Recycling Guide – hardcore treehugger style

May 29, 2007 at 3:29 pm 50 comments


Ok, so in case you haven’t read my first post, and don’t know this about me, I am an environmental engineer (well, sort of). I would be an environmental engineer by now if I hadn’t came to Wageningen to get a Masters degree, or if the Portuguese were like normal people and didn’t have 5 year degrees unlike the rest of the world… but never mind, I digress. Anyway, I’ve had my share of Waste Management throughout all this. I’m not claiming to be an expert, I didn’t read ‘Garbage Land’ but I do know about trash (in fact I have an unhealthy obsession with trash, even my thesis is about trash).

So anyway, I thought it was about time that I shared my bottomless pit of trash knowledge with the world, and maybe inform some peeps on all those things “they” don’t tell you. If you are still reading this far and think that recycling your cans and bottles is a big sacrifice, read no further. This post will only confuse and demotivate you. But if you want to recycle EVERYTHING you possibly can, this post is for you.

Now, here is what you must know about how recycling systems work: 1) there is a LOT that they don’t tell you. The reason is, they don’t want to confuse you and demotivate you from recycling. It’s for your own good, really 2) recycling materials, most of the times, are sorted by cranky, busy and underpaid employees (think Ten Worst Jobs in America). If something is not up to standard, it is rejected. No one is going to wash the plastic cup you didn’t wash. Best case, they will just reject the peanut butter jar. Worst case- they will assume the whole lot is contaminated and landfill it all.

Of course, recycling depends very much the place you live, so my first recommendation is to check with your local recycling system and see what they do and don’t recycle. There is no point in separating all your plastic if it’s not accepted.

The Most Important Rule is:

Do NOT recycle anything that is greasy or dirty

This will most likely result in a whole batch of perfectly good recyclables getting send to landfill because recycling collectors will assume the whole container is contaminated. This WILL happen, for example, if they see a food-soaked item in a cardboard recycling bin [1], like a pizza box. No one is going to go through a container and separate the ‘clean’ from the ‘dirty’. And if it doesn’t get rejected right away, it will force a recycling worker to go handle rotting food on the sorting table by HAND.

And here are the general rules for each material:

Glass and metal:

  • Remove the caps.
  • You don’t need to wash these because they are processed at high temperatures, so contamination doesn’t affect the recycling [3]. (Some places recommend a quick rinse to prevent odours, but personally I don’t think it’s necessary)
  • Glass bottles from olive oil, for example, are ok too, as well as sardine cans and things like that.
  • Only glass bottles and jars can be recycled.
  • You can’t recycle light bulbs (not CFL), ceramics, Pyrex, kitchen glassware like glasses and plates, white skin cream jars. These types of glass have different melting temperatures than regular glass and form solid inclusions in the final product [4].


  • You don’t have to remove staples, plastic windows, spirals from notebooks. These get strained out when the paper is turned to pulp [1]
  • Remove tape if you can, because it tends to gum up the machines, but it’s ok if there is some left. [1]
  • No dirty or greasy paper (very important!!). This means no napkins or tissues (even if they are only slightly dirty :D)
  • Do NOT recycle pizza boxes!!! Even IF the pizza box IS clean, they will still assume it’s dirty and toss it just the same, and possibly the whole container as well! Treehuggers, enviro-freaks, you don’t want to risk that, do you?
  • Waxed, composit or laminated paper is generally not allowed, like milk cartons, fast food wraps, drink boxes. Note: Some places accept drink cartons, but I wouldn’t recycle it if it means getting milk all over clean paper and ruining it for recycling. I cannot emphasize enough that if that happens everything will get tossed!
  • Thermal paper cannot be recycled – this means fax paper, but I also think it means supermarket receipts, which are increasingly printed on it are not recyclable also. “Just say no”… or toss it yourself. [2],[3]
  • Flatten cardboard boxes – again, if they are not flattened, they can be rejected [1].


  • #1 and #2 are the best to recycle, as long as it’s clean
  • #3, 4, 5 and 6 can be recyclable, even though it’s expensive and/or complicated, so avoid buying these if possible.
  • #7 has virtually no recycling potential [3] so avoid this one like the plague. And of course, don’t bother recycling it.
  • Always remove the bottle caps and toss them. They are a different plastic than the bottle and most of the times are not marked.
  • Don’t even bother washing plastic if it’s been in contact with grease. You are wasting water on something that will be rejected anyway. Let me explain, even if you do get that peanut butter jar sparkling clean, because everyone else doesn’t, they will assume it’s greasy and toss it.
  • If it’s been in contact with non-grease liquids or food, give it a little rinse. But a little bit of soda residue is fine.


