Recycling Myth Busters

Picture of the Mythbusters and a recycling bin
March 19, 2020

Myth 1: Philadelphia just burns its recycling 

There was a period in 2019 where Philadelphia sent half of its recycling to be incinerated at a waste-to-energy plant. Philadelphia, like most other cities, used to send its recycling to China. But in 2018, China enacted a policy where they would only take recyclables with a contamination level below 0.5%. Philadelphia usually has a contamination rate of 14-24%, which meant it was too expensive to send its recycling to China anymore. In the interim between contracts, Philadelphia sent half of its recycling to be incinerated at a waste-to-energy facility. Starting in April 2019, Philadelphia has a new contract with Waste Management, the company that sorts and processes all of the recycling for the City. The City’s recycling is no longer burned. Check out these Daily Pennsylvanian and Philadelphia Inquirer articles to learn more.

Myth 2: Penn doesn’t actually recycle  

Penn has a different recycling vendor than the City of Philadelphia – our contract is with JP Mascaro & Sons, not Waste Management. Because of this, our campus waste was not as harshly affected by China’s new recycling policies, and Penn’s recycling was not sent to an incinerator (see Myth 1). Sometimes you may see housekeepers place both clear/black trash and blue recycling bags in the same cart. However, this does not mean that the bags end up in the same place! Housekeepers take the bags to the building’s loading dock and sort the bags into the correct bins. As long as you sort your waste correctly before throwing it out, you can be sure it is being recycled properly. Check out this infographic to see where your recycling is going.

Myth 3: You can recycle plastic bags, napkins, Styrofoam, or electronics 

These are common mistakes but you CANNOT recycle plastic bags, napkins/paper towels, Styrofoam, or electronics in single-stream recycling. Remember: if you are ever unsure if something is recyclable, put it in the trash instead. When you are collecting your recycling, DO NOT put it in a plastic bag or garbage bag and put it in the recycling bin. If you do this, it is difficult for the materials recovery facility to break apart the plastic bags and release the recyclable items within to properly sort them. Please just empty the items loosely into the recycling bin.  

Paper towels and napkins cannot be recycled because they usually come in contact with food or bodily fluids and cannot be cleaned during the sorting process.  

Styrofoam is 95% air, so it is not cost-effective to recycle. Additionally, it is usually contaminated with food residue since the material is so porous.  

It is ILLEGAL to throw out electronic waste (e-waste), such as phones, computers, and TVs in general waste streams. Penn has collection centers in certain buildings. Check out the Special Recycling Page on our website to see where to recycle e-waste and other special items such as batteries and light bulbs on campus. 

Look at this infographic to see generally what goes into the recycling bin. Additionally, here is an on-campus and off-campus recycling guide.  

Myth 4: Recycling is the best thing you can do for the environment 

Recycling items is much better for the environment compared to sending waste to landfills, in terms of carbon dioxide and methane emissions, as well as land use. HOWEVER, recycling should be your LAST option before landfill. REDUCING your waste consumption in the first place is the best way to decrease the amount of trash in the environment. Cut out single-use plastics and other unnecessary items. Bring REUSABLE items with you instead such as reusable utensils, water bottles, coffee cups, and straws.  

Myth 5: Recycling isn’t single stream    

Recycling is single stream both on campus and in Philadelphia. All types of recyclables (paper, aluminum, glass, cardboard, and plastic) can be placed in the same container. Some bins on campus are old and may still have separate bins for “mixed paper” or “plastic/glass/aluminum.” However, ALL recyclables can go in these bins.  

Myth 6: Your recyclables have to be in perfect condition in order to be recycled 

You can still recycle things that have a little bit of food waste in them. They don’t need to be sparkling clean in order to toss them in the bin. However, try to throw out as much food as possible in the normal trash and dump out any liquids. If a recyclable item is too dirty, it contaminates the rest of the stream. 

For example, pizza boxes can still be recycled if there’s a little bit of grease in them, but not if there’s a lot of food waste and residue left on the cardboard.  

Myth 7: You can recycle compostable/biodegradable materials 

Compostable and biodegradable materials CANNOT go in the recycling bin. No recycling or compost vendors in our area have the ability to take and process these materials. If you are ever unsure if an item is recyclable, put it in the trash. There are many options on campus to compost your food waste. There is a compost bin accessible to any member of the Penn community behind Harrison College House. Check the Compost Page on our website to see the other locations.