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Recycling Right LNK

Jul 28, 2020 ● By Karla Goerl
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An abridged version of this article is printed in the 2020 Fall Edition of Lincoln Kids Magazine, on shelves August 1 and running through October 31. LK is FREE magazine for local families. Grab your copy from around town to find family fun, resources, and to support 100+ local businesses and nonprofits by reading about them!
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What is Wish-Cycling?

Wish-cycling is a common habit of many Americans—tossing an unknown material into the recycling bin in hopes that it is recyclable. It seems innocent, right? Because trashing something that might be recyclable seems like the worse option…right? Unfortunately no. Although it may feel like you’re still doing good by wish-cycling, it’s actually a bad habit that can reverse your good recycling efforts. Wish-cycling can often lead to recycling contamination, which can harm equipment, send perfectly recyclable things to the landfill, and lower the resale value of recyclable materials. If your recycling bins have a large amount of visible contamination, the whole lot may go directly to the landfill, causing all your properly recycled items to be thrown away.

When in Doubt, Throw it Out

The recycling phrase “When in doubt, throw it out” always seemed so harsh to me. I thought I was trying to reduce what goes to the landfill, so using the trash can as default for stuff I wasn’t sure about felt like the wrong move. But after doing some research and talking with the City’s Solid Waste Management Division, I now understand how important it is to throw it out when I’m not sure if something is recyclable.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 75% of waste is recyclable, but only 34% is being recycled, and the average US recycling contamination is around 25%, or 1 in 4 items. Here are some common recycling errors and some tips to remedy them moving forward.

Commonly Wish-Cycled Items & Contaminants

• Dirty & soiled items – Only clean materials can be recycled, so scrape your food scraps, rinse liquid containers, and, if you can, start composting to reduce the food waste going to the landfill. Most items are easy and take just a few seconds to prep for the recycle bin, and it’s a very important step. If your haul has a lot of dirty, food-covered materials, it may ALL just go straight to the trash without being sifted through. Peanut butter jars ARE recyclable if you scrape out the peanut butter, same as condiment jars. For hard-to-clean containers, most can be cleaned with a quick shake of warm water.

• Bagged recyclables – Recyclables that are bagged in plastic will be pulled off the recycling sort line, unopened, and will go to the landfill—that means nothing in plastic bags is being recycled. No one knows what is inside those bags, except you. To reduce the risk to others, recyclables should be loose in the bins. If you prefer to bag them, use paper sacks.

• Plastic shopping bags (or plastic film) – Save your clean, dry plastic bags or film (think newspaper bags, bread sacks, dry cleaning bags) and take them to retailers such as grocery stores and supermarkets for recycling collection. When mixed in with your curbside bins, plastic bags can easily tangle and damage equipment, shutting down the entire facility and putting workers at risk as they cut out the entangled plastic. 

• Glass – Not all garbage companies & sorting facilities accept glass bottles and jars curbside. If the glass breaks, it can contaminate the other recyclables. Check to see if your curbside service provider accepts glass. If they do not, you can recycle glass at a Recyclables Collection Site. Please note that not all glass is recyclable; windows, drinking glasses, mirrors, vases, and especially ceramics are not recyclable.

• Plastics – Not all plastic can be recycled, either. How do you know what is or isn’t recyclable? Look for the recycling symbol on your product, the three chasing arrows in a triangle. If it’s not marked, it’s not recyclable. Non-recyclable plastics that are commonly wish-cycled include product packaging, plastic film & shrink wrap, bubble wrap, zip-top bags, to-go food containers (especially plastic foam, like Styrofoam, often labeled #6, which technically is recyclable, but not curbside, so don’t toss it in your household bin), disposable silverware, cups, plates, packing peanuts, and large, hard plastics over 5 gallons in size (crates, lawn chairs, hampers, lawn toys, etc.). 

• Hazardous plastics - Plastic containers used to store hazardous chemicals, like motor oil, cleaning agents, pesticides, oil-based paint, weed killer, etc., should go in the trash IF THEY ARE EMPTY. Visit to set up an appointment for disposal of these containers that still have some product in them, and to learn what else is considered hazardous waste and should be disposed of as such. 

• Paper drink & soup containers – Paper-based coffee cups and food containers for liquids are tricky. Even though they are labeled for recycling, many times, these items have a thin polyethylene lining to make them liquid-proof, but difficult & expensive to reprocess. Some recycling facilities are able to accept this material, and some are not, based upon the equipment they have. It is best to contact your recycling collector to see if these are or are not accepted. 

• Other paper products – For napkins, towels, plates, tissues, and similar paper products, compost what you can whenever possible, recycle cardboard tubes, and throw away the rest.