And finally, last words of wisdom:

  • “When in doubt, throw it out”. [2] I think a common mistake is ‘when in doubt, recycle’, which often leads to more harm then good.

  • Don’t bother recycling small pieces of paper and plastic. Normally, grading is one of the first stages in recycling plants, all the small bits and pieces are sifted out and trashed.

Are you still with me, brave reader? I hope I didn’t overwhelm you too much… Don’t hesitate to speak up if you have any questions, doubts or comments!


[1] Harvard University Recycling FAQs

[2] The World’s Shortest Comprehensive Recycling Guide

[3] The Consummer Recycling Guide: Commonly Recycled Materials

[4]Tchobanoglous “Integrated Solid Waste Maanagement – Engineering Principles and Management Issues”

Photo Courtesy of Kingdesmond1337 on Flickr.

 Edit: I am actually now in the process of reading Garbage Land. So far it confirms everything I’ve said. 

Entry filed under: environment, recycling, sustainable, waste.

This is getting really belgium 7 random facts

50 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nichole  |  May 30, 2007 at 2:36 am

    That was fantastic! I have definitely been part of the “when in doubt recycle” party. I’ll pay more attention now. I don’t want my good recyclables thrown out because I’m lazy! Thanks!

  • 2. ritesofpassage  |  May 30, 2007 at 3:44 am

    This is so depressing. But important to know, I guess.

  • 3. Chile  |  May 30, 2007 at 4:04 pm

    A few years ago, I contacted the city’s recycling facility where I lived to see if I could check it out and they were kind enough to let me join a tour with school children. It was an eye-opening experience. The facility was mixed stream and employed hand, shaking, and magnetic sorting. After seeing the speed of the conveyor belts that passed by the hand-sorters, I realized how quickly they have to make sorting decisions.

    Thanks for providing some good recycling guidelines that may make their jobs a bit easier!

  • 4. Alina  |  May 31, 2007 at 12:59 pm

    ritesofpassage- guess that’s why the ‘powers that be’ don’t tell you this stuff when they ask you to recycle.

    Chile- That reminds me, if any of you have the chance to take a tour to a recycling plant, I strongly recommend it. It’s awesome! You do get out of there with a new insight!

  • 5. greenchick  |  June 1, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Thank you so much. I think I am going to print this out (on the back of an old sheet of paper) and post it on the fridge. We have a gal renting out a room from us and she is eager to learn about recycling, but utterly clueless. You put it in very simple terms. I really appreciate your blog. This was in my opinion your best post thus far.


  • 6. greenchick  |  June 1, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    Actually I have a question for you. At work everyone uses paper towels to dry there hands (AHHH, I know). We are a very small office, but the paper still adds up. No one is willing to switch to cloth towels. Can we recycle the paper towels if they were just used to dry off wet hands? We are an environmental company, yet it’s ironic we all use paper towel to dry our hands everyday.

  • 7. Alina  |  June 1, 2007 at 10:27 pm

    Thanks greenchick, what a nice compliment!

    About your question, in theory I think the towels could be recycled, if it wasn’t for the little problem I was talking about in the post. It depends on who collects the trash from your office.

    If you have some kind of special collection for offices or businesses, then you can talk to them about special collection for the towels to make sure they get recycled. I know they do that here in the Netherlands, but here businesses have to hire their own collection services.

    If it’s the city’s general collection, I would say the chances are pretty slim, although you can still try to talk to them about it.

    You can still hang up a towel for who wants to use it. Maybe you could set the example 😉

  • 8. Lori V.  |  June 3, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    Alina, this was fantastic! I do, indeed, have questions for you! (Was there any doubt? :-P)

    1. What happens to, say, milk and soda containers that have the twist-off lids that, when twisted off, leave a little ring around the container? Do they get tossed? Should we remove the rings? (I do, a lot of the time.)

    2. What about plastic containers that have a plastic label shrink-wrapped around them? Are we supposed to be removing that label as well? (Again, I have been, just to be safe.)

