What exactly is recycling and why are some items recyclable and others not?

Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. Items like paper, cardboard, most plastics, aluminum, and steel cans can be recycled and reused to make new items. This process helps cut down on the cost of production and increases the sustainability of everyday items.

What is accepted for recycling is determined by two factors: the market and city government. If there is a demand in the market, then recyclers and companies will pay for post-consumer recyclables. Some items require costly machinery to help with the recycling process, which not all municipalities are able to afford.  This is why recycling standards vary between counties and states; what is accepted for recycling in one city or state may not be accepted in another.  Here are some helpful guidelines for Prince William County residents:

Items You Can Recycle

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Plastics bottles and jugs: #1 and #2 containers with necks including soda, water, juice, milk and detergent containers.  No bottles that previously contained hazardous materials (such as oil, flammable materials, chemicals, etc.).    

There are seven different types of plastics.  The type of plastic is shown by a number on a container’s bottom: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7. Each number represents a different resin. Every resin reacts differently to the recycling process as the resins melt at different temperatures.

Even plastics with the same number cannot always be recycled together. You might wonder why a #2 yogurt tub cannot be recycled but #2 milk bottles are accepted. This is because the yogurt tubs are “injection molded ” and the bottles are “blow molded.” These two different processes create chemical combinations that react differently when melted. They cannot be mixed together as this would cause a negative chemical reaction.

Aluminum and steel food and beverage cans and empty aerosol cans.

Full aerosol cans are considered hazardous. Only empty and cleaned out aerosols are acceptable for recycling. Hazardous and/or mechanical liquids can combust when heated. Please pre-crush your cans to help save space in the recycling truck!

Newspapers, magazines, catalogs, junk mail, office paper and paperboard boxes, such as cereal, cookie, cracker and tissue boxes.

Cardboard (flattened and cut down to sizes up to 2 ft. X 2 ft. in size if taking to the drop-off trailers.)  Do not include cardboard with food residue or plastic liners.  Cardboard needs to be flattened so it fits in the compactor better. Also please discard packing materials such as Styrofoam, air pillows and bubble wrap. 

Items You Cannot Recycle

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No plastic bags or bubble wrap / air pillows

A majority of recycling facilities only process rigid (hard) materials that are easy to separate using machinery: aluminum cans, glass bottles, plastic containers and lids, metal cans, cardboard/paper, etc. They generally cannot accept softer items such as grocery bags, bubble wrap, Styrofoam, and air pillows. Plastic bags require a different collection system and processing equipment than many curbside recycling programs provide.

Plastic bags can cause serious damage to rigid recycling machinery by jamming the processing equipment. This forces the whole recycling facility to shut down and pull out the plastic bags to fix the jam. For this same reason, bubble wrap and air pillows are not recyclable.

Retail locations across the country – such as large grocery chains – provide collection bins for these plastic bags and wraps. They also accept bubble wrap! Drop off your collection the next time you go shopping.

No glass bottles and jars, window glass, mirrors, light bulbs or ceramics. 

Glass requires a different recycling process and colored glass needs to be separated from clear glass. Generally, glass cannot be recycled with plastic. In order to properly recycle glass containers, the glass needs to be processed separately. Please keep your glass separate from your plastics!

No plastics #3 – #7 (such as yogurt, margarine and wide mouthed containers and buckets, Styrofoam, bubble wrap, air pillows, etc.)

As discussed above, plastics numbered 3-7 use a different chemical makeup that does not react well with other chemicals. These plastics cannot be recycled without the use of a separate recycling unit.

No Greasy Cardboard

Pizza boxes are a great example. Many recyclers do not want them because grease attracts insects and rodents to the recycling facility. And greasy cardboard may be too difficult to process in the recycling equipment. Since cardboard and paper are usually recycled together, wet cardboard makes the paper greasy. A greasy glop of paper and cardboard will jam the composter and force the facility to shut down until the jam is cleared. This is also why tape is not recyclable. Tape causes everything to stick together, which can lead to a massive jam. A little tape on a cardboard box is fine, but a wad of packing tape is not.

No Styrofoam and Bubble Wrap

Styrofoam is a common word for a specific type of extruded polystyrene (EPS) foam used for art supplies and insulation.

There are two reasons EPS cannot be recycled: density and contamination. Polystyrene foam is 95% air so it is not cost-effective to store or ship. It is often contaminated with food or drink, and is difficult to clean because it is porous. Recycling uses energy for transport and processing. There is no point in recycling something if you use more energy for processing than you save. 

Please Refer to the PWC Recycling Page for additional information.