What’s recyclable, what becomes trash — and why

Every year, the average American goes through more than 250 pounds of plastic waste, and much of that comes from packaging. So what do we do with it all?

Your recycling bin is part of the solution, but many of us are confused about what we should be putting in there. What’s recyclable in one community could be trash in another.

This interactive explores some of the plastics the recycling system was designed to handle and explains why other plastic packaging shouldn’t go in your recycling bin.

Let’s take a look at some items you might pick up at the grocery store.

Plastic wrap

Not recyclable curbside.

At the store we find it covering vegetables, meats and cheeses. It’s common, but it can’t be recycled because it’s hard to deal with at the material recovery facility, or MRF. The MRF is where items collected from residences, offices and more through public and private recycling programs are taken to be sorted, baled and sold. The thin film gets wrapped around the equipment and can bring the operation to a standstill.

Small plastics

Not usually recyclable, but check with your local department of public works or recycling program.

Small plastics, roughly 3 inches or smaller, also can cause problems for recycling equipment. Bread bag clips, pill packaging, single-use condiment pouches — all of these small pieces get caught or fall between the belts and gears of the machinery at the MRF. They end up being treated as trash. Plastic tampon applicators are not recyclable; just throw them away.

Flexible packaging

Not recyclable curbside. Check the packaging for more information.

This type of packaging flattens out on the MRF’s conveyor belt and ends up being incorrectly sorted and mixed with paper, rendering the whole bale unsellable.

Even if pouches were collected and separated by recyclers, there would be no one to buy them because there aren’t yet products or end markets for which this type of plastic would be useful.

Flexible packaging such as potato chip bags are made from layers of different types of plastic and often are lined with aluminum. It’s not possible to easily separate the layers and capture the desired resin.


Not recyclable. Mail-in recycling companies such as TerraCycle say they will take some of these items.

Like flexible packaging, these containers challenge the recycling system because they’re made of several different types of plastic: the shiny adhesive labels are one plastic, the protective cap another, and a twistable gear can be yet another.

Beverage bottles

Recyclable. Be sure to remove the plastic film label, which isn’t recyclable.

These are the types of items the recycling system was developed to handle. The containers are firm, they don’t flatten out like paper and they’re made from a kind of plastic that manufacturers can easily sell for making products such as carpet, fleece clothing or even more plastic bottles.

As for the caps, some sorting facilities want people to keep them on while others say to take them off. It depends on what equipment the local materials recovery facility has. If you keep them on and the MRF can’t process them, the caps can become dangerous. Bottles are subjected to high pressure in the sorting and baling process, which can force caps off at high speeds, potentially harming workers. However, other MRFs can capture and recycle the caps. Ask what your local facility prefers.

Other bottles

Recyclable. Rinse out before putting in the bin.

A bottle with a cap or an opening the same size or smaller than the base of the bottle is probably going to be recyclable. Bottles used for laundry detergent and personal care products such as shampoo and soap are all recyclable. If nozzle heads on spray cleaners contain metal springs, remove them and discard them in the trash. About a third of all kinds of plastic bottles get recycled into new products.

Plastic clamshells

Sometimes recyclable. Check locally.

Clamshells are made from the same type of plastic as beverage bottles, but not every curbside recycler can process them. That’s because the way clamshells are molded affects the structure of the plastic, making them more difficult to recycle.

You might notice that clamshells, and many other plastic containers, come with a number inside a triangle of arrows. This 1 through 7 numbering system is called a resin identification code. It was developed in the late 1980s as a way to help recyclers, not consumers, identify the type of resin a plastic is made from. It does not necessarily mean the item is recyclable.

Yogurt and butter tubs

They are often recyclable curbside, but not always. Check locally. Clean tubs before placing in the bin.

These containers are usually marked with a 5 inside a triangle. Tubs are often made with a mix of plastic types. This can make it a difficult material for recyclers to sell to companies that would rather have a single type of plastic for their manufacturing.

However, that’s not always the case. Trash collection and disposal company Waste Management says they work with a manufacturer that takes yogurt, sour cream and butter tubs and turns them into paint cans, for example.

Polystyrene foam

Not recyclable, unless a drop-off location exists in your area.

Foam polystyrene, like that found in meat packaging or egg cartons, is made of mostly air. A special machine is required to remove the air and condense the material into a patty or block for resale. These foam products have little value because once the air is removed, very little material remains.

Dozens of cities throughout the U.S. have banned plastic foam. Just this year, Maine and Maryland passed statewide bans of polystyrene food containers.

Some communities, however, have drop-off locations for plastic foam recycling, which can be made into crown molding and picture frames.

Plastic bags and some wrappers

Not recyclable curbside. Take plastic bags back to the grocery store for recycling.

Plastic bags — like those used for bread, newspapers and as cereal box liners, as well as sandwich bags, dry cleaning bags and grocery bags — create similar problems for recycling machinery as thin plastic film. However, bags and wrappers, like those that come around paper towels, can be returned to the grocery store for recycling. Thin plastic film cannot.

There are approximately 18,000 plastic bag drop-off bins at major grocery store chains, including Walmart and Target, around the country. These retailers send the plastic to recyclers, who use the material in products such as composite decking.


The How2Recycle label is showing up on more products at the grocery store. The label was created by the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and a recycling nonprofit called GreenBlue as a way to provide clear instructions to consumers about packaging recyclability. GreenBlue says that there are more than 2,500 variations of the label in circulation on products ranging from cereal boxes to toilet bowl cleaner.

The plastics you put in your recycling bin are brought here to the material recovery facility.

This is where people and automated equipment sort plastics by type and shape.

MRFs vary quite a bit. Some MRFs are well-funded as part of larger companies. Some are run by municipalities. Others are small, privately owned operations.

Separated recyclables are compressed into bales and sold to companies that reuse the material for manufacturing other goods such as clothing or furniture — or other plastic containers.

Recycling guidelines can seem so particular because each facility is run differently. They have different equipment and different markets for their plastic, and those markets are constantly evolving.

Recycling is a business with a product that is vulnerable to the ups and downs of commodities markets. Sometimes it’s cheaper for packagers to make things out of raw, virgin plastic than it is to buy recycled plastic.

One reason so much plastic packaging ends up in incinerators, landfills and oceans is that it isn’t designed to be recycled. MRF operators say they’re working with manufacturers to design packaging that can be recycled within the capabilities of the current system.

We also don’t recycle as much as we could. For example, plastic bottles are a highly desirable product for recyclers, but just about a third find their way into a recycling bin.

That said, don’t “wishcycle.” Don’t throw items like holiday lights, batteries, medical waste and baby diapers into the curbside recycling bin. (Some of these items can be recycled through separate programs, though. Check locally.)

To recycle is to be an actor in a global scrap trade. Each year that trade is infused with hundreds of millions of tons of plastic material. In 2018, China stopped taking most plastic waste from the U.S. So now the whole plastics industrial chain — from the oil industry to recyclers — is under pressure to figure out what to do with it.

Recycling alone can’t solve the waste conundrum, but many believe it’s a vital piece of an overall strategy, which also includes reducing packaging and replacing disposables with reusable materials.