Single Stream Recycling Don’ts

single-stream-recycling. There are a few particulars that are helpful to keep in mind.

Recycling is a wonderful thing. It declutters your living space, keeps items out of landfills, and even helps communities save money. Many areas have gone to a process known as “single stream recycling,” which allows residents to put different kinds of recyclables into one large bin. This technology for managing recyclables is constantly evolving, and so are the guidelines for what should and shouldn’t go into a single stream bin. In general, single stream means you can put paper, cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal objects together. However, there are a few particulars that are helpful to keep in mind.


Soiled paper and cardboard

While paper and cardboard are recyclable, the paper needs to be “clean” enough to be recycled. A pizza box that has grease stains or a paper towel that has been used to wipe up a spill are not recyclable and should be put in the trash can.

Wax/waxy paper

Paper that has been fused with a wax coating, such as many take-out coffee cups and milk cartons, are not easy to recycle. Check with your collector to see if these can go into your single stream bin.


While mirrors are made of glass, the reflective treatment renders them unfit for recycling.

Old Photographs

Photographs are made of paper, but photos that were chemically developed are not eligible for paper recycling. Photos that have been digitally printed are safe for single stream.


This is the shiny and reflective paper that is used for some balloons, chip bags, and candy wrappers. Mylar looks like aluminum foil, but it isn’t the same material. If you aren’t sure, try crumpling it up. If it stays crumpled, it is aluminum foil and safe for single stream. If it quickly unfurls, put it in the trash.


Tyvek, a malleable material you might receive in the form of a FedEx shipping envelope, is not recyclable. Cardboard shipping envelopes are safe.

Contaminated Plastic

If an empty plastic container has held a contaminant (such as weed killer) put it in the trash. Also, if it has held a greasy substance (such as cooking oil), only put it in the bin if you have thoroughly rinsed it out. If the plastic is too greasy (like the peanut butter container in the photo below), it will be rejected.

Dirty Peanut Butter container


Pyrex looks like glass, but it is actually a special material that has a very high melting point. This makes it great for baking, but unsuitable for single stream.

Light Bulbs

Neither incandescent nor fluorescent bulbs can go into the recycle bin. Incandescent bulbs are safe for the trash, but fluorescent ones require special handling. Check with your town for specific instructions.

Ink Jet Cartridges

While ink cartridges are made of plastic, they can’t be tossed into the recycling bin. The good news is that they are now widely collected by office supply stores for reloading, often in return for store credit.


Some people wonder if ceramics, such as old coffee mugs, are recyclable. Unfortunately, they are not. If you have pieces that are in decent shape, consider donating them.

Scrap Metal

Single-stream is mostly designed for metal that has been used to hold food and beverages. Larger pieces of metal should be dealt with separately, and are often collected by town refuse centers. Wire hangers are best recycled to the dry cleaner.


Cloth items do not belong in single stream. Donate items in good condition, and look for textile recycling bins for stained/torn items.

Mixed Media

Items made of multiple materials – even if the materials are individually recyclable – may not be appropriate for recycling. An object that is simple in construction, such as a spiral notebook, can go in the bin. But if there is a complex assortment of materials – such as an old coffee maker – it will not be eligible for the single stream process.


Ball up aluminum foil

Flat foil may be confused for paper and may not move properly through the sorter. Simply rinse it off and ball it up before dropping it into your bin.

Avoid flattening plastic bottles or cans

The sorters separate flat from 3-dimensional objects, so put them into your recycle bin in their original shape.

Dump contents out of plastic bags

The single stream sorters need to deal with each item individually. Placing a closed plastic bag full of cans into your bin may result in the entire bag being plucked out and put into the regular trash. Instead, if you collect or transport recyclable items in plastic, be sure to dump the contents out into the receptacle. Plastic bags themselves may or may not be acceptable. If your town allows them, scrunch them up before you drop them in your bin. Alternatively, you can often return these to your grocery store (many have collection boxes) or simply reuse them.

Corral shredded paper

Shredded paper – especially when it gets wet – can become sticky and clog up the sorter. The best approach is to put the shredded pieces inside of a paper bag with an open top. Some of the pieces may slip out, but most of them will stay in the bag and end up in the proper area of the recycling center. Another great alternative is to compost the paper.

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The technology for separating and processing recyclable items is impressive. If you’d like to get an idea of how it is done, watch this clip. This was filmed at a recycling center in Boulder, CO. Always remember to check with your local facility to know what is and isn’t recyclable in your area.