• Pizza boxes – Yes, they ARE recyclable if you remove the food waste and if the cardboard is not too saturated (a little grease is ok). Heavily soiled boxes (where the grease has seeped through to the bottom) and those with cheese and food scraps are not acceptable. If the base is heavily saturated, you can always tear off the top and sides of the box for recycling and throw the bottom away.

• Tanglers - Any items that seem like they can tangle easily, like hoses, holiday lights, hangers, and cords, can damage equipment, shut down facilities, and put workers at risk.

Good-to-Know Tips & Best Practices

 • Plastics #1-7 are recyclable curbside (many do not accept plastics #6 curbside, please check with your service provider). Plastics #1-5 are recyclable at the City’s Recyclables Collection Sites. • Keep two bins or bags in your car, one for trash and one for recycling, to make recycling on-the-go easier. The same goes for the bathroom, laundry room, home office, and garage—recycling isn’t just for the kitchen! There are a lot of easily recyclable materials that come from bathrooms (shampoo bottles, paper tubes, paperboard packaging) that are usually thrown away out of convenience. Having two bins is a simple solution. Another option is to have one centralized location for all waste management in your home. Try holding a family meeting to discuss its importance and make sure all people in your home a doing what they can to recycle (give friendly, helpful reminders if you notice recyclables being thrown away in other rooms).

• Be sure to check your curbside service provider to see if they accept glass. Some in Lincoln do, and some do not. If yours does not, collect glass in a designated container to take to collection sites.

• Jar and bottle caps have been a source of controversy for decades, but in recent years, leaving caps on has been encouraged to make recycling easier, which leads to more participation. For cartons, bottles, and jugs, if the lid and container are the same material (like plastic on plastic), keep the cap ON; if the lid and container are different materials (such as metal on glass), take the cap OFF.

• Dry, clean office paper, newspaper, phone books, magazines, letters, and envelopes are recyclable. Padded mailers are a little more tricky, but recycling them is doable. Mailers that can be reprocessed are often clearly labeled, some with instructions. Some mailers that look like paper may actually be plastic, so look for the number if you have to sort your materials at home. And some that combine both paper and plastics are all or partially recyclable if you peel the layers apart, which only takes a moment.

• Wet paper and cardboard are still recyclable, but please dry it out before putting it in the bin. If it is wet with oil or other chemicals, it is considered contaminated and should be thrown out. 

• You can usually keep small items, like packaging tape, staples, and the plastic window on envelopes, intact for curbside recycling, but if you are feeling extra helpful, it’s nice to remove them first.

• Do not recycle items designed for composting. These are usually made with corn, wheat, hemp, etc. and not plastics, glass, or other recyclable materials. Compostable materials should be composted.

• Compost to reduce food and paper waste in the landfill. Not ready to compost yet? If you have a garden, start small by tossing eggshells and coffee grounds in it. Visit to show your interest in getting curbside compost pick-up services in Lincoln. Pioneer’s Park Nature Center hosted regular, free composting workshops for beginners; follow their page to be the first to know when they start up again.

• Close the loop. One of the most important steps in the recycling process is purchasing recycled and post-consumer products. Keep the demand for recycled materials going to keep the system healthy. Recycling and using recycled products lowers the amount of waste heading to landfills, saves energy, reduces resources and emissions needed to make new material items, protects wildlife, creates jobs, and more. 

• Visit and to reduce junk mail and unsubscribe from catalogs.

• Visit the Nebraska Recycling Council at to find local drop-off reuse & recycling sites for almost anything that cannot be taken curbside, like electronics, textiles, bikes, glass, plastic bags, and more.

• Visit with your garbage company for information on what they can accept curbside and any specific guidelines they have—each carrier is different. Guidelines may change without notice. Some haulers recently partnered with Hefty® to take Styrofoam and other hard-to-recycle plastics in Hefty’s orange Energy Bags.

• Learn more, get helpful info, and stay up to date on Lincoln’s Waste Management at and by following them on social.

• When you’re finished reading your hard copy of Lincoln Kids Magazine, tear out the pages you want to keep and recycle the rest! Magazines are a top 10 item to recycle and are very easy and in high demand for reprocessing. Lincoln Kids Magazine is printed on post-consumer recycled paper and printed with soy-based ink. The entire thing is fully recyclable, and the non-glossy interior pages are fully compostable, too.

 The best way to reduce wish-cycling, recycling contamination, and landfill waste is to reduce, reuse, compost, donate, and recycle right. Recycling may seem overwhelming, but it’s always being revised and simplified to encourage more participation, and technology is ever-evolving to make it easier for consumers to recycle previously difficult items. Start small, learn as you go, and stay dedicated. If you are uncertain about an item, take the short moment to find out, and then if you are still in doubt, throw it out.

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