How to be a responsible curbside recycler in Kentucky

Did you know that a few misplaced items can cause entire loads of recycling to be rejected? Here’s how some of your curbside recycling habits could be working against you.

Some recycling centers accept plastic bottles with lids attached, while others request that lids be removed before recycling. We recommend you check with your local program for specific instructions.

Recycling is a great habit, but it’s important to know that those curbside bins aren’t a catch-all. The key to being a responsible and effective recycler is educating yourself on what should and should not go into your recycling bin. That’s right – just because something says “recyclable” does not necessarily mean it is accepted via curbside recycling, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Some items need to be taken to a special facility.

Why is it so important to learn what can and cannot go into your curbside bin? When unrecyclable items arrive at recycling centers, they can clog up the equipment and cause costly damage. Also, those non-recyclables must be tediously sorted out and sent to landfills, which is time consuming and costly for the facility, according to the EPA. A few misplaced items can cause entire loads of recycling to be rejected!

A recent example of this was a plea from the city of London, Ky., in 2019, urging residents to “recycle smarter.” At the time, London’s Public Works Director Steve Edge said, “We are losing all the way around. Misuse is the biggest thing. The more garbage they put in, the more we have to pay to sort it. We’re losing a lot of recycled garbage because of contamination.” London was later forced to suspend curbside recycling indefinitely in June 2020 due to economic reasons.

A little research can get you on the right path to becoming a more conscientious recycler. Remember, it’s important to check with your local recycling provider to ensure that they will accept certain items before placing them into a bin.

Here are a few ground rules that apply to most single-stream curbside recycling in communities across Kentucky:

  • Do not place plastic bags in curbside recycling.
    Very few communities in the U.S. accept plastic bags, wraps, and films in curbside recycling. These bags, wraps, and films get tangled up in the equipment, and once they’re cut free, they’re sent straight to the landfill, according to How2Recycle. Not exactly the outcome you desired, huh? This includes plastic shrink wrap (like on a 24-pack of bottled water) and the bubble wrap pouches your online orders are shipped in. The good news is that you can easily take these to a store drop-off location for recycling. On your next run to the grocery store or major retailer, gather up all your plastic bags and drop them at the bins typically located just inside the store’s doors. 
     
  • Do not bag your recyclables.
    Plastic bags are curbside kryptonite. You may think you’re helping the recycling workers out, but do not bag your recycling! Typically, this results in the entire bag going straight to the landfill. Instead, How2Recycle suggests freely placing items into the bin or stick them into an open-top paper bag. Recyclables will likely tumble out of the bag by the time they get to the recycling center, and in most cases, the paper bag will also get recycled, according to the nonprofit How2Recycle.
     
  • Crinkly, flexible packaging belongs in the trash.
    The vast majority of pouches, crinkly bags, and other flexible packaging, like candy or granola bar wrappers, should go into the trash because they are made of many layers of different materials, according to How2Recycle. Examples of “pouches” include the little zipper baggies that contain gummy bear candy, dog treats, detergent pods, and dried fruits. This category of non-recyclables also includes chip bags, and any squeezable yogurts, baby food, or gel snack packaging.
     
  • When in doubt, throw those foam containers out.
    Next time you are about to throw a Styrofoam cup, take-out container, egg carton, or box of packing peanuts in the curbside bin, think again! Most communities do not accept Styrofoam containers via curbside recycling, according to the Recycling Partnership. We know that’s confusing, as most takeout containers have the “recycle” symbol stamped right on the bottom of them. It’s true that those polystyrene containers are recyclable, but only when taken to the proper facility. Some local governments and recycling companies have drop-off locations specifically for foam packaging. A quick internet search can tell you if there are any locations near you.
     
  • Rinse off any food particles or residue.
    Do your recyclables need to be spotless? Nope! But anything with food particles or residue should be rinsed. According to Waste Management, the goal is simply to make them clean enough to avoid contaminating other materials, like paper and cardboard. Speaking of cardboard, cardboard pizza delivery boxes without leftovers or liners are recyclable…but garlic butter containers, pizza crusts, and leftover slices are not.
     
  • Steer clear of tanglers!
    Tanglers are items that get jammed up in the recycling discs, forcing workers to shut down the equipment and unravel the convoluted mess – a dangerous, tedious, and probably very frustrating task. So, what is a tangler? How2Recycle puts it pretty succinctly: “If it’s durable and stringy and you can get it in a knot, then don’t recycle it.” How can you help out those workers at your local facility? The Recycling Partnership recommends that you steer clear of placing the following items in your curbside bin: Hoses, cords, clothes, wires, metal hangers, Christmas lights, headphones, and other electrical cords. Small items can also cause issues during the sorting process. The Recycling Partnership also recommends keeping objects smaller than an index card out of your curbside recycling bin. They’re better off in the trash, and your local facility will thank you!

So, after that long list of no-nos, what CAN you recycle? Plastic bottles, cans, paper, and cardboard are always a safe place to start. As contrary to popular belief as this may seem: When in doubt, throw it out! It’s better to be 100% sure than to wishfully throw an unaccepted item in the bin and risk jeopardizing the entire batch!