What Can I Recycle: A Guide to What Makes Something Recyclable

If there is one question I answer more than any others at Rubicon Global, it’s: “Is _____ recyclable?”

Asking what can be recycled in your area is one of the smartest things you can do to ensure that you are diverting as much of your business’s waste from landfills as possible, while avoiding recycling contamination through proper separation.

Knowing what can be recycled (and just as importantly, what can’t be recycled) in your city is essential to improving the operations of your local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), as well as ensuring that items that cannot be recycled curbside—such as plastic bags and film and electronic waste—are being taken to the right place to be recycled. As NPR recently reported, “What’s recyclable in one community could be trash in another.”

Understanding what can be recycled in your area is important in ensuring that anything you sort and place in your recycling container with the intention of it being sent to your local recycling center (and in time, turned into something new) actually makes it there. For this reason, before we get into what makes an item recyclable, we will first look at what can and cannot be recycled curbside.

What Can Be Recycled Curbside

There are a wide range of materials that can be recycled through your curbside recycling program. These consist of obvious materials, including paper and glass, as well as less obvious materials, including most forms of metal, and even food:

  • Paper including newspapers, magazines, and mixed paper;
  • Cardboard (OCC);
  • Glass bottles and jars;
  • Rigid plastic products;
  • Metal containers, including tin, aluminum, and steel cans; and
  • Food waste, if your city has an organics collection program.

As always, what can and cannot be recycled where you live or work will depend on the rules your city or municipality have put in place, as well as whether or not they’re participating in any external programs, such as a food waste recycling collection and processing program.

What Can’t Be Recycled Curbside

While it’s important to know what can be recycled in your part of the world, it’s equally necessary to find out what can’t be recycled through your curbside recycling program.

I’ll note once again that this list is not conclusive or applicable worldwide. What is and isn’t recyclable in your city will vary depending on a number of factors; so take this list with a grain of salt, and reach out to your city to confirm which materials can and cannot be recycled, how to sort your recycling, and whether or not your city imposes fines on businesses and commercial locations for improper recycling practices.

Here is an overview of what can’t be recycled curbside:

To build upon my previous note, if your city participates in an organics collection program you may be able to place greasy paper and used paper towels and tissues in your composting bin. Again, be sure to reach out to your city or local recycling center to find out what can be recycled in your area.

What Makes Something Recyclable

Now that we have a basic understanding of what can and cannot be recycled curbside, we should look at what makes something recyclable in the first place.

For an item to be recyclable in your city (assuming your city accepts a particular material for collection and sorting), it’s necessary for three key areas to align, namely:

  1. Technology must exist to recycle the material;
  2. There must be a buyer; and
  3. The economics must work for the processor.

Technology Must Exist to Recycle the Material

As simple as it sounds, when asking what can be recycled, one of the first things to be considered is if the technology exists to transform the material (or materials) the product is made from into a raw material that can be used once again in the manufacturing process.

This is less a question of whether or not your local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) can process these materials, and more about whether these materials can be processed at all. If the technology to recycle a particular material does not currently exist, or if it would be cost-prohibitive to attempt to take apart a large or intricate item in order to separate out the different recyclable materials, consider upcycling. When you upcycle an item, you can give it a new lease on life as the same or a similar product.

While it is helpful if you clean out your recyclables before placing them in your company’s recycling bin, most municipalities recognize what a burden washing out recyclables is on businesses and residents alike, and it is therefore not necessary to aggressively wash out recyclables, so long as you’ve scraped it mostly clean, and given it a quick rinse.

There Must be a Buyer

Many people forget that recycling is a business. Whenever I’m asked if a certain item can be recycled, my standard response is that almost anything is recyclable, so long as there is an end-buyer for it.

This end-buyer must be located a reasonable distance from the materials, as if they are too far away, the cost of procuring the materials will likely be prohibitive, and there’s a good chance that the company wishing to make the purchase will be able to procure the same type of raw material from somewhere closer to them.

When it comes to purchasing recycled materials through a sustainable supply chain this final point is especially important, as while procuring recycled materials to turn into new products is clearly a sustainable business practice, having this material shipped halfway across the world to get to you starts to negate these sustainable accolades.

It should also be noted that some commodities buyers will insist that the material is packaged correctly—they may want the material baled or compacted, instead of loose.

The Economics Must Work for the Processor

While the majority of single-stream Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) operating in the United States are automated, most have a manual sorting component that is largely fueled by a need to sort plastics. This means that when we’re considering what can be recycled it’s essential to take into account that there is a certain threshold in terms of critical mass that MRFs need to reach in order for them to economically recover a particular material.

Let’s take the example of polypropylene (PP, RIC #5), a recyclable plastic packaging material. Buyers of post-consumer polypropylene usually want it in baled form—it can be chopped, washed, heated, and pelletized so that it is ready to make into new products such as reusable lunch boxes, yogurt containers, margarine tubs, and soft drink bottle caps.

While polypropylene is widely used for packaging, traditionally not much of it has found its way into the stream of commodities that arrive at MRFs. (This is currently changing, with an increased focus on capturing polypropylene taking places in curbside recycling programs up and down the country.) If a MRF doesn’t get much polypropylene in its single stream feedstock, it may not make sense to recover it. If, for example, one polypropylene cup weighs 0.04 lbs, at current market prices for polypropylene (0.13$/lb) they would need at least 2,875 polypropylene cups to pass along the conveyor per hour in order to justify the hiring of an extra person to manually sort it at fifteen dollars an hour.

If anything below that number of pieces arrives at the MRF, then it would be better for them from an economic point of view to simply discard the polypropylene materials and pay the landfill disposal fee. MRF operators keep track of the composition of materials that they are sending to landfill, so if they see enough critical mass of a certain material that allows them to hire an additional worker and easily sort them, they do.

If you have any questions about what can be recycled in your area, please contact your city or municipality.

If you’re a business owner or representative and you’re interested in speaking with Rubicon Global about how we can help improve your company’s recycling efforts, you can reach out to me directly at nick.mcculloch@rubiconglobal.com, or contact our sales team at (844) 479-1507.


Nick McCulloch is Senior Manager of Sustainability at Rubicon Global. To stay ahead of Rubicon’s announcements of new partnerships and collaborations around the world, be sure to follow us on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, or contact us today.

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