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Your 101 guide to recycling at home

Posted by AMH Team

9m read time

Nov 23, 2021

Ever since we were young, many of us have been taught the benefits of recycling. It trims down the amount of waste that goes to landfills or incinerators. It prevents pollution and saves energy. It helps the conservation of natural resources. It even creates jobs in major industries, like manufacturing, supply chain, and recycling itself.

Yet when we try recycling at home, it can sometimes lead to confusion. Sure, we see the recycling symbol’s familiar three arrows on all kinds of products, but it’s not always cut and dry as to what we’re supposed to do with each one.

Our fight against producing excessive waste starts inside the household. Read on to learn how to start recycling at home. 

The basics of recycling at home


As you finish using a product, unless you’re repurposing it—a milk carton can make a great candle mold, for example—you’ll need to properly dispose of it.


In some cases, that means throwing an item into the trash. But many products can be recycled, and we don’t always do a great job with that. The Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent recycling data (from 2018) reports our recycling rate is only 32.1%. That means there’s plenty of room for improvement with recycling at home.


To quickly get started, below are some how to recycling at home tips:


    • Learn your local recycling rules: Each city has different requirements for recycling. For example, one city may accept almond or oat milk cartons, while another asks you to throw those cartons in the trash. Knowing your city’s local requirements will help streamline your own recycling at home process.


    • Empty and rinse out containers and bottles before recycling: That little bit of food left on the inside of a container or the last sip from a plastic soda bottle can contaminate the recycling process, so make sure the products you’re recycling are fully cleaned and emptied before they go in the bin. Bottles and cans can be easily rinsed out with water.


    • Break down cardboard boxes: In the age of e-commerce, we’re placing plenty of online orders, and that means many boxes arriving at our doorstep. Break down those boxes before placing them in your recycling bin. Not only will you have more space for additional recyclables, but you’ll also reduce the risk of a recycling truck refusing your recycling because large, unbroken boxes can jam up machines.  


    • Understand common recyclables: Recyclables are collected in several ways, including curbside collection, drop-off centers, and refund or deposit programs. After they’re collected, recyclables go to a recovery facility for sorting, cleaning, and processing into materials for manufacturing. 


  • Buy products made from recycled materials: Recycling doesn’t simply end at home. Items like newspapers, steel cans, egg cartons, and laundry detergent bottles contain recycled materials. When you’re shopping, look for products that can be easily recycled or that contain recyclable content. Terms like “recycled-content product,” “post-consumer content,” and “recyclable product” are all good indicators that an item may be recyclable.


What each plastic recycling symbol means


As you’re checking products to be recycled, you’ll likely notice the three arrows indicating what you’re holding is a recyclable product. 


Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just tossing the item into your recycling bin and calling it a day. Each item made from plastic has different rules, and some of them aren’t as easily disposable. Here’s a breakdown of each type of symbol you’ll come across—and what to do with them as you learn how to start recycling at home. 


Recycling Symbol #1: PET or PETE — Polyethylene Terephthalate

Where you might find this symbol: Soda, water, and beer bottles, salad dressing and vegetable oil bottles, peanut butter jars, other food packaging


Polyethylene terephthalate (labeled as PET or PETE) is the most common plastic used for single-use products. It’s cheap, lightweight, and easily recyclable into products like furniture, carpet, and other bottles and food packaging. Unfortunately, we still don’t do a great job of recycling it—the PET recycling rate is about 29.1% for jars and bottles.


As long as they’re emptied and rinsed out, most plastics in this category can be collected through curbside recycling programs, so you can safely place them in your recycling bin. With caps, it’s probably best to remove them entirely and dispose of them in the trash.  


Recycling Symbol #2: HDPE — High-Density Polyethylene

Where you might find this symbol: Milk jugs, juice containers, household cleaners, laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, bags in cereal boxes


High-density polyethylene is a common plastic resistant to most solvents, so it’s used regularly in various forms of packaging. It can be recycled into a lot of different products, as well, from pens to picnic tables and even recycling containers themselves.


In most cases, you can recycle these products into your curbside recycling bin. Occasionally, there will be requirements on HDPE products, such as removing a label or chucking a cap before recycling. Like with PET plastic, you should rinse out any bottles to remove excess food, liquids, or other debris.  


Recycling Symbol #3: V or PVC — Vinyl/Polyvinyl Chloride

Where you might find this symbol: Shampoo bottles, cooking oil containers, piping, food wrapping, toys for pets and children


Vinyl and polyvinyl chloride are durable plastics. You’ll most commonly see them in major operations like plumbing pipes, window frames, and house siding, but because PVC is so versatile, it’s also used in several types of bottles and in toys. The big no-no with PVC is to avoid burning it, since that releases dangerous toxins into the air.


Despite their frequency, both vinyl and polyvinyl chloride typically can’t be recycled. You’ll likely place these products in your trash, but check with your waste management facility to see if they offer a collection center. Plastic lumber companies may also accept drop-offs. 


Recycling Symbol #4: LDPE — Low-Density Polyethylene

Where you might find this symbol: Squeezable bottles, grocery bags, food delivery ice packs, dry cleaning bags, shrink wrap


Low-density polyethylene is a flexible plastic that can be used in a variety of ways, such as shipping and mailing envelopes, floor tiles, and lumber. Though it’s become more commonly accepted by local recycling facilities, it’s still not ubiquitous.


