A friend was telling me about a recent trip to Germany, where she was daunted by the strict and varied recycling rules there. Apparently, they have a host of different color-coded bins (brown, blue, yellow, and gray) for sorting waste recyclables. That really puts me to shame, since I have trouble deciding between recycling, compost, and trash! Since hearing about Germany’s eco-diligence, I’ve decided that it’s time to brush up on my recycling and composting routine and learn to avoid common mistakes.
As of 2005, the last time the U.S. General Accounting Office collected statistics, the recycling rate is 32 percent, up from 10 percent in 1980. This is good news, but not good enough, since municipal solid waste has also grown by 60 percent in the same amount of time. The numbers work out to an approximate 246 million ton yearly increase in landfill waste. Most people understand that they’re supposed to recycle, but many—I plead guilty as charged!—have forgotten or never quite understood how. Sure, putting your empty water bottle in the plastics bin is a no-brainer, but what about that paper plate with pizza grease on it, or the packaging from your latest purchase?
Different municipalities have slightly different recycling rules, so you should check with your local town or county for specifics, but here are some basics for what to throw where.
Whether your municipality does single stream recycling (all recyclables are collected in the same bin) or separate containers, the basic recyclables are similar.
DO: Envelopes, paperback books, catalogues, cartons (with any plastic or cellophane removed), writing pads, brochures, loose leaf paper, cereal boxes, newspapers, clean paper plates.
DON’T: Photographs; anything with food or other soilage. The basic rule here is to keep it clean. That greasy paper plate or pizza box is compostable, not recyclable. By throwing it in with your other paper recyclables, you risk sullying the whole bin. This is a big problem in offices, where people often throw their lunch detritus in the blue bin next to the copy machine. Learn the difference and don’t be that person!
DO: Aluminum foil, plastic wrap, tins, cans, glass bottles and jars, yogurt cups, soap/shampoo/lotion bottles, plastic bags (some places have separate drop off for these), margarine tubs; really any plastic, glass, or aluminum containers. Check if soda bottles or cans are redeemable in your state. You can usually collect a small refund at your grocery store and those nickels and dimes do add up!
DON’T: Mirrors, broken glass ware, compostable food containers, batteries, and other non-recyclables. Try to keep it relatively clean. Although a little food residue on containers won’t gum up the whole system (that wedge of lime in your beer  is fine), it’s a good idea for sanitary reasons to rinse everything out before tossing it in the bin.
Growing up, we always had a canister on the kitchen counter for composting. We’d empty it into a larger bin in the backyard and my mom would use it to fertilize her garden. Almost anything biodegradable can be compost and you don’t even need a garden to develop these eco-friendly practice. As part of its initiative to reach 75 percent citywide recycling by 2010, San Francisco now has green carts for food scraps and yard trimmings that get picked up with other recycling, and other cities are starting to follow suit.
DO: Stale bread, egg shells, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, fruit and vegetable scraps, nutshells, hedge trimmings, leaves, grass clippings, weeds, dead flowers, twigs, saw dust, straw. You can also throw in biodegradable paper products like used paper towels, paper coffee cups, paper milk cartons, take out containers (with metal parts removed), egg cartons, etc. And although in your personal garden compost piles you don’t want animal products like meat, bones, or fats (it attracts vermin), when throwing it in the yard waste bins for city pick up, these items are sometimes acceptable.
DON’T: Ash, cigarette butts, anything recyclable or not biodegradable.
Although not usually picked up with your regular trash and recycling, electronic products, including TVs, cell phones, and computers can all be recycled or reused. The EPA  has reference page which gives links to drop-off centers nationwide. Other items that should be kept out of the trash include batteries and fluorescent light bulbs (in some states it is illegal to throw them away because they contain pollutants); you can usually drop these off for free and they will be recycled or disposed of properly. Many items, like motor oil, scrap metal, treated and untreated wood, bronze, radiators, and other building materials can be recycled or reused. For some items, like scrap metal, you might even earn some money.
Toxic household items like herbicides, paints, solvents, and poisons should be taken to a hazardous waste drop off center—almost all cities and counties have these and drop off is free.
Basically, everything that doesn’t fall into any of the above categories goes into the trash. Make sure you can’t reuse or donate items. Broken glass, chip bags, chewing gum, feminine products, diapers, vacuum cleaner bags, and mirrors should be thrown in the trash.
Most towns have scheduled curb-side pickups for recyclables. Check with your waste management company to find out when pickups are scheduled and what items will be accepted (this is important, since non-recyclables placed at the curb will be left there and can blow away to become litter). If your town does not have a recycling pick-up program, visit Earth 911  to find a recycling center near you. Though the process can be confusing and daunting at first, once you get into the habit, you’ll stop asking, “What can I recycle?” but rather, “What can’t I?”
Updated April 21, 2010