Environmental Protection Agency: Frequent Questions on Recycling

EPA receives various questions on recycling.

Below are answers to some of the most common questions, broken down into five categories.

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Recycling 101

What is recycling?
Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. Recycling can benefit your community, the economy and the environment.

Is recycling truly beneficial for the environment?
EPA data show that recycling conserves energy and natural resources. For example:

  • Recycling one ton of office paper can save the energy equivalent of consuming 322 gallons of gasoline.
  • Recycling just one ton of aluminum cans conserves more than 152 million Btu, the equivalent of 1,024 gallons of gasoline or 21 barrels of oil consumed.
  • Plastic bottles are the most recycled plastic product in the United States as of 2018, according to our most recent reportRecycling just 10 plastic bottles saves enough energy to power a laptop for more than 25 hours.

How does recycling save energy?
When we make new products out of virgin materials, we expend energy to extract and process those materials. This includes burning fossil fuels. However, if we manufacture products using recycled materials, we reduce the need for virgin materials and save the energy required to extract and process them.

To estimate how much energy you can save by recycling certain products, EPA has developed a tool called the individual Waste Reduction Model (iWARM). This tool calculates how much energy you save by recycling aluminum cans, glass or plastic bottles, magazines or plastic grocery bags, and shows you how long those savings could power different electrical appliances.

Is recycling the best management option? What other options are there?
The most effective way to reduce waste, and the most environmentally preferred strategy, is to not create it in the first place. Source reduction, along with material reuse, are the most functional ways to save natural resources, protect the environment and save money. Making a new product requires a lot of materials and energy, from extracting raw materials to fabricating the product to transporting it to the place of purchase. Check out EPA tips for reducing and reusing, and donation.

How do I know what my local recycling options are?
Please contact your local county or municipality to determine your local recycling options. Additionally, please check out the I Want To Be Recycled EXITwebsite for more information.

Why is it important to only put items that can be recycled in the recycling bin?
Putting items in the recycling bin that can’t be recycled can contaminate the recycling stream. After these unrecyclable items arrive at recycling centers, they can cause costly damage to the equipment. Additionally, after arriving at recycling centers, they must be sorted out and then sent to landfills, which raises costs for the facility. That is why it is important to check with your local recycling provider to ensure that they will accept certain items before placing them into a bin. Some items may also be accepted at retail locations or other at local recycling centers.

Furthermore, some recycling providers require different types of materials to be collected in separate bins (multi-stream recycling), whereas other providers may accept different types of materials that are put together in the same bin (single-stream recycling).

Why are some items that look recyclable not accepted at my recycling facility?
Your local recycling facility might not accept all recyclable items. This is especially true with plastics. While plastic bottles are the most commonly recycled plastic products, other plastics may or may not be accepted in your area, so first check what your local recycling provider accepts. It is important to understand that the existence of a plastic resin code on the product does not guarantee that the product is recyclable in your area. Additionally, glass may not be accepted in some areas, so please confirm with your local provider.

What should I never put in my recycling bin(s)?

  • Garden hoses
  • Sewing needles
  • Bowling balls
  • Food or food-soiled paper
  • Propane tanks or cylinders
  • Aerosol cans that aren’t empty
  • Many communities have collection programs for household hazardous waste to reduce the potential harm posed by these chemicals. In the Earth 911 databaseEXIT search for “household hazardous waste collection” near your zip code. Additionally, contact your local environmental, health or solid waste agency to learn about permanent or periodic household hazardous waste collections near you.
  • Syringes, broken glass, and broken light bulbs should not go in the recycling nor in the regular garbage stream. Please consult your local waste authority for information on ways to correctly discard these items in your area without risking injury to collection workers.

What are the most common items that I can put into my curbside recycling bin?

  1. Cardboard
  2. Paper
  3. Food boxes
  4. Mail
  5. Beverage cans
  6. Food cans
  7. Glass bottles
  8. Jars (glass and plastic)
  9. Jugs
  10. Plastic bottles and caps

Generally, these are the most commonly recycled items. Please confirm with your local recycling provider first before putting these items in your curbside recycling bin, however, since what is accepted depends on your area.

What are recyclable items that I can’t put in my curbside recycling bin?
Generally, plastic bags and wraps, electronics, and textiles cannot go in a curbside recycling bin. Please check with your local recycling provider first, though, to be certain since it depends on your local area. Do not put items in your recycling bin unless you know they are accepted. Non-recyclable items can contaminate a whole load of recyclables, causing them to all be thrown out.

What is composting? Is it truly beneficial for the environment? How do I do it?
Compost is organic material that can be added to soil to help plants grow. It enriches soil, helping retain moisture and suppress plant diseases and pests. Compost also reduces the need for chemical fertilizers, and it encourages the production of beneficial bacteria and fungi that break down organic matter to create humus, a rich nutrient-filled material.

To compost at home, you’ll need browns (dead leaves, branches and/or twigs), greens (grass clippings, vegetable waste, fruit scraps and/or coffee grounds), and water, along with a dry, shady spot for your pile or bin.

