Preparing Your Materials

Whether you're recycling at home or on the job, preparing your recyclable materials the right way is crucial to a successful recycling program. You should always heed one guideline: follow your recycler's rules! Why is this so important? The recycling industry is a very competitive one. To remain in business, recyclers must collect and process quality materials they can resell efficiently. And without successful recycling businesses, our efforts to reduce what we put in the trash will become worthless.

The enthusiastic person who adds a ceramic mug to their recycled glass or includes magazines with newspapers may contaminate a whole truckload of materials, making it unable to be sold. When in doubt, you should ask rather than risk contaminating other valuable materials.

As you review the following guidelines, keep in mind that in your community there may be variations on the recyclable materials collected as well as how they should be prepared for pickup or drop-off. Many recyclers have guidelines to explain their restrictions, available upon request.


Description: aluminum is a hard, yet lightweight and corrosion-resistant metal found in the Earth's crust in combination with other elements, primarily the mineral bauxite.

Recycled products: beverage cans, lawn furniture tubing, window frames, storm doors.
Life Cycle: aluminum is not biodegradable: it can be recycled repeatedly.
The Rules: always rinse and flatten to save storage space. Be sure the can is aluminum and not steel. (You can use a magnet to test this: it will not stick to aluminum.)
Never add rocks or other objects to cans to increase their weight.
Check first if you hope to recycle any of the following aluminum products to be sure they are accepted: window and doorframes, house siding, disposable food containers (like dinner trays and baking pans), foil and car parts. Also, find out whether your program accepts aluminum and steel cans mixed together, as some recyclers do.


I have an aluminum storm door to dispose of. Can I put it at the curb with my recycling container?

It depends on your recycler. Always call first to see if the recycler accepts aluminum scrap with curbside materials. You will likely have to remove any glass or other non- aluminum parts. If your recycling program cannot accept it, check with a scrap dealer.


Description: Corrugated containers, often called cardboard, have a fluted layer sandwiched between brown kraft linerboards. A mix of paper fibers can go into corrugated containers, including recycled corrugated boxes, grocery bags, paperboard boxes and paper egg cartons.

Recycled products: Cardboard boxes, linerboard, cereal boxes, building products.

Life Cycle: Corrugated paper is biodegradable; it has long, strong fibers that enable it to be recycled many times.

The Rules: Always keep corrugated paper in dry, fire-safe areas. Flatten boxes to save space. Remove all foreign materials, such as foam packaging, plastic, wood and string.

Never include corrugated paper contaminated with food waste, dirt or oil-based products.

Check first to see whether your recycler accepts wax-coated corrugated boxes, such as some boxes used to ship produce. Also ask whether paper egg cartons, grocery bags, cereal boxes and other paperboard boxes can be included with corrugated paper.

Q & A

Are cereal boxes considered corrugated?

No. Cereal boxes, shoeboxes and tissue boxes are examples of boxes with a gray liner that are thinner than corrugated containers; these are called chipboard or paperboard. Some recycling centers mix paperboard and corrugated paper together; others do not. Check with your local recycler to be certain.

How about frozen-food boxes? Can we recycle those?

No, because the paper in a frozen food box is not corrugated and is covered with a waxy coating that most recycling centers are not equipped to handle.


Description: glass is manufactured from sand, limestone, soda ash and other additives.

Recycled products: food jars and beverage containers, decorative tile.

Life Cycle: glass is not biodegradable, it can be recycled repeatedly.

The Rules: always rinse containers, remove lids and separate glass by color. Slightly tinted wine, spirit and water bottles should be included with green glass.

Never mix broken glass with different colors in a recycle bin. Do not attempt to recycle ceramics, mirrors, windowpanes, perfume bottles or dishware.

Check first to see which glass colors are accepted by your recycler. Clear glass and brown glass are usually accepted; some programs also accept blue and green glass. Removal of labels is not usually required, but check to be sure.

Q & A

Can I recycle old drinking glasses or broken light bulbs with my glass containers?

