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Recycling 101 – 5 Easy Things EVERYONE Needs to Know!

How To Recycle the Right Way

Last Updated on January 23, 2024

I want to demystify recycling once and for all. Recycling rules can get pretty complex when we get down to bottle caps and clamshells because what your recycling program accepts can vary depending on the city, county, and state.

But, there are some overarching themes that most everyone will share when it comes to waste and recycling so all of us can get on the same page and increase our recycling rates as a nation!

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle
This post was sponsored by Waste Management!
For more information please see my disclosure page.

I had the awesome opportunity to go back to the Waste Management Phoenix Open. I went for the first time last year and it was incredible!

It was honestly one of my top highlights of 2019 so I was pretty pumped to be back

This year I attended the event with Shelbi from Shelbizleee and we had a total blast – especially speaking on the dumpster couch.

The 2020 Vision Sustainability Forum was awesome! My personal highlights included John Kerry’s keynote and the packaging policy breakout session where we tackled how to move people from indifference to caring about solid waste, recycled materials, increasing recycling rates and so much more.

Another major highlight for me was the behind the scenes tour AKA The MAGIC of keeping a 700,000 person event completely zero waste! My favorite part was doing the waste audit.

We went through a few recycling and compost bags to see if there was any contamination that needed to separated.

Overall, the contamination rates were pretty low. In one large bag, we found on average five pieces of contamination like a few plastic bottles or beverage containers in the compost bin.

Don’t worry, every single bag is hand sorted by Waste Management to ensure nothing goes to landfills and that all of the recycling and composting streams are pure!

know what goes in your bin:

Pure recycling and composting streams are SO important. Did I stress that enough… SOOO important!

One of my key takeaways from the Waste Management Phoenix Open was the emphasis on recycling right. The main hashtag for the event was #RecycleRight and trying to educate the public on what actually goes in the recycling bin.

There are a few main reasons people don’t recycle right:

  1. wishcycling
  2. lack of education
  3. laziness

    And, I have a way to combat all three!

Up first I want to tackle wishcycling and will get into the other two under the heading ‘talk to your neighbors!’

Wishcycling is when you start wishing and hoping and thinking and praying that what you put in the recycling bin will magically turn into a new product.

I think this belief stems from our perception of recycling.

Many of us think that recycling is charitable. After all, it’s been drilled into our heads from a young age that recycling will SAVE the world!

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But, the fact is that recycling is a business. At the end of the day, these recycled products have to be turned back into raw materials for other companies to purchase and use in the creation of new goods.

So, if these streams aren’t clean and pure, there’s no way that’s going to happen.

Make sure that you pay extra close attention to what you put in your recycle bin. These are the most common items accepted in recycling programs across the United States

  1. aluminum cans and tins
  2. rigid plastic #1
  3. rigid plastic #2
  4. paper
  5. cardboard
  6. glass bottles*

*It is becoming more difficult to recycle glass. It’s a very complex issue. Glass breaks which can often contaminate paper streams, endanger workers at the MRF, and it’s just really heavy to transport to glass recycling facilities. Many of the facilities that handle glass aren’t operating anymore and I go over this more in my blog post Which is Better for the Environment Glass or Plastic?

If you are recycling ANYTHING other than those first 5 materials, check with your local waste hauler’s website to make sure that the item you want to recycle is actually accepted in your curbside recycling bin.

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle

keep it clean and dry:

So, now that you’re putting the right things in your recycling bin, are you putting them in the right way? Another form of contamination that can happen, especially with single-stream recycling, is when the recyclables are dirty.

Repeat after me, “My recycling should be clean and dry!”

You can’t recycle half-full plastic bottles of water or soda. You also can’t recycle a half-eaten tub of peanut butter.

Your recycling needs to be clean and dry. Now, your recyclables don’t have to be absolutely spotless, but they need to be relatively clean so when all of those products are turned back into raw materials the businesses who buy them will be buying a quality product.

If we want to see more items made from recycled materials, we’ve got to make sure we’re making that an easy choice.

Paper is one of the most fragile items in your recycling bin. It can’t be wet or soiled with food waste. So, if you’re about to toss a yogurt container or soda can in your curbside bin, you should ask yourself, “Will this get on any paper?”

If you have a tub of peanut butter, carton of oat milk, plastic bottle, tin of beans, or can of soda, you name it the process is the same.

Once you’re finished with it, add a little bit of water, put the lid on, and give it a good shake to loosen up any remaining food particles. Rinse it out, tap out any excess water and then you’re good to put it in your recycling bin.

And, make sure that you’re putting your recyclables lose into your recycling bin. Do not put your recyclables in a plastic bag!

