The Language of Recycling

Recycling symbols and labeling rules help you know whether a product or package is recyclable or made with recycled materials. But just because a product or package has the universal recycling symbol or says it’s recyclable doesn’t mean it can be recycled in your area. Every community sets its own recycling rules. You can help your community save time and money when you know which items it recycles — or doesn’t — and what to put in your recycling bin.

Can I Recycle It?

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 can be recycled, you need to know whether your community will recycle it. Find out if your city or county government has curbside pick-up or drop-off options for recycling:

  • plastic
  • glass
  • metal
  • newspapers and other paper products

Sometimes, businesses will 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
  • hardware supply stores may recycle used CFL light bulbs

Products Made with Recycled Content

When a marketer says a product was made with recycled content, it should be able to show the product was made from materials recovered or separated from the "waste stream" and re-used. A manufacturer may use:

  • pre-consumer recycled content from the manufacturing process. For example, paper scraps left over when envelopes are cut.
  • post-consumer recycled content from products that people or businesses already used. For example, newspapers, shipping cartons, plastic bottles, glass containers, and metal cans.

If a product says it’s made with recycled materials, look for specifics. Are the claims about the product, the packaging, or both? How much of the product or package is made with recycled content? Unless the product or package contains 100 percent recycled materials, the label should tell you what portion is recycled.

The Universal Recycling Symbol

universal recycling symbolThe universal recycling symbol tells you a product or package is recyclable or was made with recycled content.

For information on recycling electronics, visit the EPA website at epa.gov.

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

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