    3. Do you think it would be more worthwhile to buy peanut butter in glass jars, so that more of them would be recycled? (I fall into the category of “have been wasting my dish soap cleaning peanut butter jars”.)

    4. What about broken window (or picture frame) glass? I’ve heard this can’t be put in either? True?

    I’m sure I have a bazillion more questions… just give me time to ruminate! 😉

  • 9. Lori V.  |  June 4, 2007 at 4:16 am

    I KNEW I’d have another question! 😉 What about the plastic bags from cereal boxes? Or the bags with the “ziploc” type zipper that you can get with everything from pet foods to organic sugar?

  • 10. Groxie » Blog Archive » Carnival of the Green #80  |  June 4, 2007 at 3:01 pm

    […] Alina at Closet Environmentalist writes a detailed guide on proper recycling habits, with tips on how to make your recycling as efficient and …. […]

  • 11. Emily  |  June 4, 2007 at 3:04 pm

    Just found your site. This is fantastic! Have you posted on cloth v. disposable diapers? Some folks say enviro-friendly disposable beats out cloth and I want to know!

  • 12. Lori V.  |  June 4, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    Emily, from all that I’ve read, I think scientific concensus is that it’s a draw. One is no better or worse than the other; they are just both necessary evils (unless you want to do the whole “elimination communication” thing). One uses landfill space & other resources, the other uses mega-water & other resources.

  • 13. return for refund. « Sustainable in Suburbia  |  June 4, 2007 at 5:45 pm

    […] Originally uploaded by D.James Recycling Guide – hardcore treehugger style « Confessions of a Closet Environmentalist […]

  • 14. Lori V.  |  June 4, 2007 at 6:59 pm

    And bread & chip bags? What about those? Alina, come back! I’m dying with all these unanswered questions!

  • 15. Alina  |  June 4, 2007 at 7:04 pm

    jeez… keep your panties on, lady! Im working on it! You are even getting your own post 😀

  • 16. Emily  |  June 4, 2007 at 9:12 pm

    Thanks, Lori. What I had read called it a draw, too, but I am such a scientific moron that I wanted to know what people who understand enviromental sciences are saying. I’ve been happiest with the environmentally friendly disposables, but I liked cloth, too.

  • 17. Alina  |  June 4, 2007 at 10:10 pm

    Emily, I have to say, diapers are a little bit out of my department 😀 Fortunately, seems like Lori is a little more knowledgeable of them.

  • 18. Emily  |  June 10, 2007 at 2:40 pm

    Hi, Alina. I knew I’d have more questions. My local authority has us putting our recycling in plastic bags provided for the purpose. (They claim the bags themselves are recycled, but it seems odd to me to not just use shopping bags or reusable bins like all the places I lived in the US.) They have us putting ALL recycling mixed in together — so paper, plastic, cardboard, glass, you name it all goes together in these bags. It seems highly suspect to me. Are they even recycling it? Wouldn’t the paper get dirty or wet from the other items that had food and were then rinsed out? Have you any idea how this would be an effective way to collect recycling? If they are just tossing it all on a landfill, I’d like to know so I can explore other options. Thanks!

  • 19. Alina  |  June 11, 2007 at 12:32 pm

    Emily, that’s a good question. But I want to reassure you. It’s not good policy for local authorities to ‘pretend’ they recycle and they know it. They wouldn’t bother spending their personal, time and money resources in separate collection and promotion if they weren’t going to recycle the stuff.

    The fact that they do it in just one bag is probably because they think they will get more materials like that, and because it’s cheaper to collect that way. That just means they have to invest more in sorting. It’s just another way of doing it. Weather it’s more or less efficient is another matter.

    I think they most probably are using automated technology to separate the different materials. For example, they use magnets to remove iron cans and there are technologies that separate the heavier materials like glass from the lighter materials like paper and plastic. It’s actually not so hard to separate glass, paper and plastic mechanically.

    You can also check the Earth 911 website to see how you can recycle specific things in your area, like motor oil or CFLs.

    I hope my answer left you more motivated to recycle from now on. Just be sure to follow the ‘grease’ rule 😉 and I don’t think it matters if paper gets wet, as long as it’s just water.

