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TheStreet Open House

Should I Recycle This? How to Trash 9 Items

NEW YORK ( MainStreet) -- If you live in a community with a recycling program, certain items are clearly recyclable. Newspaper? Throw it in the bin! Empty milk bottles? Sure! Empty boxes? You bet!

But other items are more dubious. Is that glass bottle really recyclable, or is it just going to be get smashed into mostly useless bits? And what about plastic grocery bags?

While some items are clearly destined for the recycling bin, others are more ambiguous.

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about what can and can't be recycled, in large part because different communities have different rules about recycling -- and that's partly responsible for lower recycling rates. Nickolas J. Themelis, director of the Earth Engineering Center at Columbia University, says that in New York City, approximately 18% to 19% of total waste is recycled. Under ideal conditions, that number would be closer to 38%, which means about half of recyclable material isn't getting recycled.

Meanwhile, well-meaning people are throwing materials in their recycling bin that shouldn't be there, which has the potential to gum up the works at the recycling center. So what should and shouldn't be recycled? While your own local laws will vary, here are a few general guidelines:

Plastic bags
Verdict: Recycle them -- but don't put it in the bin.
Perhaps inspired by visions of plastic bags clogging up landfill and suffocating wildlife, some people are inclined to put their plastic bags in the recycling bin. Others will use it as a container for recyclables such as bottles, assuming it's all one big recyclable plastic family.

But that's not the case, says Jennifer Berry, a spokeswoman for Earth911.com, a directory of recycling information. She says plastic bags are almost never accepted in municipal recycling programs, and that their presence can even cause a temporary shutdown at the processing center.

That doesn't mean you have to put them in the trash, though. Many grocery stores have programs in place for taking back old grocery bags. And Earth911 lets you search for businesses in your area that take back certain types of plastic bags for recycling -- just check the number on the bag to see whether it's acceptable for recycling.

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