By UW Recycling | Sep 23, 2019
Students in lab coats sorting recycling and compost

Do you have questions about proper recycling or composting? Are you unsure about what goes in which bin when you're throwing stuff away? UW Recycling wants to provide answers. Here are 10 of the most common recycling myths that pop up on campus, along with definitive answers!

Myth #1: All cardboard and paper is recyclable

Since we need to avoid food or grease in the recycling, pizza boxes and food-soiled paper like napkins should be composted.

Myth #2: All plastic items marked with the chasing recycling arrows are recyclable

Not always. The number inside the recycling arrows refer to the type of plastic used to make the item. In Seattle and on campus, go by the size and shape: items must be at least 3 inches wide, and accepted shapes are tubs, jugs, cups, bottles and lids. Just make sure to compost it if it says compostable!

Myth #3: Paper towels go into the garbage

All paper towels are compostable on campus! However, if the paper towel was used for bodily fluid, they should go into the garbage instead of compost.

Myth #4: Water bottles are recycled into new water bottles

That plastic is usually turned into carpet or fleece. They can only be recycled once – that’s why reusable bottles are the best option!

Myth #5: All caps are recyclable

Any caps that are smaller than 3 inches (about the length of your index finger) should go into the garbage. Plastic or metal items that are too small can be mistaken as broken glass during the sorting process and contaminate the recyclables.

After completely emptying a plastic bottle, you can replace the plastic cap before recycling though!

Myth #6: Recyclables need to be washed and scrubbed, which wastes water

Recyclables really do need to be empty and dry. However, if something’s soiled with a bit of food residue you can wipe it off with a napkin (and compost that) or rinse it quickly with a small amount of water.  If food or liquids get into the bin, it can degrade other materials before the recycling process starts.

Myth #7: Anything I put in the bin is sorted

When material is tossed in a garbage/landfill container, it is not sorted before it’s shipped to the landfill where it is stored and secured underground.

Most of the items that are not accepted into the recycling bin is because they can’t be sorted correctly or recycled into something new. We’ve already mentioned liquids, food, and small caps but other materials cause issues too!  Thin plastic/foil like chip bags or candy wrappers end up contaminating paper because they’re so similar (lightweight & flat). Loose plastic bags, ropes, or Christmas lights are called “tanglers” because they wrap around machinery and cause the whole system to shut down.  It’s so important to know what goes where before tossing it! 

Myth #8: Only food can go in the compost

Food is just the start! All serviceware on campus (even things bought from the on-campus Starbucks!) such as plates, utensils, cups, lids, straws, etc. are compostable.

Got something from off campus? Be sure to check for that “compostable” label on products before you toss them!

Myth #9: Compostable products can go in recycle or landfill

This is false! Compostable service is made of corn or plant fiber that cannot recycled. Compostable items are considered contaminants in recycling facilities!

Try not to throw them in the garbage either! When compostable items are sent to the landfill, they don’t breakdown like they naturally would in a compost facility due to lack of oxygen and heat.

Myth #10: All biodegradable items are compostable

Not at all. Biodegradable means that an item is capable of breaking down with the help of bacteria or other living organisms.  Just because it’s biodegradable doesn’t mean it can be successfully turned into compost!

If you still have more questions, you can check out our post on common composting and recycling questions, or visit the UW Recycling disposal guide.