Picture of Recycling Bins

Stop throwing all your Sh*t into Recycling Bins. Is that a harsh headline? I hope so. And I hoped it grabbed your attention. But you guys, do you know what’s going on with the US Recycling industry right now? It’s bad. It’s really bad.

Some background:

As you might know, China used to accept all our recycling, including dirty bales of mixed paper and plastic. And guess what? When our recycling got to China, whatever couldn’t be recycled was simply dumped. Dumped meaning, not thrown into landfills, but as Sierra Club put it: “washing down rivers to feed the crisis of ocean plastic pollution.”

Even worse, since China was just accepting bales of recycling, US recyclers didn’t necessarily keep investing in the latest technology. They’d just pack everything up, send it on a cargo ship, and bye-bye recycling.

But now, China’s policies have changed. They’re only accepting recycling bales with a less than .5% contamination rate (contamination meaning recycling bales that include food waste, plastic, compostable items instead of recycling items, etc).

And now, recycling facilities are stuck trying to figure out how to process it all.

I spoke with Lisa Disbrow, Spokeperson of Waste Management of Illinois, Inc, about this contamination issue. Here’s how they handle contamination (her answers are in italics):

1) On the news, I saw you said that recycling bales had to have less than a .5% contamination rate in order to be accepted by China. How can you determine in advance that these cubes are meeting that threshold?  Our employees perform a visual inspection of the bales before shipment.  If our visual inspection reveals contamination, we will send the material back through the processing facility.  We also administer audits of not only our inbound material but also our outbound material before shipping to mills.  The audits consist of composition studies that identify all of the components in an average bale.  

2) What happens to those bales if they are not accepted?  If the bales aren’t accepted by the mill, the material will be shipped backed to the recycling facility to be resorted within the process, or disposed of. 

3) Why is it that China is the recycling destination for the entire world? China was the consumer of the global market for fiber materials and mixed plastics as they are the manufacturer of many products and reused the recyclables as feedstock in making new products. China also needed a lot of fiber to make new cartons to ship new products out to the world.

So, what are cities doing locally to combat this contamination issue?

Some cities have curbed recycling programs altogether (pun intended), for example, Delton, Florida. And others are taking it a step further: tagging recycling bins which contain contamination, ie: leaving feedback that your bin contains plastic bags and it is unacceptable. In England, some towns will simply leave your recycling bins uncollected if you break the rules and include items that are not recyclable (I personally think that’s great!).

What Can You Do?

So, fine, now you have a little bit of background on why we need to stop contaminating our recycling bins with items that can’t actually be recycled. But what can YOU actually do to help out?

  • Recycle plastic bags in specific receptacles designed to recycle plastic bags. See this article on How to Recycle Plastic Bags.
  • Review your City’s Website to see what they accept and do not accept.
  • Check the container you plan to recycle. If it’s compostable, it’s not recyclable. Those have to go to specific compost centers.
  • Look for the recycling symbol on your container. If it doesn’t have one, it’s probably not recyclable and it goes into the trash (sorry). If it does, look at the number in the recycling symbol—then check your city’s website to see what numbers they will accept. (for example, many cities recycle #1 and #2 plastic, but may not recycle plastics #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7.
  • Don’t put paper towels or napkins into your recycling bins (those are for compost).
  • If the glass you want to recycle has any kind of tint or color, check to see if your city accepts those (while you’re at it, check to see if your city accepts glass at all).

If in doubt, do check with your city’s recycling web page, and also, I found this pretty cool tool called Recyclopedia. Essentially, you put the name of the item you want to recycle into the search bar, and it’ll tell you how to dispose of it.

So ends my rant called “Stop Throwing all your Sh*t into Recycling Bins.” I really hope you guys aren’t offended by bad words. That’s kind of on-brand for me.

What are your recycling tips? Would love, love, love to hear them in the comments.

Stop Throwing all your Sh*t into Recycling Bins!


Hi, I'm MJ, a recovering aspirational recycler who started HowToRecycle to share her journey with others. I kindly invite you to share your knowledge with me, talk about issues that are bothering you, tell me where I’m wrong (you know you want to), and help me discover new things!

2 thoughts on “Stop Throwing all your Sh*t into Recycling Bins!

  • June 27, 2021 at 12:47 am

    Thank you so much for posting this article and the information in it!! I just found your blog and love it. Much I already knew, and much I am learning! You clearly do your research and are educating everyone else. Thank you!

    • July 20, 2021 at 4:11 pm

      Wow, that’s really kind of you to say. Thank you, Brie!

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