10 Common Recycling Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

April 1, 2020

I consider myself kind of the “recycling auditor” in my apartment. A couple times a day, I’ll take a peek in our recycling corner, and pull out anything that’s not supposed to be there. On a good day, I’ll find a stray wrapper or a single piece of plastic food packaging. On a bad day, I’ll pull out a McDonald’s takeout bag full of greasy containers and unused ketchup packets, or a plastic bag full of trash.

How did I become the “recycling auditor”? Well, I’ve tried to educate my roommates through group texts and even scrawled a quick sign listing where the most common offenders should be placed (filmy plastics—trash; paper towels—compost). Unfortunately, mistakes still regularly occur, and I don’t want to be that annoying roommate who’s always telling people what to do (I just feel lucky enough that everyone agreed to composting and is doing a pretty good job with that). So, I just started auditing the recycling.

Why do I care so much? Recycling contamination is a big issue—25% of our recycling is so contaminated that it ends up in the trash anyways. If there’s even just a little contamination, the entire batch of recyclables might get tossed out.

Many people aren’t familiar with recycling rules, so they try to recycle tons of things that aren’t recyclable, leading to contamination. This is known as “wish cycling,” where you put something in the recycling and hope/wish it’s recyclable. Wish cycling is actually more damaging than not recycling at all, as you could contaminate a batch of actually recyclable pieces, causing it to end up in landfills (how many times can I say “recycling” in one post lol).

So, here are some common recycling mistakes and misconceptions to avoid, so you don’t accidentally contaminate your recyclables.

10 Common Recycling Mistakes You Don’t Want to Make

1. Recycling filmy plastics/plastic bags/packaging

Plastic bags or filmy plastics of any sort are not recyclable in most residential pickup programs. This includes plastic grocery bags, food packets (like a bag of spinach or chips), cling wrap, and the plastic envelopes that hold your Amazon purchases. These filmy plastics and packaging are definitely the items I’m most frequently removing from the recycling in my apartment.

It’s also unfortunately very common for people to collect their recyclables in plastic bags, which is a big problem—that entire bag might get tossed out, even if the items inside were actually recyclable. If you’re looking for alternative ways to gather your recyclables, try using paper grocery bags, or reusable shopping bags that you can empty into your residential recycling bin.

Luckily, you can recycle many of these plastics through special programs. For instance, many grocery stores will take your plastic bags back, and you can find your nearest plastic bag recycling location here. Terracycle also has several free mail-in recycling programs for items that can’t otherwise be recycled, like snack bags and Febreeze aerosol cans.

2. Throwing wrapping paper and decorative bows in the recycling

Wrapping paper that’s metallic or has non-paper additives is not recyclable. Those plastic bows you stick on top of presents should also go in the trash! To test whether your paper is recyclable or not, see if you can scrunch it. Paper that scrunches is generally recyclable, while wrapping paper that doesn’t scrunch should be thrown out.

To avoid all this wrapping waste, consider wrapping your presents with brown paper shopping bags (you probably have tons of them!). It might seem plain, but you can always doodle on the paper, or go for a minimalist aesthetic with twine tied around the brown paper wrapping. You can also use newspaper—the comic section is especially cute, and doesn’t need extra embellishing.

3. Including paper towels in recycling

Paper towels can’t be recycled, but they can be composted. I personally am not a fan of paper towels in general, and don’t see much of a need for them. You can use old sponges or rags to wipe up surfaces, and normal towels to wipe your hands.

4. Assuming that greasy pizza boxes or containers with food residue are recyclable

Containers that are made of recyclable material aren’t recyclable if they’re greasy, or have food residue. Used pizza boxes shouldn’t go in recycling, but you can compost them. If the top side of the box isn’t greasy, then you can also rip that part off and recycle that.

Be sure to also rinse out your plastic food containers before recycling. Some can be quite tricky to get clean, such as peanut butter—I usually fill my peanut butter jars with water and some soap, let it soak overnight, then shake it thoroughly before emptying the water out.

What about the paper boxes containing frozen food (like veggie burgers or fish sticks)? Many of these boxes actually have a plastic film that prevents them from being recycled. Others of them have grease or crumbs. If your box is absolutely clean and has no plastic film, you can recycle it, but you should otherwise toss it. When it doubt, put it in the trash.

5. Including biodegradable plastics in the recycling

Biodegradable or compostable plant-based plastics are all the rage now, but they’re not recyclable. In some cases, you can compost them yourself, but this is rarer, as these plastics usually require very high temperatures to break down. The large majority of the time, these plastics need to be composted in industrial plants. If you use a composting bin service where they pick up your compost weekly, be sure to check with them about their bioplastics policy.

