It’s not always easy to recycle at home in the United States. Our fractured system makes every community’s rules different. Following China’s 2018 ban on recyclable imports, many programs changed what they accept, and the pandemic cut down our options even more. As the recycling system rebounds, each of us can help by doing our bit to clean and sort recyclables.

Earth911 is working to track the rapidly changing recycling system, and you can help by curating local listings to help your neighbors (take the first step here). New recycling technology, revived investment in facilities that process plastic, metal, and other materials, as well as growing corporate interest in recovering materials and satisfying your demand for recycling options for the products you buy has set the stage for a U.S. recycling recovery.

But each of us needs to participate because if we do not make the effort to get materials into the recycling system there is nothing to recycle. A successful circular economy requires all of us to join in. We can also minimize our environmental impact by buying fewer single-use products and packaging, lowering the amounts of oil, raw ores, and paper used across society. Let’s get ready by setting up our home recycling system, and we encourage you to check the Earth911 recycling guides whenever needed.

Recycling reminder poster from Pierce County, Washington
An example of a local recycling reminder poster from Pierce County, Washington.

Know the Local Rules

Unlike many European nations, the U.S. does not have a national recycling system or set of standards that define what we can and cannot recycle. Instead, every community can set its own rules, which are defined by whether materials are economically feasible to recycle. That means you need to track your local rules to understand what to put in your bin and what must go in the trash.

The Earth911 recycling locator can help you find your local recycling program’s website, or you can search your community solid waste management site for recycling information. Many programs offer downloadable posters that describe what is accepted and banned locally. It’s a great idea to print these out and place them where you separate your recyclables from the trash.

Take a moment to check the poster if you don’t know with certainty what can be placed in your recycling bin. After a few times consulting the poster, you’ll be able to recognize what’s accepted. It takes a few minutes at most each day to stay on top of your recycling, but building the habit does require some discipline. We suggest getting the kids involved, even making cleaning and separating recyclables part of their chores — you’ll be building a lifetime of good recycling habits for them

Create a Recycling Station

Local recycling operations are either “single-stream” programs that collect recyclables of all types in a single bin or “specialized,” which require separating paper, plastic, glass, and metals into separate bins. Which applies in your locality is easy to determine: Do you have one bin? If so, you are in a single-stream community and can place all accepted materials together into the bin. If you have multiple bins, well, you get the point.

Now, where do you sort your recycling? We recommend setting up a station near a sink so that you can rinse out bottles and cans easily. As a single-stream household, we have the recycling bin next to the kitchen garbage can, but you may prefer the garage or yard near where you keep your trash cans and recycling bins.

If you have access to composting services, keep your food scraps in the freezer and dump them in your bin — or your home compost pile — when the freezer space is full. The cold keeps the odor down and you won’t have to traipse back and forth as often as doing the compost work every day.

Remember the kids’ chores? Whether you have an in-house or out-back setup, have them visit the station once every day or so to sort and clean the recycling. Or, if you don’t have kids, set a reminder to do the recycling work at your preferred time of the day. It’s all about building habits that contribute to turning our one-way, trash-centric lifestyle into a circular system that reduces the need for mining or extracting and refining raw materials for the stuff you use.

Containers with sorted items for recycling

Clean and Sort

A dirty can or bottle can contaminate the materials you and your neighbors take the time to sort. Rinse out bottles, giving the water a good swirl before pouring it out, and be sure to wash cans and glass containers before placing them in the bin.

Recycled materials also need to be dry before they go into the bin. At our house, we use a recycling bin as a drying rack, placing bottles and cans upside-down so that they can drip dry before we transfer them to the blue bin at the curb. You may want to take a different recycling approach in an apartment. Check your local recycling guidelines to see if you can leave the cap on or must take it off a bottle — both rules are in use and, despite efforts to create a standard, there is no system-wide rule. Follow the local rules, don’t wishcycle your way to recycling failure.

