Are You a Good Recycler? Test Your Knowledge.

When curbside recycling first began in the late 1980’s, it was a simpler time. People ate at restaurants instead of ordering in, the bottled water market had yet to explode, and meal delivery kits like Blue Apron were a mere figment of the imagination. Californians sorted their recycling into three separate bins – paper, glass, cans – and called it a day.

But in mid-90’s cities across the country switched from three small bins to one big one, for the sake of convenience, encouraging residents to recycle more to save the earth. And a curious phenomenon emerged: “wish-cycling,” that is, throwing things we wish could be recycled into the bin, even if we’re not sure. That’s because the bins were bigger and the environmental messages were stronger. It seemed like a win-win.

But as the years progressed, Americans were reading less newspapers and buying more packaging– things like plastic coffee lids, new kinds of take-out containers, and disposable forks and knives. And we kept tossing those things into the bin, thinking they were probably being recycled, and patting ourselves on the back for being good environmentalists.

Thirty years later, we’re still dutifully recycling, but the messages we’ve received about what to put in the bin haven’t evolved nearly as fast as the products we’re buying. “Every week it seems I have a new question from a resident about a material I’ve never seen before,” said Amy Hammes, the recycling specialist at the Burbank Recycling Center.

To make matters more confusing, recycling labelling isn’t always clear. Hammes said she sometimes sees products with recycling logos, but when she asks the facility manager if they’re recyclable, she gets a hard “no.” That’s because the numbers on the bottom of plastics are hard to read and even harder to understand; they’re designed for the plastic industry, not for consumers.

The increase in convenience packaging combined with the struggling recycling market and China’s decision to stop taking our cheapest waste, has led a lot of us into a state of total confusion about what we should or shouldn’t be recycling. And recycling the wrong thing can actually wreak havoc on the whole system, contaminating the load and clogging up sorting equipment. It’s important, then, that we have some basic knowledge of what is and what isn’t getting recycled. Plus, if we were more aware, we could make better decisions at the supermarket about what to buy.

Take the quiz

Watch SoCal Connected’s full episode on recycling to learn more about what items go where, and why: