What’s That in Your Curbside Bin?

It’s no secret that we need to divert as much material from our state’s landfills as we possibly can. However, your curbside recycling bin is not a catchall for everything in your household that’s potentially recyclable.

In fact, if you’re not sure if something belongs in that bin and you toss it in there anyway, thinking you’re erring on the side of caution and keeping more material out of landfills (this is referred to as “wish-cycling”), you might actually be doing more harm than good.

It comes down to what the waste management facility that serves your particular area can handle.

Many local facilities, or your city or county, occasionally mail out flyers or refrigerator magnets with information about what is recyclable, but you can also call or check online. What’s acceptable varies widely across jurisdictions. For example, many jurisdictions do not accept plastic film or Styrofoam in their recycling bins. On the other hand, Fremont and the city of Fresno accept plastic film but not Styrofoam, and Placerville accepts both material types. 

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Anything you put in your recycling bin that your local recycling facility is not equipped to process is considered “residual.” (Here’s what that can look like.) Legally, any recycling facility with 10 percent or more “residual” material is out of compliance with state law and is classified as an uncertified landfill. After too many violations, the facility may have to stop operating, which puts people out of work and puts a strain on the state’s recycling infrastructure.

It’s always illegal to put some things, like batteries and electronic waste, in your curbside bin, no matter where in California you live. Batteries can contain cobalt, nickel, cadmium, and other toxic heavy metals. Electronic waste, like your old laptop, printer, and cell phone, also often contain hazardous materials like lead and mercury. These types of items are a health hazard and injury risk for recycling facility workers. They are also relatively heavy and can quickly put a recycling facility over the 10 percent “residual” limit, since the percentage is measured by weight. 

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Check CalRecycle’s Where to Recycle map to help you find homes for items like these, as well as other tricky household items like paint and used oil. 

One last problem to watch out for in your curbside recycling bin is food contamination. Too much leftover tomato paste in that little can and too much peanut butter in that plastic jar can dramatically lower the quality of all the recyclable material in your bin—and other bins. Food waste can contaminate great volumes of potentially recyclable material, making it useless as feedstock and, ironically, possibly relegating it all to the landfill. Sure, it takes an extra moment to swish some water in those containers and rinse out the excess food before tossing them in the bin, but if you think of the things you put in your bin as feedstock for new materials, it all makes perfect sense.

California’s recycling infrastructure is a complex system—and it has to be, in order to take products made from so many different materials and components and process them to be reused and avoid the need to use more natural resources to meet our daily needs. Your curbside recycling bin is one critical part of that system, which makes you a deeply important part of California’s campaign to be more sustainable.  Curbside contamination is a serious problem that diminishes our recycling efforts, and only you can prevent it from happening. If we can clean up the recycling stream and get materials to the facilities that are equipped to process them, we can keep that material out of landfills, use it to make new products, and avoid having to spend money, energy, and raw material to make those products from scratch.

— Heather Jones
Posted on Feb 23, 2017

Summary: It’s no secret that we need to divert as much material from our state’s landfills as we possibly can. However, your curbside recycling bin is not a catchall for everything in your household that’s potentially recyclable. In fact, if you’re not sure if something belongs in that bin and you toss it in there anyway, thinking you’re erring on the side of caution and keeping more material out of landfills (this is referred to as “wish-cycling”), you might actually be doing more harm than good.