Accurate sorting is as important as cleaning materials because different materials cannot be combined in many recycling systems. If you are in a single-stream community, make sure that only materials that are accepted locally go in the bin. And if your program offers multiple bins, take the time to ensure that the right material is in the right bin.

Many colors of glass cannot be recycled when combined, so do not shatter and mix different color glass. Separate glass by color and, if your recycler does not accept glass or a certain color glass, consider dropping the material at a local transfer station. Following the China ban in 2018, many recycling systems stopped accepting glass at the curb but still take it at transfer stations when sorted by color.

At this step, you should also review what kinds of plastic you are recycling. For example, black PET (plastic #1) food trays are not compatible with clear and white plastics. Unfortunately, many communities are not currently accepting #5 plastic. If your recycling system does not accept certain plastic colors or foam meat trays, for example, you’ll need to find an alternative way to recycle it or toss it in the trash. If you do have to throw away a container, make a note and do not buy that product again. In fact, write a letter to the company saying that you will only buy their product when the packaging can be recycled in your local recycling bin.

Single-use plastic shopping bags were commonly accepted at grocery stores for recycling, but most programs are currently suspended due to the pandemic. They will be back and we encourage you to bundle up your bags for recycling when the system restarts.

Alternatives to Curbside

A regular trip to your local transfer station is probably necessary if you want to recycle more materials. For example, expanded polystyrene foam packing is not accepted in most curbside programs but can be dropped off locally. You can also take your e-commerce cardboard and other packaging to the transfer station — they are among the most recyclable things we can reuse. Most of the packaging labeled as “recyclable” cannot be placed in your bin but can be processed at a transfer station.

But wouldn’t it be great if the company that made the product or packaging would take back the material for recycling? More consumer and electronics product manufacturers are setting up national mail-in or drop-off recycling programs. Check the products you buy for recycling program information — it will typically be on the label, but you may need to visit the company’s website. If you cannot recycle something locally and there is no mail-in program, consider refraining from buying it until you have a convenient option. Again, write a letter to the company explaining why you are no longer buying the product.

If you still want to buy and recycle a product that is not accepted locally, take a look at TerraCycle’s Zero Waste Box options, which offer specialized recycling for a variety of material types, from home consumer goods packaging to office products. When the box is full, you simply mail it back for processing. It’s not cheap, but it will keep materials out of the landfill and in circulation in new products.

Items to refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle, repair, and rot (compost)

Track Your Waste and Recycling

To recognize your own progress, track your recycling. This can be an ornate or simple process. At our home, we do not weigh our recycling and trash, but some people do. Instead, we have a scale from 1 to 5, from small to large, and estimate the amount of recycled material versus trash we produce.

After starting out at a level “2” recycling volume, we progressed to consistently recycling at the “5” level and our trash quickly fell to one-third of its former volume. Just eyeball and record your results. It keeps you thinking about what you toss and what you recycle. This extends to the store where we can avoid buying unrecyclable products.

The rewards are also tangible financially. As we reduced our trash volume, we canceled a trash can (for which we were paying $30/month) and added a recycling bin (free). But the real benefit came at the checkout counter, where we now pay less for groceries and other products because we buy less and waste less. You could achieve a zero-waste lifestyle after only a few months of intentional effort.

Participate

The recycling system doesn’t work without our participation. But the recycling system will not change and expand to accept more materials without your participation in the planning process. Consider joining your local waste management board or county planning council committee that manages recycling programs.

Democracy is hard work, but the work pays off in material improvement in your life, the community’s health and well-being, and the planet’s health. Get involved and help ensure recycling success.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in May 2021, and was updated in December 2023.

By Daniel Dern

Daniel P. Dern is a freelance technology and business writer, primarily about computer/Internet technology, including related environmental aspects of heat/cooling/power, manufacturing, and "end-of-life" recycling. His articles have appeared in the Boston Globe, Byte, ComputerWorld, IEEE Spectrum, and TechTarget. He also writes science fiction and kids stories (some are both), doing his best not to recycle plotlines.