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle

talk to your neighbors!

A lot of people don’t know what’s recyclable, they just guess. So, this is the important part where you come in! Most neighborhoods have meetings to go over things.

See if you can talk about recycling at the next one. I’ve created a few print outs to help people visually digest this information much quicker. One in black and white and one in color so you can encourage everyone to put these on their fridge or next to their recycling bin.

And, if you’re out taking your trash out, strike up a conversation with your neighbor. Most people want to recycle properly they just aren’t very educated.

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle

Ask them about recycling. I find the best way to lead into this conversation is with a fun fact or a news story like, “Did you hear that China is no longer accepting most of our plastic? Yeah, now only plastic #1 and #2 is recycled! Crazy right?” or “Did you know that not all plastic is recyclable!? Look, here’s a plastic #5 item and it looks like it’s recyclable because of the chasing arrows, but it’s not.”

You should both get to chatting about recycling and hopefully, the result is a cleaner recycling stream.

Now, if your neighbor is just lazy and doesn’t care, that’s a different thing altogether. One of the best ways to activate people who don’t care is to gamify the system.

⁠We’re already seeing the beginning of gamification like when drivers get scored on their driving (many electric and hybrid vehicles do this) people start driving better and more consciously. ⁠

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle

When people get electric and water bills showing how they’re doing in comparison to their neighbors they save more electricity and water whether they’re interested in saving resources or not simply because they want to WIN the game. ⁠

Waste Management is using these principles to gamify waste. If you’re not doing a very good job of recycling, they’ll place a frowny face tag 🙁 on your bin with instructions on how to recycle right. ⁠And, at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, they had an amazing installation with a basketball game.

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle

There were two hoops one for compost and one for recycling, and each basketball had an item on it like an aluminum can or an apple core so even if you made your basket if the wrong material like an apple core went in the recycling bin you lost points.

Subtle games like these are a way of increasing overall consciousness whether you truly care about the planet or not. I’m very excited to see how gamification can be harnessed in the future because I’m convinced it is one of the best tools we have.

support recycling systems:

When we look at the recycling slogan or hierarchy of waste we have reduce-reuse-recycle. Many of us skip reduce and reuse altogether and jump straight to recycling which is another blog post in and of itself, but I digress.

We also only focus on one aspect of recycling…. the part where we put the items in our curbside bin.

How many of you actively look and buy products made from recycled content?

This was another key point driven home at the Sustainability Forum this year. Companies are just not buying raw recycled materials at the pace they should be buying them.

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle

As consumers, we need to not only buy products made from recycled content we also need to voice our opinions. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a law dictating that all products should be made of at least 30% recycled content?

How do you think that would change the face of recycling and move us closer to our goal of a zero-waste world?

The second part of recycling is making sure that we’re supporting these materials all the way through their lifecycles so we can move to a circular economy and write waste out of existence.

I love the example below where wine glasses from the previous Phoenix Open have been turned into drinking glasses!

Recycling 101, 5 Easy Things Everyone Needs to Know about Recycling from #recycling #recyclables #zerowaste #howtorecycle

tl;dr / cheat sheet:


  1. aluminum cans
  2. rigid plastic #1
  3. rigid plastic #2
  4. paper
  5. cardboard
  6. glass bottles*

*For glass and anything else not on that list make sure to check with your local waste management facility. But, if you’re only putting those 5-6 items in the bin, you’re doing a great job.

Other Notes:

  • Recyclables should be clean. Give them a quick rinse before placing in the bin
  • Recyclables should be dry. Make sure to tap out any excess liquid
  • Recyclables should be loose in the bin. Do NOT put them in plastic bags!

I would like to thank Waste Management for sponsoring this post and inviting me for the second year to the Waste Management Phoenix Open! I had an absolute blast and learned so much from the Sustainability Forum.

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  1. Thanks so much for posting these recycling tips. I plan to share this article with my friends and family. I just have one concern. You should explain your use of "reduse" rather that "reduce" and "reuse" on the flyers because folks might think it’s a typo. I understand the concept because I’m an environmental professional but others might not.

  2. Wishcycling…. I like that! I just wish we could get the recycling facilities up to snuff since we have a heck of a lot of people doing their part. Now the facilities need to vamp it up. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I also wanted to add that companies manufacturing their packaging need to move away from the plastic and cardboard packages. Would love to see them starting a more green approach to this. And our local grocery stores are stopping plastic bags at check out. Finally!

  4. If cardboard packages are being "moved away" from, what will replace it? I’m proud to say that we just received an Amazon Prime order with 3 items in one cardboard board box with minimal big bubble padding. I mean, proud as you would be.