Recycling 101: Learn How to Recycle (the Right Way)

Yes, there's a right way to recycle! Learn how, and start living more sustainably in the process.

egg carton, milk carton, tin can, and glass bottle appearing in a recycling bin in grass on a blue background. Recycling for SustainabilityTMB Studio

Recycling correctly is more than just tossing seemingly reusable packaging in the blue bin. There are actually quite a few guidelines to follow, depending on where you live, and ignoring them could mean your entire can of recycling goes into a landfill instead. The good news is, knowing how to recycle the right way just means learning the basic rules of recycling, like what recycling symbols mean, what can be recycled, how to clean and sort materials, and where to recycle. It’s not as hard as it may seem. Here’s your recycling 101 primer.

Common questions people ask about recycling are, “Why is recycling important?” “How does recycling work?” and “How does recycling save energy?” There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to sustainability, sustainable living, and living green. When you recycle, you are reducing waste in landfills, preventing pollution, conserving natural resources, helping to combat climate change, and helping promote job opportunities in your community. If you’re creative and have the right knowledge, you may be able to recycle anything. It’s one of the simplest things you can do to combat climate anxiety, if you suffer from it.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recycling just one ton of office paper can save the energy equivalent of 322 gallons of gasoline. And recycling just 10 plastic bottles saves enough energy to power a laptop for more than 25 hours.

“Keeping items out of the landfill is one of the main benefits of recycling—especially if you live in a smaller city,” says Dianna Robinson, materials management specialist in the recycle and waste division of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. “When landfills get bigger, they can have negative effects on people in those communities, like water and air pollution.”

The future of recycling means learning from our current mistakes and following recycling lessons from other countries. You can even take a recycling quiz to find the best place to start. Regardless of how you learn the rules of recycling, know that you’re working to reduce your carbon footprint, and your consumption in general. After all, when you recycle, you use less energy. Using less energy means fewer fossil fuels burned.

What is recycling?

The EPA defines recycling as “the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.” Composting is also a way of reducing the amount of trash that ends up in landfills. Composting is like recycling in a way—you keep your kitchen scraps in an aerated container and allow them to decompose, creating an organic additive for the soil in your garden. Good composting practices can help minimize greenhouse gas emissions.

How does recycling work?

When you recycle, you are part of a much larger picture. Officials at Recycling Connections explain the five key steps of curbside recycling:

  1. You put recyclable materials, such as plastic, into your recycling bin.
  2. A hauler collects the materials.
  3. A recycling center sorts those materials.
  4. The materials are processed at a facility.
  5. The materials are sent to another manufacturer to melt, cut, or mold the materials and prepare them for the market.

Why should you recycle?

Even small habits like taking time to recycle packing material can have big impacts. Recycling is an eco-friendly practice that helps reduce pollutants going into our environment.

“‘Reuse, renew, recycle’ benefits everyone by reducing the amount of materials going to the landfill. [It takes] less energy to recycle materials than to make the same items out of virgin materials, and recycling uses [fewer] natural resources to supply our needs,” says Sam Lubbers, supervisor at Republic Services, a recycling center in Montana.

What goes into which bin?

Blue bin

This is your normal recycling curbside bin. You can put in things like:

  • Cardboard
  • Paper
  • Flyers
  • Plastic plates
  • Plastic cups
  • Plastic bottles
  • Glass bottles and jars with the lids on (in some cities)

Whether you should leave on plastic bottle caps depends on your county. Whether styrofoam is recyclable is also a question that depends on your area.

Green bin

The green bin is the organic waste and food bin. You can put in things like:

  • Cat litter
  • House plants (including the soil)
  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea bags
  • Diapers
  • Sanitary products
  • Soiled paper like ice cream containers

Black bin

This is your primary garbage bin, and it should contain waste that can’t be taken to a recycling facility. Think of things like:

  • Baby wipes
  • Gum
  • Medical waste such as bandages
  • Drink pouches
  • Liquids

Robinson recommends that if you’re learning how to recycle, the first step to take is to find out who is picking up your recycling and learn more about the rules of recycling in your local community. “Is it your city, your county, or a private company?” she says. “You’ll want to be in good contact with them, because things change quite frequently. So start with whatever recycling company and learn what they accept in the bins in your area.”

You can learn more about each bin on the GarbageDay website.

Recycling symbols

When it comes to recycling symbols, Lubbers says, “Understand that the symbols on plastics represent different physical and chemical properties, and that some centers require the plastics to be separated by the symbols/numbering.”

If you look at the bottom of a plastic bottle, you’ll see a symbol with a number. That number isn’t random. It’s there to help you ID what type of plastic resin was used to make the bottle. It’s also there so you know what recycling bin to put your material in.