If I can, I try to save my bioplastics to “throw away” in the compost waste stream at restaurants that use bioplastics. By doing this, I can’t know exactly that my plant-based plastics will be composted properly, but they’re more likely to end up in an industrial composting plant.

6. Recycling shredded paper

Shredded paper is also generally not recyclable, as it’s difficult to sort. You can, however, throw it in your compost bin.

That said, some sources say you can recycle shredded paper as long as it’s contained (such as putting it in a cardboard box). Check with your local recycling program to make sure, or just throw yours in the compost.

7. Tossing styrofoam in the recycling

Styrofoam is not recyclable, whether it’s in the form of cups or takeout boxes. To avoid having to use styrofoam products and throw them away, carry around a reusable water bottle, and try to bring your own containers if you plan to eat out (whether you’re doing takeout, or dining in and bringing leftovers home).

8. Recycling coffee cups

This is one rule that is especially confused. Most coffee cups or paper drink cups have a plastic film inside, making them less likely to leak, but also unrecyclable. The plastic straws are also not recyclable, as their size and flexibility make them easy to slip through the sorting process. Drink lids, however, can usually be recycled. So, you can take your cup apart and toss the cup, but recycle the lid. To avoid creating any waste at all, you can also bring your own reusable mug—there are some very nifty cups that are collapsible (affiliate link), so they take don’t take up much space at all.

Speaking of coffee, the coffee filters you use at home aren’t recyclable once used, but you can compost them with the coffee grinds.

9. Putting receipts in the recycling

I wasn’t aware of this one until I was researching for this post. Receipts are technically recyclable, but shouldn’t be recycled because most are printed on “thermal paper,” where numbers and letters are created by chemicals reacting, rather than by ink. This thermal paper has high BPA content (bisphenol A), which is an endocrine disruptor, and potentially harmful to kids and pregnant women. If recycled, this thermal paper with BPA could end up in our everyday paper products, which isn’t great for us. For that reason, you should also avoid composting your receipts, and simply throw them away.

10. Not recycling items that actually are recyclable

There are several items that are actually recyclable, just not in the residential recycling bins. For instance, IKEA has a recycling program for fluorescent light bulbs, batteries, and mattresses (Canada only for mattresses). Staples lets you recycle ink cartridges, old electronics, and rechargeable batteries (I’m regretting throwing out that ink cartridge just a few weeks ago, but next time I’ll know!).  Nike takes old athletic shoes and turns them into turf, tracks, and playground padding. You can also recycle items like glasses, cell phones, crayons, and many others. Before you toss something out, look it up online to see if there are any recycling programs.


On a final note, be sure to check your city’s recycling policies. While the items listed in this post are generally not accepted across the board, there may be exceptions, and your city may also have further guidelines or restrictions. Here’s an example of the recycling policies in Brookline, MA (the city where I currently live).

Also remember the recycling is not the end all, be all to sustainability. It’s first best to reduce your consumption, or find a way to reuse an item, especially since we can’t be sure that what we recycle actually gets recycled.

I hope you learned something new in this post! Let me know what your experience has been with recycling (do you do it? Are you also a “recycling auditor?”), and any common misconceptions you’ve encountered.

For more posts on sustainability:

6 Ways to Reduce Waste While Eating Out
Wastetarianism: An Alternative to Veganism?
7 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion

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2 Comments

  • Kezzie May 22, 2020 at 7:41 pm

    Great post!!! Yes, the cardboard which has got food, grease or fat on it is one that lots of people get wrong (inc my husband and myself at times!) . We had some takeaway two weeks ago and the shiny silver cardboard lids obvs can’t be recycled (in non-Covid times, I take my own containers to the takeaway-sigh…I miss this)-so I carefully ended up cleaning them and punched 400 stars out of them using star hole-punches and took them to school on Thursday for making constellations.

    • Lily May 23, 2020 at 10:37 am

      Thanks for visiting, Kezzie! I also miss being able to bring your own container, and also your own bags to the grocery story – not sure if they also banned reusable bags in the UK, but we no longer can use them in the US for hygiene reasons. I’ve just been wheeling a nanny cart over, leaving it outside, and wheeling the shopping cart out to place all the items in my own cart.

      I love hearing about how you repurpose these items! Your Easter wreath was really cool, for instance!

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    About Me

    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it).
    As a liberal arts grad/endurance athlete/travel enthusiast, I find beauty in many spheres. Consequently, I have no idea where life will lead me. Here is where I document my (mis)adventures and try to offer some helpful advice. Feel free to join me for the ride. Read More

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