recycled materials in bales at a MRF Recycling

3 Factors that Determine if Something Can Be Recycled

Cristie Snyder

You are a recycler. You sort, rinse and set out your paper, bottles and cans on the curb. Yet you still have things to throw away. You wonder why Styrofoam™ trays and takeout containers can’t go in the recycling bin. And what about all the other plastics your city says cannot be recycled?

What makes some things recyclable and some things not recyclable?

To understand that question is first to understand how recycling works. Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new materials and objects. For recycling to work, there must be a large supply of a homogeneous materials, a way to collect and process those materials and there needs to be a market demand. And all that has to make sense economically.

Recyclable materials are commodities that are bought and sold all over the world. Without end markets that can convert these materials into new products and goods, there is no recycling. And while it may feel good to put things out for recycling, those items are not truly “recycled” until they move through a complex system. There are three factors that determine whether an item can be recycled or not.


Recycling collection has evolved from segregating paper, cans and glass at the curb to a commingled collection where you don’t have to separate your recyclables. Today, you commingle your recyclables into a bin, bag or cart for collection. This method has made collection more efficient but has complicated the recycling of household recyclables because the sorting residents used to do themselves must now be done at a processing facility called a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). The mechanical sorting that takes place at these facilities limits the types of materials that can be recovered for recycling. These systems are engineered to sort specific items based on their shape, size and material type.


Once picked up, residential recycling travels to a MRF for sorting and processing. The mixed recyclables travel through a series of conveyors, disk screens, optical sorters and magnets to separate the cans, cartons, fiber, glass and plastic bottles and jugs into separate commodity streams. Questions that MRF owners ask before deciding what to accept include:

  • What is the machinery designed to manage? What can it capture?
  • Can the item be safely sorted by the machinery?
  • Is it dangerous or hazardous to the employees or the machines?
  • Is there a buyer for the material that is being sorted?
  • Can I sort the material and still make money?


Once curbside recyclables are sorted, they are usually baled and sold on the open market.  Recycling is part of the global economy and the following market and economic factors will help determine the recyclability of a particular material. Questions that manufacturers will ask include:

  • Is recycled material cheaper to use than virgin material to produce a product?
  • Can energy be saved by using recycled materials instead of virgin materials to produce a product?
  • Is the material supply free of contamination?
  • Is there a reliable supply of a material to support using it as a raw material?
  • Can the material replace virgin material in a product and meet the same quality and performance standards?
  • Can the material be sorted and processed economically?

The curbside recycling system is designed to collect, sort and market the following items only: Cans, cartons, glass bottles and jars, paper and cardboard plus plastic bottles and jugs. If an item is not on this short list, leave it out of your curbside recycling.

There are certain items that our recycling systems cannot support at this time, including many plastics that can’t be processed or sold like clamshells, takeout containers and cups. People should avoid using these items because they can only go in the trash.

Some items should not go in the curbside recycling but can be recycled elsewhere.  Plastic bags can be recycled at local retail stores, clothing and textiles and cloth can be donated to a worthy cause and scrap metal can be dropped off at a bin in your city service department or a local scrap metal yard.

If non-recyclable items are put into curbside recycling, they must be sorted out and thrown away, making it an expensive piece of trash. Proper recycling is important. Support recycling by following the curbside rules and learn about other recycling opportunities in Cuyahoga County by visiting

And remember, the best practice is not to create waste in the first place. Reduce and reuse before you recycle.