Recycling 101: 5 tips for successful recycling

A close-up view of a Nutrilite farmer's hands holding green acerola cherries. "Happy Earth Day" is written on the image with a heart shape encasing the cherries.

You know recycling is the right thing to do and you want to do your part to lessen the impact of 2.12 billion tons of garbage the world generates in a year.

But when you’re holding that box or bottle in your hand, suddenly a bunch of questions pop up. Is it recyclable? Does it have some mystery coating on it that prevents it from being recycled? Do you need to wash it? What about lids and labels?

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75 percent of the garbage produced in the United States is recyclable, but the recycling rate is only about 34 percent. Let’s make it easier to move that needle with these recycling basic practices.

1. Follow local guidelines

The first and most important rule of recycling is to check with your local recycling program to see what their rules are. (NOTE: Several communities have suspended their recycling services amid fears of COVID-19. If you’re able, store your recyclable items until the service returns.)

Some communities have single stream recycling, which means people can mix everything together and it gets sorted out after pickup. Others require consumers to do the sorting, providing different bins for different items.

From what types of plastic and glass items can be recycled, to whether or not you have to take the labels off your cans, your local municipalities usually supply a simple list of dos and don’ts for you.

Sometimes that list, complete with pictures, is right on your recycling bin, other times you can find it on their website.

An overhead view of an open box of takeout pepperoni pizza.

2. Avoid contaminating the recycle stream

A common reason recyclable items get diverted to the landfill is contamination—when the wrong things are mixed in with the recycling. So be sure you’re careful about what goes in that bin.

One of the biggest offenders are greasy pizza boxes or other food items. Keep the greasy parts far away from the bin by ripping them off and tossing them in the trash, leaving only the clean cardboard to recycle. And make sure to rinse out your jars, jugs and cans to prevent any other food waste from entering the system.

What about the labels on your cans and bottles? That depends on where you live. Some recycling systems have machines that handle that, others ask that everything be removed by the consumer.

Other things that can contaminate the recycling stream include broken glass, compostable plastics, receipts, most wrapping paper, and paperboard items that seem coated in wax or plastic—common examples of those are frozen food boxes, takeout containers and some takeout coffee cups.

When recycling gets contaminated, it not only means more items go to the landfill, it also makes it more expensive for your community to recycle at all. And that can result in programs adjusting down what they can accept in order to be able to afford to do it.

So do your part! When in doubt, look it up. Still not sure? Better to drop it in the trash.

A roll of twine and some ribbon are shown.

3. Don’t tangle the machines

Nothing throws a wrench into the recycling process like something tangling up the machines. Ribbons, plastic bags, twine, shredded paper, little pop bottle tops can all get stuck in the machines and wreak havoc.

Some systems may accept shredded paper or plastic grocery bags, but ribbons and twine? It’s like “hair wrapping around the roller brush of a vacuum.”

The basic rule? If it’s long and stringy or smaller than a sticky note, it’s probably going to cause problems. Throw it in the trash.

4. Look for other recycling options

As we learned in rule number one, what you can recycle depends on your municipality. But you don’t have to be limited to that. Search for resources to recycling things your municipality doesn’t to help keep those items out of land and sea.

Many stores, companies or nonprofit organizations will take things not handled by the local recycling system, such as batteries, lightbulbs, plastic bags, shredded paper, blocks of Styrofoam or packing peanuts. All it takes is a little research and a plan to make regular drops.

Stainless steel water bottle with Amway logo on it.

5. Make recycling is your last option

Too often, the ease of recycling today makes us not worry so much about our consumption in the first place. But remember that slogan “reduce, reuse, recycle” that was drilled into you in grade school? Notice where the recycle option is on the list.

Start by looking for ways to reduce accumulation of items and try to switch to reusable ones. There are simple replacements for most single-use items, like straws, napkins and bags.

And once you’ve reduced consumption and switched away from single-use items, know what you can recycle and adjust your purchase choices accordingly.

Looking for more tips for a healthy lifestyle? Check out our other blogs at

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