View EPA’s Composting At Home page for more information.

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Plastic Bags, Wrap (film) and Sacks

Are paper or plastic shopping bags better for the environment? How about reusable bags versus disposal bags?
EPA does not have information on the environmental benefits of paper versus plastic bags. The Agency encourages consumers to:

  • Reduce the number of bags they use,
  • Reduce the number of bags they throw away after one use,
  • Reuse bags, and
  • Recycle bags when they can no longer be used.

Consumers also can reduce waste by using reusable shopping bags.

Can I recycle plastic bags and wrap/film? If so, how and where?
First, be sure to cut off the zippers (if necessary).

Many grocery and department stores will accept plastic bags and wrap/film. Please ask your local grocery and department store, or visit the Plastic Film Recycling website EXITor Earth911 EXIT to find a location nearest you that recycles plastic bags and plastic wrap/film.

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Food and Drink Containers

Can I recycle?…

Styrofoam: While most recyclers don’t accept Styrofoam, check with your local recycling provider first to be certain.

Egg cartons: It depends on the material of the carton. Please check with your local recycling provider first to be certain.

Are plastic or glass bottles better for the environment? What about aluminum, tin and steel cans?
EPA uses a life cycle perspective when comparing the environmental impact of different materials and products. The Waste Reduction Model is a tool that can help an individual, business or municipality compare the environmental impact of 54 materials and six management practices. We don’t promote a single material or management practice; alternatively, we encourage users to compare scenarios themselves.

Can I recycle materials with food residue or does the material have to be perfectly clean?
While we provide general guidance below, please check with your local recycling provider first for areaspecific guidance.

Plastic, metal and glass materials must be empty and rinsed clean of food debris before being recycled. Paper materials must be empty, clean and dry before being recycled. Wet paper/food-soiled paper products may be compostable.

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Other Garbage

What should I do with dirty diapers?
While we provide general guidance below, please check with your local solid waste agency/recycling provider first.

Generally, you should flush the excrement down the toilet and then place the diaper in the trash. Also, consider using reusable cloth diapers instead of disposable diapers.

What should I do with old clothes and old shoes?
Gently-worn clothes and shoes can be donated to many charities. For damaged clothes and shoes, please double check with your local charity to see if it will accept them. Additionally, some retail stores recycle clothing or shoes. Check your local ones to see if they accept these items for recycling.

What’s the best way to recycle (whole) glass?
Check with your local program first when recycling (whole) glass. Most curbside community recycling programs accept different glass colors and types mixed together.

How can I recycle items such as my electronics, bottle caps and books?
Electronics: Manufacturers and retailers offer several options to donate or recycle electronics, including cell phones, computers and televisions. Please also check with your local recycling facility for best ways to recycle electronics, and visit our Electronics Donation and Recycling page for more information.

Bottle Caps: Please check with your local recycling provider first, but you should be able to recycle bottle caps if they are attached to the bottle. Please also verify whether you can recycle loose bottle caps.

Books: Check local places that take donations (schools, places of faith, charities, non-profits) to see if they will accept books, and contact your local recycling provider for ways you can recycle books in your area.

How can I dispose of gift wrap (wrapping paper) or gift bags?  
If you use gift wrap, look to find a type that can be recycled or that is made from recycled content. Consumers can also reduce waste by using decorative boxes that do not require wrapping and that can be recycled.

A lot of gift wrap isn’t recyclable because of the coating on the paper, which is often shiny and laminated. However, check with your local recycling provider first to be certain and for the best ways to dispose of wrapping paper.

The Agency encourages consumers to reuse gift bags and tissue paper, and not discard them after a single use.

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Household Hazardous Waste

What are household hazardous wastes? How can I recycle them?
EPA considers some leftover household products that can catch fire, react or explode under certain circumstances, or that are corrosive or toxic, as household hazardous wastes. Although it depends on your local solid waste agency/recycling facility, some examples include pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, paints, solvents, oil filters, light bulbs, batteries, aerosol cans that aren’t empty, ammunition, ammonia, antifreeze and nail polish.

Please see our Household Hazardous Waste web page for more information on household hazardous wastes and tips for how to reduce it in your home.

What should I do with paint? Barometers and thermometers? Burnt-out light bulbs?
Paint: Check local places that take donations (schools, places of faith, charities, non-profits) to see if they will accept paint donations, and contact your local recycling or household hazardous waste facility for ways you can recycle paint in your area.

Barometers and thermometers: Please avoid discarding them in the trash. Check with your local recycling or household hazardous waste facility, or visit Earth911EXIT for more information on ways to properly dispose them, as some thermometers are considered household hazardous waste.

Burnt-out light bulbs: Check with your local recycling facility for recycling options for burnt-out light bulbs, or take them to a retail store in your area that offers light bulb recycling.

Science Topics
Conservation & Sustainability, Waste
Middle School, High School
6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade, 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade

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