If you've ever put something in the recycling bin just because ... well, it seemed recyclable, you may have accidentally gummed up the works at your local recycling plant. Find out what to keep out of your bin, so what goes in can be recycled easily and efficiently.
Plastic bags are the top nuisance at recycling facilities. They get caught in the machinery and they eat up valuable staff time, since workers have to remove them one by one.
"They end up being very costly," says Marti Matsch, communications director at the Boulder, Colorado-based nonprofit Eco-Cycle. "And you can be sure that plastic bags coming through a facility like that are heading for the landfill — they're not being recycled."
Bagging recyclables before you toss them in the bin causes even bigger problems, since workers have to tear open the bag and risk being exposed to potentially dangerous substances. Some facilities won't allow employees to open bags, meaning all your precious recyclables end up in the garbage, says Matsch.
The good news: Many grocery stores collect clean, dry plastic shopping bags for recycling.
Plastic Bottle Caps
Plastic caps have a different melting point than the bottles they come with, so they can't be recycled. Just toss the cap in the trash and let the bottle go on to its new life.
Be sure to remove the caps, even if dropping them in the bin is a hard habit to break. Matsch says sealed containers are one of the top hazards at recycling facilities. They're more likely to have liquids inside — but even if a container is empty, the lid locks in air, which could spell trouble in the compressor. (Even metal lids, which are recyclable, must be removed from their containers before going in the bin.)
The good news: Don't worry about the plastic ring that's left behind on the bottle when you remove the cap — it's small enough not to cause problems.
Frozen Food Boxes
What could be wrong with a simple cardboard box? "While [frozen food boxes] look like your cereal box, they actually have a thin layer of plastic sprayed onto the paper to prevent freezer burn," explains Matsch. "That polycoat prevents the fiber inside from breaking up in the recycling process." Many recycling services reject these boxes to avoid contaminating their pulp supply.
The good news: Some companies, like Petaluma, California-based Amy's Kitchen, Inc., package frozen food in boxes with no coating so they can be recycled; the boxes are specially labeled as recyclable by the company to remove any doubt.
Soy Milk Cartons
Even more complex than frozen food boxes are the "aseptic" beverage cartons designed to sit on store shelves at room temperature, like those used for soy milk. These cartons often contain a layer of foil as well as plastic coating, so it's hard to separate the materials for recycling. Some facilities accept aseptic cartons, but not many — check with your local service.
The good news: Because the cartons don't have to be refrigerated, they save energy as they're transported to stores — so there's still something to feel good about. Don't forget, regular paper milk and juice cartons are recyclable, since they don't have the additional coatings.
Random Plastic Stuff
Just because your yogurt container has a little triangle on the bottom doesn't mean it's recyclable. Be sure to check the numbers inside the triangles and only recycle the ones your local service accepts. No. 1 (soda bottles and the like) and No. 2 (thicker plastics like milk jugs and detergent bottles) are the most commonly recycled. Don't toss toys or other unmarked plastics in the bin.
Glass Not From Containers
Who among us hasn't put a drinking glass or flower vase out with the recycling? Alas, those too must be weeded out. "That kind of glass is intended to withstand reuse," says Matsch, "and so it has a much higher melting temperature than a single-use glass." The sturdy glass stays solid as the other types melt, contaminating the product.
The good news: Unbroken glassware and ceramics can be given to charity or "freecycled" instead.
When mixed papers are sorted at the recycling facility, itty-bitty slivers tend to fall through the cracks into the trash pile — or worse, clog up the machinery. Unless you have access to a special office paper recycling program (which bypasses the sorting lines), it's best to keep your shredding to a minimum.
The good news: Shredded paper can be composted. If you're ever in doubt about what to recycle, the best thing to do is call your local service to see what they will accept. Following their guidelines will help save hauling, labor and landfill costs — and earn you some karma points in the process.
Author K.C. Campbell -- LifeWire provides original and syndicated content to web publishers. K. C. Campbell is a freelance writer based in North Carolina.
Published at 11:33 AM EDT on May 11, 2009 | Updated at 11:13 AM EDT on May 12, 2009