  • 20. guhanag  |  June 18, 2007 at 4:17 pm

    Hi Alina, This is an excellent write-up! I am going to forward it to my roomate who introduced me to recycling 😛 She is going to love this. Thank you!

  • 21. Randomness  |  June 19, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    I’m glad to see that someone else out there is as crazy as me when it comes to recycling! You should see my green bin on thursday mornings…. it’s overflowing.

    Long live the closet environmentalists!!

  • 22. Princess Kelly  |  June 20, 2007 at 3:11 am

    I’ve just found your blog and its very educational. In the town where i live they have just started a recycling system where we have two bins. One is green the other black, at first it was pretty hard to start recycling things when i’d never even thought about it before. Now its becoming second nature and i find myself thinking about the environment more and more. I hope you fulfil your conquest and wish you lots of luck. x x x x

  • 23. everdaytrash  |  June 20, 2007 at 4:54 am

    I SOOO want to read this trash thesis of yours!!

  • 24. umooku  |  June 20, 2007 at 9:13 am

    You desrve a big pat on the back but you would think that a bit of prep at home before recycling would be obvious if one was serious?

  • 25. Alina  |  June 20, 2007 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks guys!

    Leila, I’m afraid you would be disapointed. My trash thesis is very uninteresting. It’s about e-waste. But if you really want to, it could be arranged 😉

  • 26. Greenpa  |  June 20, 2007 at 4:10 pm

    Outstanding information, all true, and typically VERY hard to find. Yah, it seems depressing at times- but it’s SO important that we base our actions on REALITY, rather than fantasy.

    And, there are a bunch of folks out there who kind of think “hey, I do MY part, I always dump everything in the recycling bins!” – who use that as an excuse to drive their SUV (metaphorically speaking). Maybe getting this info more widely understood can help get them thinking.

  • 27. tiger dunn  |  June 26, 2007 at 4:18 am

    I would like very much for some feed back myself on environmental waste and water issues that I have had for over thirty years now. It is about ceramic technology that is the key process to deal with all waste as we know it today. That does include PCB’s and radioactive low levels of waste. It will also deal with desalination waste and turn all this into a resource called “pourous pubble”
    The material is totally inert and can be made into many product applications. Why would anybody who has studied about waste not email me to know more about the process.?? It is the system and method to drought proof a country and along with it zero pollution. just think NO LANDFILLS !!
    please just give me some feed back on this comment as i would appreciate it.

  • […] found the perfect recycling guide on Alina’s Confessions of a Closet Environmentalist, “Recycling Guide — Hardcore Treehugger Style.” She insists that if you think separating your cans and bottles for recycling is a […]

  • 29. RevKeaponLaffin  |  June 27, 2007 at 2:07 am

    Sorry if I missed it and someone else mentioned it..
    What about plasma gasification? I heard they’re building a plant in my state (Florida), with plans, when it’s fully operational, to ‘mine’ the local landfill and get rid of it in about 20 years. At a rate of several thousand tons a day.
    That technology can recycle practically anything, even low-level radioactive waste, biomedical waste and chemical/biological weapons. The plant produces more electricity than it takes in, and is much less polluting than traditional incinerators. Also, the ‘scrubber’ technology is getting better so even the CO2 produced isn’t THAT bad, and we’re getting better at recovering it before it’s released.
    Plus, plasma gasification plants are almost always ‘spun’ as super-environment friendly, so the business has more incentive to install the newer, more expensive scrubbers or other recovery systems simply for PR reasons.
    The plants can be ‘tuned’ to create building materials(think inert concrete with less CO2 emissions) , scrap metal, and a few other things depending on what you ‘feed’ it.
    I’m not a big ‘enviro-wacko’, but do what I can and we all like trees and critters. Got a landfill down the street from me.You can see if from a nature trail, go figure it doesn’t even look or smell that bad..mostly looks like a golf course..with heavy machinery. But it’s one of the ‘good’ ones. They sort regular trash for metals, ‘mine’ the methane emissions for power, and of course have a regular recycling facility for those who do separate their trash.

    But, even as lazy as I am, I can still write my representatives and inform them of these new technologies, encourage them to grant permits and the usual environmental tax-breaks to companies that want to build modern facilities, or add modern technology to existing facilities. Or write to the companies themselves, or news agencies, or anyone who’ll listen and has the power to get it done.

