Can this be recycled?

By John deJong

Recycling rules change with the market. We’re here to keep you abreast of the latest news!

I get asked the question almost daily, from family, friends, neighbors: “Can this be recycled?” What might be obvious to some will be a revelation for others, so let’s revisit this topic of what goes into the curbside recycling bin (in Salt Lake City, your blue bin). After all, it’s a new year, and we’re all still in the mindset of making resolutions and resolving to do better.

With recycling, it’s easy to do better just by knowing a few basics, and remembering “when it doubt, throw it out.” If you’re uncertain whether something is actually recyclable, please throw it in the trash bin. Otherwise, your questionable item risks contaminating the entire load of recycling that’s headed to the recycling facility.

First, some background to help us put this topic into context. Two things happened a year ago that affected our local recycling efforts: one, a global policy, and the other, a local one.

Globally, China implemented its “National Sword Policy” which puts tight restrictions on the types of waste products that can be imported—banning 24 different types of waste materials outright—and setting tougher standards on levels of contamination in others. Any shipment that has a contamination rate of great than .05% will be rejected. The trickle-down effect is that it puts much greater responsibility on us as consumers to be careful about what we’re putting in our recycling bins. (Yes, much of what we recycle does end up getting shipped overseas. This might surprise some of you. For example, until last year, China had been the world’s largest importer for plastic waste for recycling.)

Locally, Salt Lake City Municipal stopped accepting plastic bags and plastic film/wrap in the curbside recycling bins. The reality is, these items never should have gone into our curbside bins in the first place. They wreak havoc on the equipment in the recycling facility (referred to in the waste industry as  “merfs,” for Materials Recovery Facilities) because they get tangled up in the machinery, forcing intermittent shutdowns and causing equipment breakages. This is costly, too, to these facilities because of repairs and work stoppages. Better to reduce/ eliminate our plastic bag and plastic film consumption as much as possible.

So, what can you put in your Salt Lake City curbside recycling bin? (For those of you outside of Salt Lake City, check out your city/ county municipal website for more specific information.)

  • Boxes (break them down before putting them in your bin to give you more space)
  • Cardboard packaging
  • Paper (I collect mine in a paper bag so it’s bulkier when it goes into the bin; single sheets of paper/newspaper can get wet and easily contaminated)
  • Cans—aluminum and tin (you needn’t rinse but they should be scraped clean)
  • Plastic milk jugs (again, you needn’t rinse but do replace the cap so the recycling plant doesn’t smell of sour milk) and other containers
  • Refrigerator drink cartons (see image)
  • Paper bags
  • Phonebooks, catalogs

Plastic bags and plastic film can be recycled locally at a number of retail stores, like Smith’s, Target, Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and others. Collect them together in one bag and take them to your nearest drop-off location when the bag is full. Use this handy location finder to see where to recycle plastic bags locally:

Despite our best efforts  to reduce/eliminate our plastic bag use, there’s a number of different kinds of plastic packaging that might still end up  in our homes because of the goods we purchase. Ideally, buy in bulk as much as possible and avoid single-serving containers/packages of food.

For example, bring your own containers to the deli counter; buy the larger food containers (like 16- or 32-oz yogurt) and serve out smaller portions into reusable containers.

If you do end up with food packaging, reuse or recycle the materials wherever possible. For example, the plastic wrap around the  toilet paper can be recycled.; reuse any plastic resealable packaging instead of using/buying ziploc bags. Reuse the five-pound potato bags and orange bags as lunch bags, or newspaper bags to clean up after the dog. You get the idea.

The beauty in all of this is learning from each other and sharing ideas. With that in mind, email your suggestions and ideas to us, or post a comment. Let us know what you’re doing to reduce your waste footprint.


Mary McIntyre is the former executive director of the Utah Recycling Alliance, a local nonprofit focused on programs that encourage reuse, recycling and resource conservation. She strives towards a Zero Waste lifestyle by making lifestyle choices and conscious decisions each day to minimize her and her families waste/carbon footprint. Her mantra is “small steps to a bigger change.”


This article was originally published on February 1, 2019.