No. Although dishware, ceramics, mirrors and windowpanes are considered glass, they do not have the correct chemical and physical properties to be recycled with bottles and containers. One piece of ceramic or one light bulb can ruin an entire load of glass being processed for recycling.

Why shouldn't I break my food jars to save on storage space?

Broken glass is a safety hazard.


Description: magazines may be printed on either coated or uncoated paper. The slick paper used in many magazines, particularly those with color photos, is made with a clay coating.

Recycled products: tissue products, paper towels, magazines, newsprint.

Life Cycle: magazines are biodegradable, they can be recycled a limited number of times.

The Rules: always include slick, glossy (clay-coated) types of magazines as well as their inserts.

Never let magazines get wet or contaminated with food. Never leave plastic coverings or rubber bands on magazines. Never mix magazines with newspaper, office paper, corrugated paper or paperboard unless your recycler specifically accepts them together in a mixed paper program.

Check first to see if magazines can be mixed with other paper grades.

Q & A

Can everything that comes along with a magazine be recycled with it?

All paper inserts inside magazines are acceptable, but plastic wrap and non-paper inserts such as perfume samples or compact disks must be disposed of.

Can I recycle catalogs with my magazines? How about my kids' comic books?

Most recyclers will accept catalogs with magazines if they have the same glossy finish. Comic books, however, are usually a ground wood product along the lines of newsprint, so check with your recycler for instructions. (And you might try donating your magazines or comic books to a local charitable organization for reuse before you take the step of recycling or disposing of them.)


Description: newsprint, on which newspapers are printed, is an uncoated, ground wood paper made by grinding wood into pulp without removing certain components, including lignin. (Lignin remaining in the ground wood paper fiber is what causes newsprint to turn yellow and deteriorate over time.)

Recycled products: newsprint, insulation, building products, cat litter.

Life Cycle: newsprint is biodegradable, it can be recycled six to eight times before the paper fibers become too short to use again.

The Rules: always include any supplements that came in the newspapers when you recycle them. Keep newspapers in a dry, fire-safe area.

Never let newspaper get wet or contaminated with food. Never leave plastic coverings or rubber bands on newspapers.

Check first to see how your recycler wants newspapers to be prepared. Most recyclers prefer that newspapers be collected in brown paper bags, but others prefer them to be bundled or loose. Some allow other paper products, such as phone books and advertising mail, to be collected with newspapers.

Q & A

Can I recycle junk mail and telephone books with newspaper?

It depends. If your recycler can separate advertising mail and telephone books from newspaper at the processing facility, then they may be collected together. Always check with your recycler first.

Can I use anything I have on hand to bundle up newspapers?

No. Tape, wire and rope should not be used to bind newspapers. If your recycler prefers that newspapers be bundled, use biodegradable twine, or follow any other instructions provided.


Description: plastics are derived from petroleum and consist of hydrocarbons, small molecules that are bonded into chains called polymers (plastic resin). The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) Resin Identification Code, developed in 1988, is a set of numbers used to identify different types of plastic resin. The code number is found within the recycling symbol (a triangle of arrows), usually on the bottom of a container. The code serves only to identify resin types- it doesn't indicate that a container is recyclable.

Recycled products: lumber, plastic bags, office supplies, containers, clothing, carpet.

Life Cycle: plastic is not biodegradable, it can be recycled over and over. The Rules: always rinse and flatten to save storage space. Caps need to be removed and discarded because they may be a different type of plastic.

Never assume all plastic is recyclable. When in doubt, leave it out. Do not include plastic items that are not containers, such as toys and furniture.

Check first to see which types of plastics your recycling center will accept. The most common plastics recycled are PET and HDPE containers; however, not all PET and HDPE plastics are created equal. Even the same types of plastics can have different chemical properties and melting points. Most programs do not accept SPI codes 3 through 7, but a few have improved sorting technology and can accept a wider variety of plastics. Find out what your recycler's limitations are, and then follow them.

Q & A

My recycler rejected a plastic salad dressing bottle. Why?