Has your community gone to single stream recycling? Have your learned any helpful tips about what can and can’t go through the process?

33 thoughts on “Single Stream Recycling Don’ts”

    1. It is a bit of a moving target, and also depends where you live. But there were a few items that I honestly didn’t know shouldn’t go into recycling, so I thought my readers might find it helpful as well!

  1. This is so useful, Seana! I love it. While I don’t have a single steam recycling bin, I do recycle a lot. I make it a point to only put in the recycling bin the papers that are NOT shiny. That way I will be sure to recycle the correct type. Every so often, the kids forget and put a milk carton in it and I have to fish it out. Oh well, they will learn some day. Thanks for sharing. =)
    Sabrina Quairoli recently posted…How to keep Food Safe on the go while traveling this summerMy Profile

    1. It is kind of tough, because each town’s rules are different. Nonetheless, I was surprised to learn about a few “don’ts” and thought my readers might find it helpful as well:)

    1. I was learning as I was writing myself. I had to make a few calls to clarify. As I said, each town is different, but a few universal rules seem to apply. The greasy pizza box was a headline to me!

  2. When we renovated our kitchen I made sure we had a designated area for the recycle bins as we recycle a lot in our household. We have a Whole Foods grocery store in our town and they recycle plastic bags which is great because on occasion I forget my reusable one in the car!

    1. I sometimes forget my reusable bags as well, and I like that the stores collect the plastic ones. Just makes it easy. I was so happy when we got our “large” single stream bin – it appealed to me that everything goes into that one, neat container:)

    1. Single stream really does make it very easy, and I think most people are willing if it isn’t too complicated to participate. The statistics show that communities who have moved to single stream have increased participation significantly. I think the technology is impressive! I also want to do what I can to be putting “correct” items in, so my contributions don’t get rejected.

    1. I think the younger generations are perhaps more aware of the benefits of recycling than the older ones around here! They’ve grown up with the idea as part of daily living. It is tricky when different towns have different strategies, but I love the trend we are moving toward of making it easy to participate. Of course, some of the best ways to minimize waste are to reduce and reuse… in these areas, I think the older generations may have the edge:)

    1. Single stream is amazing – so easy to use that you just can’t justify not participating! I think our children’s generation will always recycle because they have grown up with it and it is simply part of their “normal” day.

  3. Wow, Seana! I’ve never heard that term before…”single stream recycling.” I love it and the concept even better because it helps take the “work” out of recycling. I find that the many rules that towns impose on the dos and don’ts of recycling can become a major hindrance to many of my clients. As this concept becomes more widely used, I’m sure it will help the process and decrease “recycling stress” for many. Awesome information. Thank you for sharing.
    Linda Samuels recently posted…How to Savor the Precious Time We HaveMy Profile

    1. It really is a wonderful thing, Linda. I was amazed by the technology, and also convicted about how important it is to make things easy if you want people to do them. We encounter this all the time, wanting to establish storage systems that are simple and accessible. The same idea applies here. I imagine most towns will go in this direction as the costs come down. I still believe in reducing and reusing, but this process has made recycling a breeze!

    1. I was learning as I was writing on this one, Marcia! It is worth the effort to do it right.. otherwise, much of the contents gets rejected, and that ends up costing the town money and not achieving the goal. Always more to know!

    1. I was making my own notes as I wrote this! Had to follow up with a few questions, but glad that I did. I want to be doing it right… not worth the effort if my stuff is going to get rejected, right?

    1. I’m so glad to hear that Scotland has single stream as well…although perhaps you have a different name for it. I have been learning as I’ve been researching for this, so it’s been helpful for me as well:)

  4. I was delighted when we finally got single stream bins at our homes in Albuquerque (having had them for years already in California). But the instructions we were given are so basic — not nearly as detailed as yours — that I just know millions of items end up in the landfill anyway. It also makes me crazy that the recycling capabilities and guidelines vary from area to area, making it harder to learn what’s recyclable and what’s not.
    Hazel Thornton recently posted…It’s All About the Labels (not the label makers)My Profile

    1. It is difficult given that each area has its own rules. I actually had to do a bit of research to understand what exactly is at risk of being rejected. I think we have to be patient with the learning curve of a new technology, but for me it was helpful to learn a few specifics that may help my batch be eligible for the full process. We are getting better and better at this, and I hope readers find that this makes them a bit more efficient!

  5. Amazing useful info am use this info and seen this recycling path in my community its really amazing and fantastic service of mankind. Am soon use it in my way

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