This article appeared in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
More time at home has meant more deliveries, and fuller households have led to fuller recycling bins, increasing the confusion about what exactly goes in them. What to do with all the plastic bags? Do bottle caps stay on? What if there’s a bit of peanut butter left in the jar?
Ultimately, your local government decides whether an item is recyclable (check its website for a list). Private haulers can also provide this information. Here, how to handle some common household materials.
These hinged (or sometimes heat-sealed) molded clear plastic packages hold everything from berries to batteries. But recycling them requires a different process than other single-use plastics, so consult your municipality or private hauler for guidance on whether they’re accepted.
What to Do: Recycle if you can; otherwise they’re trash.
Soiled Jars, Cans, and Bottles
These items should be empty and wiped clean, but don’t need to be completely spotless.
What to Do: A simple rinse or swipe with a napkin will generally suffice, but seriously gunked-up vessels—like peanut butter jars and yogurt containers—should be washed well before they go into the blue bin.
With improved technology, plastic bottle caps can now be handled by some local recycling programs.
What to Do: If your program accepts them, screw them back on—they’ll be shredded with the bottle or jar, then the shreds will be sorted—. Unsure? Just place them in the bin.
These lightweight polystyrene products take up so much space relative to their weight that they make recycling a losing proposition.
What to Do: If you can’t reuse them, donate them to a local shipping center or post them on your local Freecycle or Craigslist “free” item group. Otherwise, bag them (to keep them from spilling everywhere) and toss them in the trash.
Metal Bottle Caps, Can Lids, and Jar Tops
Most haulers accept these covers, along with the glass or metal containers they came with. Nonmetal coatings on cans, caps, and lids will generally get burned off during the recycling process.
What to Do: Check your local program’s instructions first; most require caps from glass containers to be placed in bins unattached. Sharp metal lids should be pushed deep into cans.
The cardboard they’re made of is recyclable, of course, but some programs reject them because of the likelihood of contamination from grease and food waste.
What to Do: Recycle them or toss them in the garbage, as your hauler dictates.
If it’s clean, it absolutely can be recycled.
What to Do: Wad it up softball-size and recycle it with other metals. If it’s encrusted with food scraps, greasy, or burned, toss it in the garbage.
Single-Use Plastic Bags
Grocery, produce, newspaper, bread, and dry-cleaning bags, as well as bubble wrap, are rarely accepted because they require specialized processing equipment without which they can damage a facility’s machinery.
What to Do: Drop them in a dedicated collection bin at local grocery stores or big-box retailers. Your local recycling program also may be able to provide a list of plastic-bag recycling sites in your area.
Thanks to Steve Altieri, town administrator, and Sue Odierna, sustainability coordinator, Town of Mamaroneck, NY