Everyone is recycling wrong, but it's not your fault

You're probably recycling wrong

Plastic, glass and paper. You recycle those items. It seems really simple.

But, Boston 25 News found many people are making a lot of mistakes when tossing things in the bin.

A lot of those items you thought you recycled ended up in the landfill instead. But this recycling mess is not always your fault.

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Lauren Witek lives in Cambridge and said she and her neighbors are diligent recyclers.

"We try to do our part but there are different rules that I get messed up on with like bubble wrap I’ll put it in here, but then I’ve read you’re not supposed to put it in there so it gets a little complicated," Witek said.

Witek is not alone. Cambridge recycling director Michael Orr said recycling can often be confusing.  He said a big no-no is Amazon Prime packages.

"We see these every day, and they are not accepted,"  Orr said.

Boston 25 News teamed-up with Orr as he went through several residential recycling bins in Cambridge, including those of Witek and her neighbors, with their permission, to put them to the test.

"We really want people to focus on reducing and reusing because those are the best things to help in the waste issues we have in the U.S.," Orr said.

The city of Cambridge recycles about 9,000 tons each year.  Orr said even his environmentally proactive residents are puzzled by the universal recycling symbol.  He said it's often more confusing than helpful.  "Plastic bags, even though they have the logo, a lot of people think that should be recycled. But it tells you to take it to a store for drop-off.  It is not supposed to go in your curbside recycling,"  Orr said.  That's because plastic bags tend to clog-up recycling equipment at processing plants.

Some other big recycling misconceptions include pizza boxes. They are recyclable, but not if there's grease on it.  Despite a recycling logo, the food and grease on a box makes the paper product not recyclable.

Food and drink containers are recyclable, but only if they are emptied and rinsed completely. If not, they will contaminate the entire load and will end up in the landfill.

Most juice boxes and cartons are not recyclable because they have an ultra-thin plastic coating and aluminum foil lining.

Kirstie Pecci, director of the Zero Waste Project at the Conservation Law Foundation, says the problem with single-stream recycling is that it's very confusing for the consumers and rules can vary from town to town.

"A lot of times companies want to blame consumers in saying citizens, residents are not good sorters. That’s not the problem. We need a better system and we keep getting a lot of push back from industry when we’re trying to build that system," Pecci said.

The Town of Sturbridge has simplified its recycling process.

"What Sturbridge decided to do is to buckle down and say alright you're only going to be allowed to put your waste in the Sturbridge landfill if you aggressively recycle,"  said Pecci.

The goal in Sturbridge is zero waste.  That means no trash will be sent to landfills, incinerators or the ocean. "If we can get to zero there is no waste negative so there is no burden on the taxpayers because this is supplied by tax dollars,"  said John Booth, the recycling director for Sturbridge.

Recycling containers are easily marked for each type of recyclable product at the town's recycling center.  Since residents aggressively separate the recyclables, the town in able to sell the materials for a much better price.

"The more mixed it is the less value it is. This isn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination but there's much more likelihood that you're going to get a clean product that can actually be made into the product it started as,"  Pecci said.

That's the goal in Cambridge as well. Hector Ruiz has lived in the city for 18 years. He said he's a huge recycler, but said he's surprised that he and many others still get tripped-up over the do's and don’ts of recycling.

"It’s a very good lesson that I learned today. I will share with my family,"  Ruiz said.

Orr added that many residents are trying to do the right thing.

"You know, I think a lot of people want to go the extra mile and recycle more what they should be and just to kind of ease up on that and take a second to really make sure that the item is recyclable," he said.

Have questions about what you can recycle in your town?  Find the rules and regulations here.