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, 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.

'Shiny' paper products
Verdict: Put them in the recycling bin.
Berry says one common misconception is that "shiny" or mixed-material paper products are off-limits for recycling -- for instance, glossy magazines or envelopes with a plastic viewing window. She says that those extraneous materials can be removed in the process, though.

Pizza boxes
Verdict: Throw them in the garbage.
One thing that can't be removed in the recycling process? Grease. That's why you generally shouldn't put a greasy pizza box in the paper recycling -- or any other paper product "contaminated" with food waste, including paper plates.

"The recycling process uses water, and everyone knows the old adage about oil and water not mixing," Berry says.

While we're not suggesting throwing away perfectly good cardboard and paper, putting greasy paper in the recycling bin will do more harm than good.

Glass bottle
Verdict: Get the deposit.
Most municipal recycling programs accept glass bottles. There's just one problem, Themelis says: Between when you put a bottle in the recycling bin and when it gets to the processing center, there are a lot of opportunities for it to get smashed to bits, which in turn means other recyclable materials in your bin get contaminated with broken glass.

The solution? Recycle it yourself at a local collection center, especially if you live in one of the 11 states that will give you a nickel or a dime for turning in empty bottles.

Single-use batteries
Verdict: Throw them in the garbage.
While most people aren't throwing batteries in the recycling bin, it might come as a surprise that they should be tossed in the trash. Aren't there dangerous chemicals in there that should be properly disposed of or recycled?

Not anymore. According to the Berry, single-use batteries (such as those you'd use to power a TV remote, for instance) no longer contain any kinds of environmental toxins. While there are some programs in place that let you mail in the batteries to be disassembled, she says the economic benefit is generally not great enough to justify the effort. Just toss them in the trash.

Rechargeable batteries (and the gadgets they come in)
Verdict: Find a taker.
Don't toss your old phone or its rechargeable battery in the trash or the recycling bin, as it can contain toxic metals. Instead, find a retailer to take it off your hands. Berry notes that retailers such as Best Buy ( BBY) and RadioShack ( RSH) have programs that let you turn in your old cellphone or battery, regardless of where you got it. And there are also organizations such as Cell Phones for Soldiers that let you donate your still-working phone to someone who needs it more.

Of course, if your old phone or MP3 player still works, you have another option: Sell it to someone. The gadget gets reused, no toxins end up in the environment and you pocket a little bit of cash.

Verdict: Put it in the recycling bin.
Themelis says that one of the biggest factors in determining whether something is recyclable is what sort of market there is for the material. Since different materials have different economic value, there won't always be a market in your area for all recyclable materials.

But as a general rule, there's almost always a market for your metal, with Themelis noting that recycled metal and aluminum products fetch a high price and are thus accepted across the board. As such, you should always feel free to toss your cans in the recycling bin.

And don't worry about food residue or paper labels -- Berry says that those are easily removed during the recycling process.

Pill bottles
Verdict: Put them in the recycling bin.
"Medicine containers or pill bottles are commonly overlooked as recyclable," explains a representative for Recyclebank, a company that lets you earn points for recycling. "The easiest and most common plastics to recycle, they can become fiberfill for winter coats, sleeping bags and life jackets. It can also be used to make beanbags, rope, car bumpers, tennis ball felt, combs, cassette tapes, sails for boats, furniture and, of course, other plastic bottles."

That's a lot of stuff. Toss your pill bottles in the bin, but consider taking the label off first if it's a prescription -- if someone finds it, you don't want them knowing what medicine you're taking.

Snack wrappers
Verdict: Throw them in the garbage.
Not only is that bag from your chips probably covered in grease, it's also not made of recyclable material, as a general rule.

"The coating on candy bar wrappers, pretzel bags, frozen food boxes and juice boxes -- to name a few -- cannot be recycled due to the blend of materials and tendency for these wrappers to be made out of noncellulosic materials (not plant-based), which makes recycling difficult," Recyclebank notes.

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