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Recycling // Knowledge Base

The Golden Rules of Recycling

Lack of foundational knowledge is one of the biggest contributors to our nation’s stagnant recycling rate. Learning The Golden Rules of Recycling can help!

Ryan Deer | October 13, 2021


Like doing your taxes and DIY home improvement, there’s a certain amount of guesswork that goes into Americans’ recycling practices. And like the first two, it comes with consequences.

The majority of Americans are ill-prepared, ill-informed, and ill-advised when it comes to recycling, lacking the guiding principles and educational building blocks that form an efficient, successful system. The considerable gap in comprehension contributes to a national recycling rate that’s never topped 35% and a quarter of every collection is lost to contamination.

Yet, if every U.S. citizen had committed just a few general principles—or even some bare necessities—to memory the same way we all learned classroom respect and the order of operations (PEMDAS, remember?), America’s recycling system would shine brighter.

Fresh out of school or 40 years on the job, it’s never too late to learn the golden rules of recycling.

Golden Rule #1: Sort Your Materials By Stream

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Wherever possible, attempt to separate your recyclable materials by type. Single-stream recycling, adopted by roughly 80% of the U.S. cities and municipalities, is a system crippled by contamination. A method defined by an all-in-one collection, food residue on plastics can ruin the integrity of paper and cardboard, and broken glass routinely designates entire loads for landfill.

That’s why so many cities are electing to add recycling streams. By participating in a multi-stream program—or engaging in RoadRunner’s “clean-stream” method—recycling rates improve dramatically. 

If a multi-stream program is available to you, we recommend four streams for businesses: cardboard, mixed paper, compost, and commingled. However, if multi-stream isn’t on the table in your area, we have a handy guide for the steps to take to properly prep and sort materials for any type of collection or dropoff.

Golden Rule #2: Know What’s Accepted in Each Stream 

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It seems simple: cardboard goes with cardboard; glass with glass, and plastic with plastic. However, it’s not always that straightforward. Due to disparities in capabilities at nearby MRFs (materials recovery centers), your hauler may have different rules than haulers in the next town over.

That’s why it’s important to ask your waste and recycling hauler key questions about what is and isn’t recyclable. Common violations include paper coffee cups with leak-proof plastic lining, bottle caps, waxed paperboard, and the range of numbered plastics.

Golden Rule #3: Don’t Wishcycle 

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Bowling balls… Boat anchors... Live ammunition... #6 and #7 plastics… They’re all “wishcycled”—the act of adding to your recyclables bin without knowing if it's actually recyclable. Wishcycling is a prime contributor to our out-of-control contamination rate, and it can only be solved if you think before you throw.

Outside of bowling balls, the most frequent offenders that ruin remanufacturing value and pose potential dangers for recycling facilities workers are: plastic grocery bags, polystyrene (aka “Styrofoam”), drinking straws, cling wrap and thin plastic packaging, and light bulbs.

Golden Rule #4: Keep Batteries Out 

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A rising threat on the wishcycling list is the amount of batteries carelessly deposited in recycling bins around the country. Both household single-use alkaline batteries (like AA or D cells) and rechargeable batteries (like lithium-ion) contain metals and chemicals that are not only hazardous if released into the environment but also can ignite under certain conditions.

It’s important to realize that by simply putting a smartphone, laptop, or other e-waste in your recycling, it has the potential to cause explosions and facility fires. For our best advice on responsibly managing batteries and electronics, check out our e-waste guide.

Golden Rule #5: Rinse and Dry Your Recyclables

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Food waste is an issue for more than just landfill methane emissions. While the end-of-life state for larger food scraps is gaining increased attention, it’s the minuscule pieces and residue that have the biggest impact on recycling itself. That’s why rinsing and drying containers is so important for retaining the value of recyclable materials.

As we mentioned in our post How Clean Do Your Recyclables Need to Be?, substances like oily salad dressing are a natural enemy of cardboard and paper. To properly assess whether your items are clean enough, ask yourself: How likely is this to spill? How much of it can get on other recyclables? How messy is the substance? Is there any “3D” food that can be removed?

To get your recyclables from messy to acceptable, keep in mind this process: Empty, Rinse, Swish, Shake/Dry, Scrape (on a case-by-case basis).

Golden Rule #6: Break Down Your Cardboard 

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You’ll pay for not breaking down your cardboard. Adding bulky, unbroken corrugated cardboard boxes and packaging to your recycling bin takes up considerable space. Your bin becomes full more quickly when the contents can’t compress, requiring more pickups. And additional pickups from your hauler adds charges on your bill. 

Instead, your cardboard should look like a stack of flat pancakes. Check out our best practices and tutorial for breaking down and neatly stacking your cardboard into bales and bundles.

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Flatten and stack your cardboard to prevent wasted space!

Golden Rule #7: Strategize Your Set-up 

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If your employees and customers find it easier and more convenient to recycle versus throwing something in the garbage, your recycling rate will improve leaps and bounds. To do this, set up centralized collection bins in break rooms, kitchens, and other high-traffic areas where waste is commonly produced—the strategy has been proven effective and cost-efficient by Google, Etsy, and more.

Outside the office space or production floor, your business should have a plan in place for its collection area or loading dock. In general, the following diagram on preparation is what the nation’s leading haulers expect to see.

A diagram with a green dumpster showing proper staging for waste collection.

Learning the golden rules of recycling is a simple way to nail down the foundation, but when something more complex arises, that’s when you’re in need of Smarter Recycling. A pioneer in tech-enabled waste management, RoadRunner has a track record of creating custom solutions for unique recycling problems.

Have a supply chain or operational issue that goes beyond the basics? We’d love to help.



Let's get the conversation started on how to drive recycling and cost savings for your business.