Some plastic containers that have held oil-based foods like peanut butter and salad dressing are made of clear SPI #3 V (vinyl) and are difficult to distinguish from containers made of SPI #1 PET (polyethylene terephthalate) on a recycler's sorting line. One vinyl container or bottle mixed with a load of PET can ruin the entire load. As a result, many recycling centers try to avoid oil-based plastic containers altogether.

Can I recycle plastic grocery bags?

Some grocery stores offer recycling collection for their plastic bags. Ask if your local grocery store will take used bags, if they do, be sure to remove everything, including receipts, from the bags before recycling. Include only the thin type of bag that you get at a grocery or discount store.

I hate to add plastic to a landfill- why can't I put all my plastics together to be recycled?

Not all plastics are created equal. Separating plastics is necessary because the resins have different chemical and physical properties that prohibit their being reprocessed together. Even if your recycling program accepts every type of plastic most of the time, the plastics must be sorted before they are reprocessed.

Society of Plastics Industry, Inc. (SPI)
Information Chart

SPI Code SPI Code Resin Sample Products
1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) Plastic soft drink and water bottles, beer bottles, mouthwash bottles, peanut butter containers.
2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Milk, water and juice containers, trash and retail bags, liquid detergent bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, cereal box liners.
3. Vinyl (Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC) Clear food packaging, shampoo bottles.
4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) Bread bags, frozen food bags, squeezable bottles (ketchup, mustard), carpet, clothing.
5. Polypropylene (PP) Ketchup bottles, yogurt containers and margarine tubs, medicine bottles.
6. Polystyrene (PS) Compact disc jackets, food service applications, grocery store meat trays, egg cartons, aspirin bottles, cups, plates.
7. Other Three and five gallon reusable water bottles, some citrus juice and ketchup bottles.


Description: steel is a hard, strong, durable mixture of iron, carbon and other elements. "Tin cans" are actually steel cans with a thin tin coating on the inside. All steel products contain some recycled materials.

Recycled products: food cans, some beverage containers, aerosol and paint cans, automobile and appliance parts.

Life Cycle: steel can take 100 years to biodegrade and cannot be burned. Steel can be recycled repeatedly.

The Rules: always include steel can lids and steel caps from other containers.

Check first to see if your recycling program allows you to mix aluminum and steel containers. Although removing labels is not necessary for steel cans to be reprocessed, some recyclers still require labels to be removed.

Never include scrap metal with steel cans.

Q & A

Can I recycle paint cans with my steel food cans?

All steel is 100 percent recyclable, but not every program is set up to handle the collection of paint cans, aerosol cans, appliance and automobile parts, and other steel products. Check with your recycler for details.

What's the difference between steel, tin and bi-metal cans?

There is no difference regarding preparation for recycling. Bi-metal cans have steel bodies with aluminum tops and are recycled with steel cans. There are no true "tin cans"- rather, steel cans include a thin tin coating on the inside to serve as a barrier between the food and the steel.

In Conclusion

After you have reviewed the preceding information, contact your local solid waste or recycling coordinator to find out what materials you can recycle and where. Remember, not all curbside and drop-off programs can handle the same materials. The advertising section of your telephone book should also give a list of recyclers and scrap dealers in your area.

And don't stop with just separating your recyclables from other trash- you also need to examine your shopping habits and buy recycled. To close the recycling loop, markets must be created for the products made from the materials collected and processed by Illinois recyclers. Collecting your recyclables is just part of the equation: if you're not buying recycled, you're not truly recycling!

Keep an eye out for recycled products when you are making buying decisions. If you don't see recycled products on the shelf or on the sales floor, ask for them. Most retailers are receptive to customer requests, and they need to know that their customers want recycled products. If you find that your favorite stores don't carry recycled products, make your voice heard-ask for them!

Recycling 101: Preparing Your Materials has been produced through a cooperative effort between the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO) and University of Illinois Extension.

For print copies of this or other DCEO publications, contact the Information and Distribution Center at 620 East Adams Street, Springfield, Illinois 62701, or call 800.252.8955.