Common Recycling Mistakes

Even though you may be trying to help the environment, it’s possible you are making one of these common recycling mistakes. Even those of us with the best intentions can slip up.

For example, recently I wrote about whether or not k cups were recyclable. (They are.) However, in researching the article, I discovered something I never knew.

And that is this: when you remove the aluminum foil top from a coffee pod, you can recycle it. Of course, you need to rinse it first. Then, you need to ball it up. But in the end, you can put it in the recycling. Previously, I’d always thrown it out.

I feel terrible about that mistake, especially knowing this statistic: the Environmental Protection Agency says that an estimated 75 percent of what is in the waste stream could have been recycled. Ouch.

What are common recycling mistakes

I applaud you for wanting to learn about these common recycling mistakes in your effort to reduce waste. And if you’re trying to buy less, shop secondhand or reusing existing items in new and different ways, these are all positive paths towards reducing what ends up in landfills.

That being said, recycling is more complex than sorting materials into the appropriate bins. The Rounds outlined common mistakes many people make when trying to recycle.

Single sort recycling vs separate bins

Many towns and cities offer single-sort recycling. That means that all of your recyclables can go in a single recycling bin for pickup.

On the other hand, there are still plenty of places that want you to separate your recyclables. So, paper goes in one bin, plastic in another, glass in a third, cardboard in a fourth and so on.

So, one common mistake is placing items in the wrong bin. Or, mixing non-recyclable materials with recyclables.

Recycling dirty containers

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Another common recycling mistake is not properly cleaning containers before recycling them. For example, peanut butter jars or takeout containers that still have food in them can’t be recycled. The residual food can gum up recycling equipment.

So, make sure you clean out all containers and wash off aluminum foil before putting in a recycling bin. In many cases, hot soapy water in the sink should do the trick. If not, you can always toss dishwasher safe jars or containers in the dishwasher for a thorough cleaning.

Fun fact: some tomato sauce brands come in mason jars. I’m thinking specifically of the Classico brand, which you can buy at Target.

So, rather than recycle these jars, reuse them. You can wash and add these mason jars to your drinking cup rotation. Or, use them to store nuts and other dry goods. Then, you’ve kept them 100 percent out of the waste stream.

Adobe Stock

Keep reading to discover common errors people make while recycling and how to minimize landfill footprints while ensuring the appropriate materials get to the right place for recycling.

It’s a mistake to recycle coated wrapping paper

A mess of wrinkled wrapping paper scattered under a Christmas tree

SAJE // Shutterstock

I’m writing this article right after the December holidays. So, if your house is like mine, then you’ve got plenty of discarded wrapping paper.

Unfortunately, you cannot recycle coated paper, which is what wrapping paper is. This, even though wrapping paper and magazine paper have similar glossy finishes.

However, most wrapping paper cannot be recycled due to its shiny coating or lamination. Magazines, on the other hand, are recyclable despite their sheen, unless they have a special plastic coating.

In the future, try packaging gifts in more sustainable ways. For example, package gifts in reusable bags or boxes that can be reused in one way or another.

If you must use wrapping paper, go with plain brown Kraft paper. It’s both recyclable and compostable.

Here are tips to dispose of shredded paper.

Throwing away a Christmas tree

Adobe Stock

Since we’re on the topic of the holidays, you may not realize that you don’t have to throw away your cut Christmas tree. There are three environmentally friendly ways to dispose of a Christmas tree. Of course, remove all decorations first.

One, find out if your town or city has a Christmas tree recycling program. Many major metropolitan areas do. Even small towns do, too.

When I lived in the little river town of New Hope, Pennsylvania, we were able to recycle live Christmas trees for free. The trees were chopped up and used as mulch for gardens.

Two, if your yard abuts the woods, put the tree back in the woods. There, it will naturally decompose.

Three, find out if a nearby farm would take your Christmas tree. Turns out that goats and other animals love to eat evergreens. Some farms will even come pick up the tree from your home.

Putting electronics with other recyclables

Netted bins full of discarded electronics waste waiting to be transported to the recycle plant for further processing

Imfoto // Shutterstock

Approximately 2.7 million tons of waste were generated in 2018 from electronics. Sadly, only about 40 percent of that number was recycled.

Recycling electronics is a bit more complicated than recycling other materials. For starters, you usually have to drop them off at a designated location or during your town, city or county’s e-recycling days. It’s not something you can recycle curbside.

Also, electronics like computers and cell phones typically have specific recycling guidelines. For example, you have to remove lithium-ion batteries from devices before recycling. Then, they can be recycled separately.

Many retailers and manufacturers offer a variety of options for recycling and donating used electronics. For example, I took this picture at Target. You’ll see you can recycle cell phones at Target but not batteries.

Stores like Best Buy and Home Depot offer battery recycling. In addition, they can often recycle lightbulbs for you, too.

recycling at target

Putting broken glasses in recycling bins

Shattered, broken wine glasses on a wooden table

Aliaksandra Post // Shutterstock

Most recycling programs allow for mixing colors and types of glass. However, it is best to always check with your local community recycling program.

For example, the town where we lived in Western Pennsylvania stopped collecting glass for recycling a few years after we moved there. They reported that it was harder to find places to take glass for recycling so they simply stopped collecting it.

You can also use the mason jar/reuse glass jars hack that I mentioned above. As I said, that keeps glass 100 percent out of the waste stream.

Finally, you should never, ever recycle broken glass. Why?

One, it is dangerous for workers. And, two, broken glass can potentially damage equipment just like dirty containers can. Not in the same way, but it’s still a hazard.

So, if you break a glass, clean it up and put it in the trash. Period.

Putting all plastics together

Close-up of plastic recycling symbol: 01 PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)

Mameraman // Shutterstock

The caveat for this common recycling mistake is simple: if you have single-stream recycling that takes all kinds of plastics, you’re in the clear. No need to worry that you’re recycling the wrong kind of plastic.

However, if your recycling program or provider limits what kinds of plastic you can recycle, then you’re going to have to pay attention to the triangles stamped on the bottom of plastic containers.

For example, most plastic has a triangle with a number in the middle. The numbers go from one to seven. This article on recycling prescription bottles explains what each number means.

In short, recycling symbols—triangles with numbers in them—are stamped on items to indicate the type of plastic it is made from. Also, they explain how it gets recycled.

However, the presence of a recycling symbol does not mean the item is recyclable in every location. It’s important to contact local recycling programs to identify what is and is not accepted.

For example, plastic bottles can generally be recycled, even with caps and labels on them, as long as they are clean. On the one hand, single-use items, such as plastic cutlery or straws, are non-recyclable. On the other hand, single-use containers, such as yogurt cups, can be recycled.

Recycling pizza boxes

A stack of pizza boxes


This was a new one for me. I always thought it was a mistake to recycle pizza boxes. Turns out, I was wrong.

A 2020 study conducted by WestRock showed no reason pizza boxes should be excluded from the recycling stream. Boxes—even when they are greasy—can actually be recycled. The caveat? As long as any remaining food is removed.

With an estimated 3 billion pizza boxes used annually in the U.S., that’s almost two percent of the corrugated cardboard produced each year that can now be recycled. Good to know the next time you have pizza for dinner (or lunch or, let’s be honest, leftover pizza for breakfast).

Portions of this story originally appeared on The Rounds and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.