Recycling Do’s and Don’t for Single Stream Recycling: From The Source

Before heading to the Waste Management Materials Handling Facility (pronounced merfs by those in the biz) in Northeast Philadelphia, I asked my peeps what they wanted to know about recycling rules. Your questions, and maybe a few you didn’t think to ask, are answered here, thanks to Patty Barthel at Waste Management.

recycling rules for organizing

Why can’t we put pizza boxes in for paper recycling?

If the box is super clean, break it down and throw it in. But if it’s greasy or stuck with cheese, it contaminates the rest of the paper in a batch to be recycled.

Must we separate plastic bottles from their caps?

HA! NO! This was actually the question everyone wanted to know. If you are concerned because the cap and bottle are different levels of plastic, worry no more. Apparently, plastics get baled together and sent to a plastics recycling plant, where they are crushed, ground, floated, and who knows what else. Then they are made into new plastic goods and  – surprise! – new fleece jackets you wear to the gym. So no, don’t separate your water bottle from its cap, and don’t throw the caps in the trash.

recycling rules for organizing

Must you separate the lids from glass jars?

I keep the lids on my recycles so my kitchen doesn’t smell. It turns out, that’s just fine. The glass usually breaks in the truck, and separates from the metal lid anyway. Glass going through the recycling plant is all tiny shards at the end of the line.

Are magazines recyclable?

Yes. Even paperback books can be recycled. Hardback book covers can not be recycled, but if you tear the covers off of books, you can send the pages to recycling.

Envelopes with plastic windows?

I have known people who stress over putting envelopes in recycling if it has a plastic window. This was a problem when recycling was a new industry, but now there are appropriate tolerances in the system that allow for this sort of thing.

Can shredded paper go into recycling?

YES! Go ahead and shred your old checks, but put the shreds into paper bags or directly in your bin, NOT in plastic bags, or it will go to the landfill. I saw one of these while I was there, headed out the back end of the plant.

If I’m not sure it’s recyclable and I put it in, what happens to it in the end?

“If you put it in the bin and we don’t need it, we’re going to throw it away,” says Patty. Makes sense. They are recyclers, not magicians, so about 10% of what comes in still goes out to the landfill.

How clean should food containers be?

Lightly rinse, then toss in the bin. Labels are no problem, either.

recycling rules for organizing

Can you recycle aluminum foil?

No. Foil isn’t desirable. Even foil pans, like the ones you carry to the church supper, aren’t very desirable. But if they are large enough and very clean, the system may still bale them with metals, so if it makes you feel better, throw them in.


Not here. But there are some great places to take your old PC, fax machine, TV, or phone. My favorite is Best Buy, because they are everywhere and take everything.  Whole Foods recently hosted electronics recycling events in my neck of the woods. Be on the lookout for other take-back events in your community.

Here’s a shocker: TOYS!

You know those gigantic colorful toys, like swimming pools, kitchens, and rocking toys? Once they’ve been enjoyed, passed down, and completely sun-faded, they too can be baled along with other rigid plastics, like buckets. However, toys that have lots of metals and electronics, like cars, won’t make the cut. It’s a good idea to think of this when you are making the initial purchase.

recycling rules for organizing
Some of those colorful blobs could be plastic toys heading for their next life.

Styrofoam and packing peanuts?

Sadly, no, even if it is marked with a “5”, styrofoam does not get recycled. At all. Ever. Stay away from it if at all possible. But if you ever become the proud owner of packing peanuts, you can drop them off at UPS Stores and many other places that pack and ship, and they’ll re-use them.

What about batteries, CFL lightbulbs, and needles/sharps?

Household batteries are one of the hardest things to recycle. CFL bulbs are so new, they are confusing.  And used needles should be handled properly, of course. Why should you care? It turns out that batteries have really nasty stuff in them. Those metals should really be recycled, not leached into our landfills. Waste Management has a nifty solution. Order a mail-order recycle pack at Think Green From Home, and ship your stuff once a year or so.

Hazmat  Recycling

Don’t send your hazmat stuff here or, God forbid, dump it in the trash.  Take your full paint buckets, household chemicals, and other hazmat to an approved facility or county drop off.  Even tires are considered hazmat, not recycling.

recycling rules for organizing


While I learned a lot on this trip, the industry is constantly changing. I hope the next time I take the trip, they are taking styrofoam and pizza boxes. Please be open to changes to your local recycling process over the next few years.

What else do you want to know about the recycling process?

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Alissa

    This is fantastic information! We’re heavy-duty recyclers here, but there are still some things we didn’t realize we could toss in with the rest of it. Toys?!? Who knew! Thanks so much for sharing!

    1. HeartWork Organizing

      Yes, that would not have occurred to me, either, before I saw it. Of course, I’m especially talking about those big, space stealing plastic toys that grandparents can’t resist buying, but I’ve seen entire play-kitchens that would qualify for recycling. And it’s always possible that the crew picking up the recycles may pass it by. But plastic is super recyclable, so I would give it a shot.

  2. Michelle

    It seems your neck of the woods recycles more than mine! I ship anything that can’t be recycled by me, home with my sister so she can recycle it in her municipality.

    1. HeartWork Organizing

      Not all communities recycle the same way or the same amouny, it’s true. Where I’m from in Indiana, they seem to not recycle at all. But I’m learning that even if your hauler does not offer recycling, you may opt to take your own recycles to a MRF, if one is nearby. There are also other recycling centers, like the one in Pottstown,, that allow drop off services for “regular” recycles and other items that many communities won’t accept at the curb. Sending stuff home with your sister sounds like a great solution, if it works for both of you.

  3. Hratch

    regular light bulbs ? whats the story , it’s glass and metal, do or don’t???

    1. HeartWork Organizing

      Regular light bulbs are trash. The key to recycling is having recyclable materials separated. So even though bulbs consist of metal and glass, they are integrated and aren’t recyclable, at least not the way we handle these materials today.

      The newer CFL bulbs go to hazmat centers, although I’ll admit I’ve not had to go through the hassle on one of those. Here’s info from the EPA about that disposing of CFLs. I predict that we'll be moving away from the CFLs bulbs very quickly in favor of LEDs. Stay tuned as I post more about this.

Comments are closed.