The No-B.S. Guide to Recycling in Philadelphia

It’s hard work saving the planet. Recycling is a nice start, but you’d better be informed, because bad recycling habits can end up doing more harm than good.

philadelphia recycle how to

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It can be hard to muster up the energy to be environmentally conscious these days, what with the knowledge that earth is warming to the point of uninhabitability and it might be too late to do anything about it. Why exert the energy to recycle, you might think, when in the end all of your plastic waste is just going to end up melting down in the fiery furnace that is earth’s atmosphere? The self-fulfilling prophecy of defeatism is tough to avoid.

Recycling isn’t usually billed as a global warming reduction measure like driving less or lowering your electricity use. (Although while you’re at it, you may as well do those other things, too.) But it does create a fair amount of energy reduction. Think about it: Trash in landfills releases the greenhouse gas methane, and the other popular disposal mechanism — incineration — produces pollutants galore as well. The EPA has estimated that even a modest five percent increase in the national recycling rate would be akin to preventing electricity-related emissions from 4.6 million American households annually.

But the arcane recycling process isn’t doing people any favors. What’s actually recyclable can change from one city to the next, leaving people unclear on what they can and can’t put in the blue bin. We’re here to rectify that. Here’s how to recycle in Philly, from sheets of paper to batteries.

What is actually recyclable?

For the first four months of 2019, due to rising costs, the city had been recycling only half of what it picked up at the curb. Fortunately, Philly’s managed to secure a new recycling contract — albeit an expensive one — and now the program’s back on track. Which means it’s time to get reacclimated with the rules of recycling.

Philadelphia uses single-stream recycling, which means all recycled products can be put together in one bin. It’s more convenient that way, but you’ve got to be sure what you’re setting aside is actually recyclable — or risk contaminating the whole bin.

Fortunately, the Philadelphia Streets Department provides a breakdown of what belongs in the trash and recycling bins, respectively. Paper is obviously recyclable. Most paper, plastic, glass, and metal containers can be safely recycled, too. Even containers that once held toxic materials — like paint or aerosol cans — can be recycled at the curb, so long as they’re clean. (Also: There’s a common misconception that caps aren’t recyclable; the Streets Departments says they are.)

When recycling containers, it’s best to keep the following in mind: Recycled products have to meet a certain cleanliness threshold in order for them to be sold on the commodities market, and there’s only so much the workers at the recycling plant can do to decontaminate them. In other words, you need to wash out that jar of peanut butter before tossing it. Otherwise you’re just wasting your own time and the city’s recycling energy — and you may even be contaminating other people’s otherwise clean recyclables.

What about plastic bags?

Plastic bags, the bane of seagulls’ digestive tracts, are not recyclable through the city’s curbside recycling program. But that doesn’t mean you have to come home from Acme wracked with guilt. Most grocery stores, like Whole Foods, Shop Rite, and yes, Acme, will accept your used plastic bags. (You can search for the closest participating stores here. ) You can also request that your local grocer bag your products with paper. Or, you know, just spend the $5 on a reusable bag and never worry about this ever again.

And cardboard?

Cardboard, much like your plastic and glass containers, is all about contamination. If you’ve ordered a pizza, the bottom of the box is probably soiled with grease. If that’s the case, it’s useless to recycle. Good news: You can still rip off the top of the box and feel a little better about your late-night delivery order.

Thanks to all those Amazon orders, you’re probably constantly stockpiling cardboard boxes. The Streets Department says you can toss those directly into the bin as is, although if you want to go the extra mile, you could rip off the packaging tape and delivery stickers, making the cardboard even more pristine.

What about obscure materials?

There’s still a decent amount of household goods that can’t go in the blue bin. That doesn’t mean you should turn to the trash, however. Lead-acid batteries, for instance, can be recycled at the city’s Household Hazardous Waste Events, which take place monthly. You can make an excursion out of it and get rid of your other toxic trash — like pesticides or motor oil — while you’re at it.

Similarly, electronics aren’t disposable at the curb. There may not be a whole lot that can be recycled from your old television, but you can still bring it to one of the city’s six Sanitation Convenience Centers for safe disposal; you’ll just need proof of Philadelphia residency. Better yet: Stop by eForce Recycling at 3114 Grays Ferry Avenue. They’ll take your old electronics and resell them, or if they’re truly unusable, take them apart to salvage reusable parts.

If you’ve got spare batteries laying around, visit Call2Recycle to find stores that will take them off your hands. Old light bulbs can also be brought to those monthly hazardous waste events, or you can drop them off at a Home Depot location. Have other unusual recyclables? Consult Green Philly, which maintains a useful running list of items.

What isn’t recyclable?

A good many things are not recyclable, including Styrofoam, straws, disposable plates, plastic utensils, cassettes, and soiled containers.

The key point to remember, no matter what, is that if you’re on the fence about whether something is recyclable, don’t risk it. That goes for containers that you aren’t able to fully clean, too. A dirty recycling stream means more workers at the plant sorting through everything, which increases the city’s cost. Erring on the side of caution is always the best course of action.

Of course, you’re better off just consuming less in the first place. Check out Be Well Philly’s tips for easy swaps to make to rid your life of single-use plastics.