We all remember being taught the three R's of sustainability at some point–Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. They all seem easy enough. Reduce your consumption of single-use plastics, reuse things like tote bags and water bottles, and recycle everything you can. All it takes is throwing some paper, plastic, or cans into a big blue bin, right?

Well, that may not actually be the case. Recycling isn't quite as simple as "Is it plastic? Let's put it in the blue bin."  In fact, in Baltimore City the only plastics you can recycle are bottles, jugs, jars, tubs, and prescription containers. Any thin plastics like bags or film don't make the cut, and neither do your takeout containers from dinner. Recycling is a delicate process and throwing the wrong things into your bin could lead to contamination.

Recycling can be considered "contaminated" if nonrecyclables are mixed in, or something has happened to make the items that are generally recyclable not so in their current condition. Bottles that haven't been rinsed out, plastic tubs with food still in them, and greasy pizza boxes are all examples. In order for that pizza box to be recyclable, you'll need to cut the greasy sections out of boxes and place those in the trash before recycling what's clean.

A picture of a blue, rectangular recycling bin. It is full of plastic and glass bottles, and a hand is placing another bottle into the bin. To the left of the bin are two paper bags filled with more bottles.

You might be thinking, "So what? It's better if I try to recycle everything than to miss something by being too careful. The sorting facilities can figure it out for me."

You wouldn't be alone in that mindset. A vast majority of Americans are guilty of what's known as "Wishful Recycling." 

Wishful recycling means that you place items into the recycling bin in hopes it will get recycled, whether or not you know it meets a facility's requirements. While at first glance this seems like the best course of action, in reality it leads to about a quarter of single-stream recycling to be unusable and placed in landfills each year.

It's such a prolific issue that some places are implementing countermeasures to prevent nonrecyclable items from reaching facilities. The Baltimore City Department of Public Works even announced in a press release last month that they'll be launching a campaign to tag bins where incorrect items are observed so residents can fix it before the next pickup rather than collecting it anyways and potentially contaminating the entire day's worth of items.

On top of cleaning out recyclables, it's important to make sure what you're throwing in the bin can actually be processed at your local recycling plant. This includes wires and plastic bags–and yes, that does include trash bags. If you're throwing your recycling away in a bag, it's really just taking a pitstop on its journey towards a landfill. It may seem like you're making the pickup crew's job easier by bagging your blue bin, but since that bag itself is nonrecyclable it undoes all the good you're trying to do. Instead, leave recyclable items unbagged in your bins and if you need a little extra space place the rest in a cardboard box rather than a plastic bag.

Things like thinner plastics and wires are also important to keep out of the recycling not just because they can contaminate everything else, but because they can cause the machines at the recycling facilities to break. Broken machines don't just halt the operation–they can also cause accidents and injuries for the workers operating the machines and managing the recycling at the sorting facility.

A photo depicting the interior of a recycling facility. There are workers in bright yellow vests sorting through blue bins on large conveyor belts.

The last thing to keep an eye on is whether you're trying to recycle something that's actually compostable. Compostable items (such as cups, plates, and straws) are rising in popularity as another means of increasing the environmental friendliness of single-use items, and that's great! But it's a bit different than recycling. Compostable items are designed to break down more easily in landfills and in composting facilities, but they are not recyclable.

It's a common mistake, even for folks actively trying to pay attention and be environmentally conscious. Compostable cups tend to have designs and colorings that scream eco-friendly–green bands, small leaves, even the word "eco"--and to someone unaware of the difference between composting and recycling, it might seem as though it's begging you to throw it in the blue bin. Be mindful when you're out and about and see if there are yellow composting bins as well as blue recycling bins

photo from ecoproductsstore.com

So what can you do to make sure you're recycling correctly? As we've seen, it's a little more complicated than looking on the bottom of a container and seeing if it has the little recycling symbol. Along with making sure your recyclables are clean, the best (and easiest!) thing to do is simply look up your local recycling centers and see what's listed on their websites. A full list of what you can and can't recycle in Baltimore can be found on the public works website, and you can even see a quick visual from them here:

Recycling doesn't have to be difficult, nor does it need to be treated like wishful thinking. Studies show that recycling definitely has a positive effect on the planet, but we need to do our part in making sure we're doing it correctly. Take some time to double check what you're putting in your blue bins, and we at Wheely Good Smoothies will absolutely do the same.


For additional reading, check out the sources we used in researching this article:

https://publicworks.baltimorecity.gov/recycling-services

https://frederickcountymd.gov/3939/Recycle-Right

https://baltimorecompostcollective.org/why-compost/

https://sustainableamerica.org/blog/the-compostable-cup-conundrum/

https://publicworks.baltimorecity.gov/news/press-releases/2022-03-02-dpw-launches-%E2%80%9Cfeet-street%E2%80%9D-educational-campaign-reduce-recycling

https://mydisposal.com/recycling-contamination

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