Are You Supposed to Separate Cardboard & Plastic in Recycling?


Homeowners might pine for the days when all trash went into one trashcan, but most agree that a little effort when it comes to sorting recyclables is beneficial in the long run. Recycling plastics and cardboard means less trash at a landfill or reduced incineration. Meanwhile, recycled materials can be remade into useful products, such as fleece, new plastic containers and recycled paper. The acceptable way to sort recyclables is determined by local agencies that establish specific plastics and cardboard collection rules in your area.

Regional Variation

  • Although many materials are commonly recyclable, requirements for how householders sort and put out their recycling vary widely from place to place. For example, in New York City, the Department of Sanitation requires that cardboard and plastics be placed in separate bags or containers. Conversely, residents in Portland, Oregon, can put both plastics and cardboard in the same container for pickup. Typically, a city's department of sanitation or department of public works oversees local recycling programs. Many places also have local public officials called "recycling coordinators."


  • Even though sorting requirements vary by city, other rules for preparing recyclables are fairly universal. Wash plastic containers before recycling to reduce smells and pest infestation. Squash containers to save space. Flatten cardboard before recycling to conserve space in the container.

Non-Recyclable Cardboard

  • Waxed cardboard and boxes that have held freezer-ready meals may be non-recyclable, because they may have plastic mixed in with the cardboard. Check with local government agencies, though, if you're unsure about whether a particular type of cardboard is recyclable.

Non-Recyclable Plastics

  • Some types of plastics aren't suitable for recycling. Plastic bags, for example, clog up the recycling machinery; reuse them or return them to stores rather than tossing them in the trash. Plastic containers that have held hazardous materials may not be recyclable. Other potential plastics that may not be suitable for your recycling container include container lids, packaging foam or plastic beverage cups. Look for resin codes -- from 1 to 7 -- stamped on plastic containers. Compare the codes against your local guidelines to see whether that particular plastic is recyclable.

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