For example, the number one represents Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE), typically found on items like water bottles and salad dressings. The number four represents Density Polyethylene (LDPE), often found on the bottom of things like ketchup bottles and toys. Learn more about all the recycling symbols and what they mean here.

Reusing, upcycling, and downcycling

There are other ways you can reduce your waste in addition to recycling. Simply taking a reusable water bottle with you to the gym or when you’re running errands, buying reusable straws or sustainable coffee mugs, using reusable grocery bags, and finding ways to upcycle your clothes can make a difference and help keep materials out of the landfill. You can also sell your old clothes and other belongings instead of throwing them away.

Upcycle That defines upcycling as, “The act of taking something no longer in use and giving it a second life and new function. In doing so, the finished product often becomes more practical, valuable, and beautiful than what it previously was.”

For example, this student turns empty chip bags into sleeping bags for the homeless, and this organization transforms discarded flip-flops from the beaches of Kenya into large-scale sculptures.

Downcycling is the opposite of upcycling—often referred to as repurposing. Downcycling is essentially reusing material in a way that has lesser value than its original intention. For example, a large tractor tire could be repurposed as a watering trough for cattle.

What materials can you recycle?

Since recycling varies by location, knowing how to recycle correctly means getting in touch with your local recycling center. For example, Lubbers says, “Styrofoam, glass, plastic bags, books, and mixed (junk mail/colored) paper are items that they have a difficult time with in the Missoula, Montana area. However, the city of Superior, Montana can take glass, like glass bottles.”

The most commonly recycled items are:

  • Newspapers
  • Cardboard
  • Aluminum cans
  • Milk cartons
  • Paper
  • Plastic containers
  • Magazines

“Understand what your local recycling centers can accept,” adds Lubbers. He stresses that recycled materials should be “empty, clean, and dry” and says to “keep materials separated.”

Infographic showing which items you can and cannot, Getty Images (4)

What materials can’t be recycled?

Again, you’ll want to know what’s recyclable in your area, but here is a list of items that typically can’t be recycled or put into curbside recycling bins:

  • Light bulbs
  • Styrofoam
  • Anything smaller than a credit card
  • Certain plastics, such as bags, cutlery, straws, and clamshell food containers
  • Some cosmetic compacts
  • Used medical bandages
  • Any food containers that aren’t clean and dry, such as greasy pizza boxes
  • Bubble wrap
  • Batteries
  • Food
  • Hazardous materials (motor oil, fuel, etc.)
  • Diapers
  • Electronics
  • Propane cylinders
  • Bulky plastic items like a laundry bin
  • Clothing
  • Hangers
  • Drinking glasses

How to recycle large items

When you’re going beyond curbside recycling and looking to recycle large items like your car, old appliances, or a mattress, you’ll need to find a specialized recycling center near you. And if it’s scrap steel or copper, you may even get paid to take the item to the recycling center.

Recycling administrator Donna Cutler of Axeman Recycling in Montana says, “We take large items like cars, washers and dryers, refrigerators, and separated metals.” They have the current price paid for each type of scrap on their website, which is typical for most metal recycling facilities.

For things like mattresses, you’ll need to check with your local recycling drop-off center—oftentimes they charge a fee for accepting mattresses. If your mattress is still in good shape, you could consider donating it as an alternative to recycling.

Tips for recycling more efficiently

Experts at the nonprofit Earth Day give these tips for how to recycle more efficiently:

  • Make sure your items are clean, empty, and dry—food containers should be free of grease and clean enough to use again.
  • Don’t recycle anything smaller than a credit card—it’s too small to process and could jam the machines.
  • Don’t recycle combined materials—things like plastic-coated paper coffee cups and bubble wrap envelopes can’t be separated.
  • Know your plastics—you can only recycle rigid plastics (which have recycling symbols one through seven, though one and two are safest).
  • Don’t put items in your curbside bin if you’re unsure of whether they can be recycled—this can cause your whole lot of recyclables to be contaminated and end up in a landfill.
  • When in doubt, ask your local recycling center.


Now that you know the basics, start recycling with confidence and help keep items out of landfills. Then, keep educating yourself about sustainability. Learn more about water conservation, sustainable food, and fast fashion. You could even start upcycling items at home or learning more about platforms that help you sell your unwanted stuff.

And remember, when you recycle, you are part of the effort to conserve natural resources and combat climate change.


Suzanne Downing
Suzanne Downing is an award-winning journalist covering the latest in nature, travel, outdoor recreation and rural lifestyles. With a graduate degree in environmental science journalism from the University of Montana, she also enjoys writing about the environment, agriculture and all things science and sustainability. When she's not on deadline, Suzanne can be found exploring the great outdoors.