The Language of Recycling

Recycling symbols and labeling rules help you know whether a product or package is recyclable or made of recycled materials. Sounds straightforward enough. But every community’s recycling program is different. Just because a product or package carries the universal recycling symbol or says it’s recyclable doesn’t mean it can be recycled where you live. You can help your community save time and money by paying attention to the items it recycles, the ones it doesn’t, and what exactly should and shouldn’t go in your recycling bin.

Can I Recycle It?

Maybe. A product or package that’s recyclable can be separated from the trash through a recycling program and be used again or made into a new product.

Even if a product is recyclable, you need to know whether your community recycles it. Find out from your city or county government about curbside pick-up or drop-off options for recycling:

  • plastic
  • glass
  • metal
  • newspapers and other products

Sometimes, businesses recycle products for you. For example:

  • Grocery stores may take back plastic grocery bags
  • Some manufacturers of toner cartridges encourage you to return empty cartridges to be reused for remanufacturing
  • Hardware stores may recycle used CFL light bulbs

What Makes a Product Recycled?

Recycled products are products made from materials recovered or separated from the "waste stream," melted down or ground up into raw materials, and then used to make new products.

Recycled content can be:

  • Pre-consumer: From the manufacturing process, like scraps left over when envelopes are cut from paper.
  • Post-consumer: From a product that’s already been used, like newspapers, shipping cartons, plastic bottles, glass containers, and metal cans.

If a product says it’s made from recycled materials, look for specifics. Do the claims apply to the product, the packaging, or both? How much of the product or package is recycled? Unless the product or package contains 100 percent recycled materials, the label must tell you how much is recycled.

Remember that even if a product is made from some recycled content, you may not be able to recycle it. Your city or county determines what can be recycled.

What Does the Universal Recycling Symbol Mean?

universal recycling symbolWondering whether something can be recycled? The universal recycling symbol is one way companies tell you a product or package is recyclable. It also can mean a product is made of recycled content. But your best source of information for what you can recycle where you live is your local recycling program.

For information on recycling electronics, visit the EPA website at

For more on products that are biodegradable or compostable, read Shopping "Green".

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