Recycling is an integral component in our fight to keep Earth a habitable planet—a proposition that is, sadly, no longer a given. We all [mostly] know this to be true, but recycling correctly is nearly as important as doing in the first place. Disposing of the right things in the right ways helps the entire system function more efficiently which, in turn, means less trash buried in landfills or city streets, sewers, and carried out to sea. “But who has the time to learn?” we all whine together. The answer is we do. We all do.

It turns out that a lack of knowledge about recycling is so rampant that it not only causes people to recycle improperly but, in some cases, causes them not to recycle altogether. A 2019 study commissioned by Covanta found that 62 percent of Americans don’t believe they are recycling properly, and another 22 percent cited lack of knowledge about recycling as the reason they don’t do it in the first place.

One person who is especially well-versed in the importance of recycling know-how is Mary Ann Remolador, Assistant Director for the Northeast Recycling Council. I had a chance to press Remolador about common recycling mistakes and misconceptions, as well as for some simple steps we can all take to become better recyclers—on Earth Day and every day.

Remolador says the biggest mistake people make when recycling is putting more in the bin than can actually be recycled in their geographic area. “Sometimes it’s due to labeling on the package (i.e. this item is recyclable), other times it is misinformation or not knowing what can be recycled in your community. This phenomenon is referred to as “wish-cycling” and is spawned of good intentions, to be sure. People wanting everything to be recycled regardless of what really can be recycled.”

This Recycling 101 Guide is a good place to start, but we’d strongly advise you to check your local recycling regulations to find out the actual real deal in your hometown, city, or neighborhood. We certainly don’t want to discourage recycling, but there is usually a long list of things that people are recycling improperly. Some common items that, for the most part, don’t belong in recycling bins include plastic grocery bags, paper cups with a wax coating, rubber hoses, diapers, animal carcasses (should be composted), and plastic caps or lids, which are not always recyclable. There is also really nobody to patrol or correct you and so it just bugs up the process. That means it’s incumbent on all of us to learn the rules and adapt our practices accordingly.

This all depends on where you live, but a Google search should turn up some results. If it doesn’t, contact your local waste management agency or town government and ask to be sent comprehensive recycling guidelines for your area. Many local governments have official Twitter accounts, which could be the fastest way to get answers. If they don’t have official recycling guidelines drawn up, request that they do. If they don’t recycle at all, put on your best Erin Brockovich wig and find out why the hell not.

There is no absolute uniformity in US recycling programs, although Earth911 is intended to be one website where everyone can search for their community’s recycling details. The information provided in this site is dependent on communities keeping their information updated. As you might imagine, some communities are better at this task than others.

Some important questions to ask about your specific area’s recycling program:

  • What can and cannot be recycled?
  • What is the proper way to dispose of recycled materials so they are most easily processed (e.g. how should things be cleaned or separated)?
  • Where and when should recycling be done? Certain towns and cities only pick up recycling on certain days or process recycling at certain locations, so find out.
  • Do I need specific recycling bins or receptacles and where can I get them?

Cities and towns should all be out of excuses not to offer recycling, given all we know. “If you don’t think your town is recycling,” says Remolador, “find out if it’s true and then find out why. Every resident has a right to know what their town is doing with taxpayers’ money and recycling is something all communities should be participating in.”

“Go to town meetings about recycling,” she continues, “if you have to. Discuss recycling possibilities with your town manager. Find out who is in charge of recycling and get to know them and your recycling program.”

“Watch what you buy,” says Remolador. “Look for products with reusable packaging. If you can’t find them in the store, look online. If the product you can’t live without comes in packaging that is not recyclable in your community, consider buying a different product that is. You can also contact product manufacturers to let them know you like their product, but not their packaging.”

Talk about all of this in your networks and on social media, too. Teach your friends and family if they don’t know. Consumers’ voices make a difference. Don’t forget to tag the brands or your local government’s social media handles if you have environmental issues to raise. You might be surprised at who is listening.

One of the biggest false assumptions folks make about recycling, according to Remolador is that it doesn’t cost anything. Recycling does have an inherent cost. “Our recycling infrastructure allows items we no longer have use for to become resources for manufacturers making new items. Just like any commodity marketplace, getting feedstock to a manufacturer costs money and manpower.” The point being, it’s a complex process that employs thousands of Americans and a lot of hard work. Not taking advantage of it is really inexcusable and to the direct detriment of our economic and environmental health.