    Technology is a weird and wonderful thing, the cause of, and now..eventually..the solution to many of our problems.

  • 30. responablemark  |  June 29, 2007 at 12:21 am

    Definitely still with you! Thank you for a really comprehensive and very helpful post! I wish there was more information like this around.

  • 31. Linksome  |  June 30, 2007 at 2:56 am

    […] Recycling Guide – hardcore treehugger style & Confessions of a Clos… […]

  • 32. Michelle  |  July 9, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    I live in Japan. They have collections for recycling almost everything. Japan is really good at recycling however the trend here is to encourage reuse. Reuse is
    better as it leads to less waste and need less energy.

  • […] 3, 2007 Remember how I said recycling greasy and dirty paper and plastic was worse than not recycling at all? Apparently, I am […]

  • […] finally, here is a recycling tip, courtesy of Amy Stodghill from Green Options.  If you are a hardcore recycler, and you want to get rid of your old VHS tapes, or CDs, or audio tapes or printer cartridges, you […]

  • 35. Another Interesting Site « Paper Kitty  |  August 29, 2007 at 12:04 am

    […] and have many options other than Giant-Chepo-Mart to get my groceries.  There is a very handy guide for recycling, the trial and error of changing to a more eco-friendly kitty litter, and many useful tips on […]

  • 36. Bet you a nickel you didn’t know this…. « Paperwaste  |  February 6, 2008 at 4:17 am

    […] tips–and other great ones for glass and plastic–were found on confessions of a closet environmentalist, my new favorite green […]

  • 37. Diana  |  February 6, 2008 at 8:53 pm

    hey, this is fantastic! extremely helpful for the eager-but-uninformed. just so you know, i included it on my own blog, with credit to your site, of course. i work at rider university in new jersey, which has recently made the commitment to go green. through this blog and other efforts, we’re working on controlling the amount of waste, particularly paper, that occurs on campus. so thanks for your tips!

  • 38. Diana  |  February 6, 2008 at 9:07 pm

    oh yes, here’s the link to our blog, should you be so inclined to visit!

  • 39. sparx blog  |  March 1, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    […] I came across a blog called “Confessions of a Closet Environmentalist” because of this link about recycling. I’m always looking for more info about the art of recycling, so I was excited to come across […]

  • […] do it properly. Thankfully the Closet Environmentalist has come to my rescue and offered up the dos and don’ts of recycling. Please check it […]

  • […] a fascinating and enlightening article on recycling to be found on the Closet Environmentalist blog. It’s well worth a read if you’re a […]

  • 42. Laura  |  March 15, 2008 at 10:44 pm

    Hi i had a question for you. How does recyling hurt the environment? And do the benefits of recycling outweigh the costs?…thanks!

  • 43. MIkhail  |  March 24, 2008 at 12:31 am

    very thorough, thank you!

  • 44. Jen  |  April 30, 2008 at 10:11 am

    this was amazing. thank you. =]

  • 45. übercrunchy » recyclable things  |  May 29, 2008 at 1:46 am

    […] Recycling Guide – hardcore treehugger style […]

  • 46. GoingGreen  |  June 3, 2008 at 5:36 pm

    The pic looks really scary:)

  • 47. cynical recycler  |  June 27, 2008 at 6:22 pm

    too many friggin’ rules for recycling. it’s as if i need a certification just to be a nice little eco-citizen.

    hell, what is anyone doing about telling kuwait to stop burning off all of their methane and contributing to global pollution? ah ha…nothing…just what i thought. there’s so much pressure for kyoto protocols and all that stuff on industrialized countries, how about holding ALL countries (even the third world and sandbox countries) to pollution standards?

    i can lower my emissions more if i sell my car than worrying about a friggin’ water bottle. but i would most certainly be in the minority in my area.


  • 48. Lindsay  |  January 14, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    WOW!! i didnt know half of this. I learned a lot.

  • 49. michaeleann  |  July 23, 2009 at 6:01 am

    I soooo wish the recycling companies would give out a circular on the “guide”! Have been tossing the good with the bad. I’m doing a discussion in class on the subject, have learned so much on what to do and not! Keep up the blog, it does help…”…it starts with one..”
    Remember this…….

  • 50. indian  |  October 4, 2014 at 4:56 am

    We absolutely love your blog and find the majority of your post’s to
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