Check your local recycling requirements to see what to do with LDP items. You may be able to recycle right into your curbside bin, or you may need to head to a drop-off location like a grocery store or big retailer.


Recycling Symbol #5: PP — Polypropylene

Where you might find this symbol: Yogurt or sour cream containers, disposable diapers, liquid medicine bottles, straws, bottle tops


Polypropylene is a heat-resistant plastic, so manufacturers use it to protect against moisture and grease, especially in products that hold hot items.


More curbside collectors have started accepting these objects, so if your city does, you can add them to your recycling bin. You may as well discard bottle or carton caps right into the garbage, though; during the recycling process, they often fall through screens and end up as waste or clog up machines, so you’re saving some trouble by simply throwing them out.  


Recycling Symbol #6: PS — Polystyrene

Where you might find this symbol: Disposable plates, cups, and utensils, egg cartons, to-go food containers, foam packaging, aspirin bottles


Polystyrene is lightweight and brittle, so it can fall apart fairly easily. Think about a time you’ve tried to break up Styrofoam to throw it away—it wasn’t an easy task, was it? The most common repurposing of polystyrene is for foam insulation, though most recycling facilities are unable to process this type of plastic.


Because of that, the majority of curbside recycling programs won’t accept polystyrene products. To dispose of these items, place them in a bag, remove any excess air, and tie the bag up before you put it in your trash bin. That way, if the weak polystyrene material falls apart, it’ll all stay within the bag. 


Recycling Symbol #7: Other/Miscellaneous — BPA, Polycarbonate, LEXAN

Where you might find this symbol: Car parts, sunglasses, iPod/iPhone/computer cases, nylon baby bottles, large water bottles 


The final recycling symbol includes everything that doesn’t fall into the first six recycling categories. Since recycling protocols aren’t standardized for these products, they can be a bit trickier to recycle. You’ll likely have to visit your municipality’s website to learn instructions for properly disposing of these products.


One other material label you might see under this category is PLA (polylactic acid). Place these products in your compost bin. Polylactic acid can be composted under certain temperatures, and an industrial composting facility can make that happen. 


What to avoid when recycling at home


Now that you’ve got some basic how to recycle info, you might feel like you’re ready to leap into things. But wait—just as important as knowing what to recycle? Knowing what not to recycle.


Here are some common things to avoid when you’re recycling at home:


    • Flattening or squishing certain objects: Breaking down cardboard boxes is okay, but for items like bottles or cartons, keep them in their full shape. Recycling plant equipment sorts objects based on their shape, so messing with that could impact how (or if) your items get recycled.


    • Plastic bags: While you should certainly reuse plastic bags when you’re able—such as for garbage can lining, small grocery trips, or storing supplies—don’t recycle them. Even if the contents inside are recyclable, dump them out before tossing the plastic bag into the trash, or collect several plastic bags and take them to a drop-off location like a grocery store or major retailer.  


    • Consider the contents: Pizza boxes, candy wrappers, frozen food pouches, and bags from products like chips, popcorn, or other salted snacks should be thrown into the trash, not recycling. These items all have grease, sodium, or other contents that can clog machinery and prevent them from being properly recycled. 


    • Other glass besides bottles and jars: Since recycling facilities do accept glass bottles and jars, you might think all glass is fair game. However, other glass contaminates those bottles and jars, turning them from recyclables into waste. Avoid including things like broken glass from windows or mirrors, drinking glasses, bowls, or vases.


  • Holiday recycling tips: Chances are you’re going to get gifts during the holidays, and they may be delivered in a certain way. Packaging like Styrofoam isn’t recyclable, and though bubble wrap can be recycled, there are certain steps you must take to do it properly. 


Other recycling tips for home


Excited to begin your recycling journey? Combine this new awareness with other daily habits to further impact your environmental footprint. Keep in mind these additional recycling tips at home:


    • Skip plastic utensils and packaged condiments: Food delivery and curbside pickup have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most restaurants offer the option to skip the plastic cutlery that goes along with your order. You can also include a notes section to eliminate other single-use products like condiment packages or napkins—you likely have plenty at home already.


    • Shop with reusable bags: Whether canvas, cloth, or plant-based fibers, the options for reusable bags are endless. Use them instead of plastic bags to reduce the amount of waste produced during a trip to the store.


    • Use reusable bottles, cups, mugs, and straws: We should be drinking more than a bottle of water a day, but using several bottles in a 24-hour span is incredibly wasteful. Grab a reusable bottle to fill up without worry, and do the same with cups and mugs for when you’re craving a quick soft drink or coffee on the go.


  • Give your recycling bin some TLC: Does opening your recycling bin cause your nose to crinkle and your eyes to well up? It’s time to clean it out. Use dishwasher detergent and water to give the bin a good, thorough scrub and wash. And let the bin dry before you place more recyclables inside.  


Recycling plastics and other products benefits the world in so many ways. While it’s an ongoing process of awareness, education, and action, we can each play our part in improving recycling habits. When we start being more focused with recycling at home, we can help make a long-lasting environmental impact.

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