February 14, 2019

Your DMV Recycling Questions, Answered

By Cydney Grannan

Workers pull contamination from a conveyor belt of recycling at the materials recovery facility in Montgomery County.

Workers pull contamination from a conveyor belt of recycling at the materials recovery facility in Montgomery County.

Can pizza boxes be recycled? What about envelopes with plastic windows? Or plastic utensils?

These were just some of the questions that Washington listeners asked about residential recycling in the region. And it’s a good thing they’re asking: 10 to 20 percent of material sent into the DMV’s recycling system should have been sent to a landfill or composted.

WAMU’s “What’s With Washington” series looked at local recycling, and Kojo sat down with WAMU’s Environment Reporter Jacob Fenston, along with recycling professionals from Arlington and Montgomery County, to talk more about what you can and can’t recycle.

Contamination Nation

When it comes to recycling, what is contamination?

Contamination is anything in the recycling stream that shouldn’t be recycled, and it varies in each jurisdiction. Why? Because what can be recycled in your town depends on what the local recycling facility can process. So, while some can accept plastic takeout containers, others can’t. If something that doesn’t belong ends up in the stream, it can make the entire “bale” unusable.

Common examples of contamination are dirty containers (think food remnants), compostable paper materials like paper towels and tissue (which are already recycled material and can’t be recycled again), electronic devices like phones and computers, and small plastics like straws or utensils.

Do I need to rinse stuff out before I recycle it?

Not only should you rinse your recyclables, you should also make sure that they’re dry before putting them in the bin!

What about cleaning out jars, like peanut butter jars? How clean do they have to be?

Take a bit of time to clean out excess peanut butter, don’t fret: a little residual oil or nut butter won’t contaminate the recycling. Arlington County recommends filling the jar partially with water and shaking it with the lid on.

‘One Word: Plastics’

Are plastic bags recyclable?

Plastic bags cannot be recycled in your blue bin. This includes garbage bags. Your recycling should be sitting loose in the recycling bin.

Plastic shopping bags can be recycled at participating grocery stores in your area. Grocery stores may also accept other plastics that can’t be recycled at your curb, like dry cleaner bags, newspaper bags and plastic overwrap that’s used to package cases of water bottles or paper towels.

To find a plastic bag drop-off location near you, use the zip code search function on the Plastic Film Recycling website.

How about plastic utensils?

Plastic utensils can’t be recycled. Toss those straight into the trash.

So what plastics can be recycled? And what do the numbers on the bottom actually mean?

The numbers are called “the resin code” and refer to a specific type of plastic that your item is made of. Most areas accept plastics marked #1 – 5 and #7. Additionally, Prince George’s County doesn’t accept plastic #4.

Can I recycle plastics with no number?

For unmarked plastics, it’s best to check your area’s recycling policies to see if the item you have in mind can be recycled.

A front loader pushes recyclables into a pile on the tipping floor at the Prince George’s County’s material recycling facility. (Jacob Fenston / WAMU)

Can plastic salad, takeout and produce containers (like clamshells) be recycled?

Clear plastic takeout containers are recyclable if you live in Montgomery County, Arlington County, Prince George’s County or D.C. Just double check that the plastic is not #6.

However, Fairfax County says no to recycling plastic clamshells and other plastic takeout containers.

Styrofoam containers or containers made of #6 plastic are not recyclable.

Can I recycle plastic screw-on caps for milk cartons, soda bottles or water bottles? Should they be attached to the bottle or separated?

Plastic caps can be recycled. You should rinse out the container and attach the caps back to the bottle or cartons, unless you’re in Montgomery County — they ask that you separate plastic caps before recycling.

Can Capri Sun packets or other juice pouches be recycled?

Sorry, kids, your favorite juice containers can’t be recycled.

Can I recycle plastics like chip and pretzel bags, mylar packaging or bubble wrap be recycled?

Chip and pretzel bags, as well as mylar packaging, should be thrown in the garbage. That includes those fancy mylar balloons. Some grocery stores will accept bubble wrap.

Can styrofoam be recycled?


Cardboard And Junk Mail And Paper, Oh My!

Can I recycle pizza boxes?

The region is split on this one!

Fairfax County and Prince George’s County require you to throw soiled pizza boxes in the garbage, regardless of how clean or dirty they are.

In D.C., Arlington County and Montgomery County, you can recycle pizza boxes that have a little grease, as long as they don’t have cheese or sauce. How much grease is too much grease? That’s a judgment call. When in doubt, throw it out.

Can I recycle Starbucks cups and lids?

You can’t recycle the single-use coffee cups, but you can recycle the lids. Single-use coffee cups often have an interior liner that makes them difficult to recycle.

Can I recycle junk mail? What about envelopes with plastic windows?

Envelopes (including those with plastic windows), catalogs and flyers can be recycled. Padded mailers should be tossed in the trash.

Can I also “reduce” when it comes to mail?

If junk mail is bogging you down, Arlington’s Department of Environmental Services suggests that its residents use Catalog Choice to opt out of unwanted junk mail.

What about milk cartons?

Definitely, according to Adam Ortiz, director of Montgomery County’s Department of Environmental Protection. But it’s not just milk cartons.

“I know NPR’s audience, so almond milk and soy milk, those can also be put in the recycling stream, because in the processing, that coating and those plastics are removed,” said Ortiz.

Juice and soup cartons, as well as Tetra Pak containers (which use layered materials including paperboard and plastics), are also recyclable in the Washington region.

Glass stacked up ready to be pulverized at recycled in Fairfax County. (Jacob Fenston / WAMU)

Meddling With Metal And Glass

Can I recycle glass?

Glass is recyclable, and Washington-area counties ask residents to put glass in the recycling. However, most glass that’s recycled in the D.C. area ends up in a landfill. That’s an unintended consequence of single stream recycling: Glass bottles often break during the transportation and sorting process, and broken glass pieces can’t be recycled.

But Montgomery County residents don’t need to worry. Their dual recycling system separates paper products from glass, metal and plastics. The result: Glass bottles are much more likely to be recycled properly.

Is there anywhere I can take my glass where I know it will be recycled?

Your glass is more likely to be recycled if you take it directly to a nearby recycling drop-off center. 

Arlington County has two drop-off centers that accept glass: Quincy Park Recycling Drop-Off Center and Trades Center Recycling Drop-Off Center.

If you’re in Fairfax County, you can drop off glass at the I-66 Transfer Station or the I-95 Landfill Complex (which, despite its name, accepts recycling).

Alexandria, VA has four drop-off recycling centers that are accessible 24/7. In Maryland, Prince George’s County has two public convenience centers that accept recyclables.

Can I recycle beer caps?

The problem with beer bottle caps isn’t the material (often steel or aluminum) but the size: They’re too small for some facilities to process.

Ortiz says beer caps are OK to recycle there in Montgomery County. But elsewhere, it’s best to toss them in the trash.

Are electronics recyclable?

Do not put electronics in your blue bin. Most jurisdictions have e-waste drop-off locations. Check out the details for how to get rid of your e-waste in the District, Arlington County, Fairfax County, Montgomery County or Prince George’s County.