Recycling Do's and Don'ts


It’s happened before…you’re standing at the recycling bin holding a greasy pizza box, a slightly dirty take-out Styrofoam container, or a used coffee cup and you wonder, “is this recyclable?” In hope or haste, you make your decision. But did you make the right choice? And what are the consequences if you didn’t?

The average Californian produces 5.2 pounds of waste per day, with an average diversion rate of 58% (CalRecycle, 2017). Within the unincorporated county, solid waste sector contributes 11% of total greenhouse gas emissions. As part of Climate Action Plan efforts, the County is planning to divert 80% of waste from landfills by 2030 by increasing recycling, composting, and education to the public.

Recycling should come at the end of a long list of prior decisions you can make first including:

  • Refuse the item (skip single use items altogether),
  • Reduce waste (bring a mug or reusable container),
  • Reuse materials (clean containers and use them at home),
  • Rot (compost food scraps at home or work), and finally….
  • Recycle.

When it’s time to recycle, the following dos and don’ts will help you, quite literally, sort it out.

In San Diego County what you recycle at home and work is basically the same. Recyclables typically fall into categories of paper, glass, plastic, and metal. Follow these practices to ensure you Recycle Right, avoid contamination, and reduce what’s sent to the landfill. 

Recycle Right

  • Empty. Make sure there is no or very minimal food residue remaining.  
  • Dry. No liquids remaining. Liquids contaminate paper, cardboard and other materials in the bin. 
  • Loose. DO NOT bag your recyclables, place them loose in the recycling bin.

Recycling Do’s


  • Cardboard (flatten)
  • Mixed paper (office paper, junk mail, catalogs, telephone books, magazines, newspaper, paper bags, design plans and boxes made from paper or cardboard like cereal or frozen food boxes)
  • Food and beverage cartons (leave caps on and place straws in the trash). 
  • Shredded paper placed in large, clear (and tied closed) plastic bag. Sorters at the recycling center need to see the shredded paper to pull it off the line and sort it appropriately. Otherwise, individual scraps of shredded paper fall through sorting equipment and end up in the trash.


  • Bottles and jars (okay to put lids back on if glass is clean and dry)


  • Bottles, containers, clamshells (to-go containers), cups and buckets
  • Put caps back on empty, dry containers (squish some air out to prevent pressure popping them off)
  • Snap lids back on empty, dry containers


  • Steel, tin cans, aluminum cans and foil
  • Empty aerosol cans

Also, Recyclable…

  • Large Styrofoam blocks (packaging insulation)
  • Pizza boxes (place soiled/greasy part in trash, and clean cardboard in the recycling bin).

Witness the speed, sorting, and organization of recycling machines in action, check out this video

Recycling Don’ts

The following items are not recyclable, contaminate actual recyclables, and should go in the trash:

  • Plastic bags (however, see below on how and where to recycle plastic bags)
  • Plastic utensils, straws and snack bags
  • Styrofoam cups, plates and to-go containers
  • Napkins, paper towels and tissue
  • Paper coffee cups. Although made from paper, coffee cups typically include plastic liners to keep the liquid away from the cup’s fiber, making recycling difficult.
    • However, plastic lids and the cardboard sleeve CAN be recycled
  • Food-soiled paper (i.e. dirty to-go containers)

Expert Tips

  • Items less than the size of a credit card (straws, caps, plastic utensils, etc.) fall through sorting machine cracks and become trash.
  • Recycle plastic caps, lids, and aluminum lids on glass by securing back on clean, dry containers.
  • Recycle metal bottle caps by collecting them in a soup can and crimping it closed to avoid caps from falling through sorters.  
  • Recycle plastic bags at participating grocery, home improvement and retail stores. DO NOT place them in your recycling bin at home or work. Learn more here.
  • Take scrap metals such as nails and wire hangers to scrapyard recyclers.

Getting back to our original scenario, hopefully by now you’ve learned to remove the greasy part of that pizza box and recycle the rest, place the Styrofoam food container in the trash (and next time avoid it altogether) and toss that coffee cup in the garbage. Better yet… bring your own mug.

Learn More