and some don’t – so you have to check. The kinds of plastics that are not recyclable are ones that either have a #7 or no number at all. Items like battery operated plastic appliances and toys, and sanitary products should never be tossed in your curbside recycling bin.

Annoying bits & pieces: When in doubt, you probably shouldn’t toss it in your recycling bin. Try your hardest to find a second life (thrift stores etc,) before sending it to the landfill. Annoying bits & pieces include: wooden items, kitchen utensils, electrical cords, mini blinds, old drapes, any kind of cloth/fabric, old towels, old ceramic dishes and mugs, chipped chinaware, old pens.

You can always go to Earth 911 and type in the item you want to recycle and your zipcode. Although they have an answer for everything, you’ll get great information about where your nearest hazardous waste drop-off is and where you can recycle bulky items like bits of metal.

The most important thing is to think about the cradle-to-grave cycle of every single item you buy. If you shop more consciously, you won’t have so much useless packaging and “stuff” to get rid off. Always consider what the grave site of your every purchase will look like. When I shop with this in the forefront of my mind, I’m less likely to throw cheap things in my cart – items which are clearly supposed to only last for a few months anyway. Sometimes it pays to pay a little more.


The #1 no-no is plastic grocery bags. Apparently, they’re really problematic for the machinery in the recycling depots and a total nuisance for the dudes who operate them. If you do find yourself with a few hanging around your house, take a trip to your local grocery store, where you should find a special bin designated for used plastic bags right outside the store.

The #2 no-no is polystyrene (also known as Styrofoam): I never choose to bring these eco-nightmare materials into my home, however, it’s often used as the padding for big box items. As you know, almost every appliance you buy will be encased with huge chunks of the stuff and then we’re faced with a big promblemo: how on earth should we dispose of it?

Polystyrene packing peanuts are easy — your local shipping / mailbox center will gladly accept that to re-use. But what to do with the massive chunks? You can break them down into smaller chunks and keep in a box as padding for breakables that you may be shipping in future, or you can break them into even smaller pieces and put them in the bottom of planters to assist in drainage.

You can also do the totally responsible thing, which is to ship them to a company who will actually be able to recycle them. EPS Recycling is the place to go. They have a list of drop-off locations (nowhere near me), or you can ship your white chunks to them. You’ll have to pay for shipping, but it’s a small price for doing the right thing, or in comparison to schelpping around in your car to deliver them somewhere else.

What else shouldn’t go in?

– Soy milk cartons are asceptic (foil and plastic), and most municipalities won’t accept them. Similar scenario with frozen food boxes, which are sprayed with a plastic coating that cannot be recycled.

– Toys, old rags, towels and clothes also shouldn’t go in the curbside recycling.

– Old or broken drinking glasses or glass vases shouldn’t go in because they are a different kind of glass than bottles and harder to recycle.

– A big problem for the recycling depots is any paper with adhesives on it – so avoid tossing anything with adhesive labels or tape in your blue bins.

The important thing to realize is that by tossing inappropriate items into the recycling stream, you’ll actually cause much more trash to go to the landfill. Huge volumes of recyclables contaminated with a few of these n0-no items, will be hauled away to these overstuffed and oftentimes leaching pits.

It seems so much easier to just toss everything into that recycling bin and hope that it will somehow be spirited off to recycling heaven, but the reality is very different – we can all help facilitate the massively important recycling industry by sorting things through before we toss them in.

Remember that every city and municipality has different recycling policies, so when in doubt, visit Earth 911 to find out where and how you can recycle questionable items near you.

Visit sophie at

About bagitmovie

Bag It is a documentary film following the world wide use of plastic bags, plastic's impact on the environment and human health.
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One Response to Recycling 411 from Sophie Uliano, Author of NYT Best-Selling Gorgeously Green

  1. Clare says:

    Hi there, I sympathise with your recycling dilemmas and I really wish your experience of recycling in the UK was typical, but it ain’t! It is dependent on the county council where you live – I live in Cornwall and the only plastics I can recycle kerbside are plastic bottles. That means I can’t recycle plastic bags, yogurt or cream pots, cosmetic pots or those annoying clear plastic cartons they put soft fruit in. (I don’t buy yogurt any more and rarely buy even the local strawberries.) And I have to take the tops off the bottles as they don’t accept them. We currently have no food scraps pick-up and in those councils that have increased their recycling, they have done so by reducing garbage pick up to once a fortnight, which is not at all popular with some!

    All that greasy paper and cardboard I put into my compost, in spite of all the advice not to – my compost bin is full of worms and hot, so it soon gets turned into lovely compost.

    As for styrofoam, I’m not sure about putting it in plant pots. Eventually you will have to replace your potting soil. Normally you can put your old potting soil in your compost bin, but if there is styrofoam in it this won’t be possible, so you’ll have to throw it out. Basically I never mix anything man-made with anything natural.

    Wish this could have been a more positive response,


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