Thanks to the EPA’s most recent national waste data, I can predict a very glamorous aspect of my day today: I’m going to toss out almost four and a half pounds of stuff.

It seems hard to imagine until I remember that I’ve already tossed a tissue, the packaging from my new mascara, the receipt from this morning’s coffee purchase, a few napkins, junk mail and some leftover food that just couldn’t be salvaged. And since we’re talking in averages, your day will probably be similar to mine (at least as far as waste generation goes).

By the end of today, we’ll have each put about three pounds of garbage into the trash can and just over a pound of recyclable plastic, glass, paper and metal in the recycling bin. Oh, and we’ll probably — without even realizing it — put a few non-recyclable items in the recycling bin, too.

While the amount we recycle hasn’t changed too much in recent years, one thing has changed: The quality of what we recycle. In recent years, the amount of non-recyclable stuff we’re putting into our recycling bins has more than doubled. Optimistically, it makes sense; a lot of us are probably trying to make that three pounds of trash and one pound of recycling more like two and two. After all, we know recycling is good — that it saves energy, conserves natural resources, protects natural habitats and wildlife, reduces GHG emissions, prevents pollution and creates jobs.

But that kind of wishful-thinking approach to recycling is actually hurting the effectiveness of recycling. Unaccepted materials can jam recycling machinery, creating unsafe working conditions for recycling employees and ultimately costing time and money that can trickle down to tax payers.

Other unaccepted materials can lower the quality of a batch of materials, which means manufacturers are less likely to buy the recycled materials, and the materials more likely to wind up back in a landfill. So while I’d like to predict a day where we all toss more into the recycling bin, it might be more important to work toward a future where our daily pound of recyclables is just exactly what’s accepted by our local hauler. In that spirit, here are 5 things you should never, ever, ever, put in your recycling bin:

1. Foamed polystyrene — aka Styrofoam®

Whether it’s the packaging molds protecting your newest purchase, packing peanuts or disposable plates and cups, it doesn’t go in the bin — even if it’s marked with a #6 in a triangle and your municipality or hauler says they recycle #6 plastics. These foamed #6 products require different handling than hard #6 plastics (like clear disposable cups, disposable coffee cup lids or DVD cases), which are more likely to be accepted for recycling in your recycling bin. Instead of sending foamed polystyrene products to the landfill, though, you can recycle them at certain drop-off locations or through some mail-in programs.

2. Plastic bags

…or any other plastic film. That’s right: No plastic shopping bags, no plastic bread bags, no plastic sandwich bags, no dry cleaning bags, no cling wrap. These flimsy plastic films are especially good at getting tangled in standard recycling machinery, jamming the machines and causing temporary shutdowns while works manually untangle the bags. Like Styrofoam, though, there are other ways to recycle plastic film — just drop them off in designated collection bins, often at the entrance of most grocery stores and pharmacies.

3. Waxed paper

Once your local recycling center has sorted paper products from other materials, the paper is sold to mills that can break down the fibers and create new, recycled-content paper. Unfortunately, the waxy coating on waxed paper and some cartons is essentially impossible to remove from individual paper fibers, rendering it un-reusable. Since your only disposal option here might be the landfill, consider balancing out the effect by choosing waxed paper that is made more sustainably. Look for versions made from unbleached paper, or made with soy wax instead of paraffin wax.

4. Mesh produce bags

Those mesh bags where you often find oranges? They get tangled in machinery just like plastic bags do. You might be able to get more use out of them before tossing them in the trash, though: If they’re still whole, reuse them to hold and drain bath or pool toys; if they’re torn up, bunch them together, soap them up and — voila! — you have a pretty good dish scrubber.

5. Credit cards and gifts cards

First things first, you should be sure to protect your identity when disposing of anything with personal information attached to it. Once they’re expired, cut up credit cards and put them in the trash can; they’re not recyclable anyway. Despite usually being made with a #3 plastic, the embedded chips, holograms and magnetic strips prove too difficult to effectively remove before melting down to make into new plastic products.


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