Recycling awaiting pickup in the Queen Village neighborhood, next to trash. (Maxine Mayer for Billy Penn)

Ever stood in front of your recycling bin wondering whether that pizza box should go in or not? What does the triangle symbol mean? Is it more environmentally helpful to throw paper in the waste bin instead? 

You’re not alone. Recycling rules can sometimes feel like a puzzle.

We’ve got an explainer on general best practices for recycling in Philly (bookmark it for reference), and the Streets Department also has a resource guide. Still, some pervasive myths persist.

“We all breathe the same air and we all drink water from the same sources, and so we need to conserve those natural resources and take care of our environment, and one of the easiest ways to do that is through recycling.” said Kyle Lewis, the Streets Dept. recycling program director. 

Some residents question whether the city is still tossing recycling in with the trash like had to happen during the pandemic, but officials assured Billy Penn last year separate recycling collection is now the norm — though they acknowledge some unauthorized mixing still may occur. Either way, it’s worth doing your part.

In honor of America Recycles Day, here’s some straight facts you can share with like-minded folks, Philadelphians who don’t mind a few extra steps for a chance to help save the planet.

TRUTH: Do put clean, dry glass bottles in your bins

For years there has been a debate on whether or not glass should be put in single-stream recycling bins. 

Theoretically, it’s a very reusable material, and glass recycling helps to free up landfill space that would otherwise be occupied by discarded bottles and jars, resulting in fewer glass items accumulating in landfills or bins. 

The main argument for keeping it out of the bin revolves around the fact that it can break, and potentially “contaminate” the rest of the batch. Harrisburg recently asked residents to keep glass bottles separate for that reason. 

Here in Philadelphia, however, there should be no problem, according to Lewis. That’s as long as the glass product is emptied, rinsed, and dry (you don’t want liquid leaking out onto paper products and making a soggy mess).

TRUTH: Paper products should be recycled

Paper decomposes at a faster rate than plastics and other materials, so it won’t have as much detrimental effect when tossed into a landfill. But it’s still more environmentally friendly to recycle it, according to Green America.

Not only does it take 26% less energy to make paper products from those in the recycling stream, it also minimizes the need to cut down more trees. 

TRUTH: *Grease-free* pizza boxes can be recycled

There was a big to-do a few years back where Philadelphia begged residents to stop putting pizza boxes in recycling bins. They were identified as a no-no on Streets Dept. graphics and everything, with the warning that it would contaminate the entire batch of recyclable items ultimately sending it to the landfill.

Turns out that only applies to pizza boxes that have grease stains.

IF your box is free of grease and has no food sticking to it, the flattened box can go in the recycling bin, city officials said.

TRUTH: Philadelphia only recycles 2-1-5

The three triangular arrows you see on plastic bottles stand for reduce, reuse and recycle. While the symbol indicates that the item is made from recycled materials, it does not necessarily mean the item itself is recyclable. 

The key to whether it goes in the bin or not lies with the number in the middle of the triangle, said Lewis, the recycling director.

Philadelphia recycles numbers one, two, and five — a familiar collection of digits. “It’s easy to remember that we want the ones, twos, and fives in the 215,” Lewis said.

These numbers represent all food and beverage containers, hard plastic takeout containers, detergent and shampoo bottles, pump and spray bottles, and plastic bottles and jugs. When recycling these items it is important that the container is completely emptied, rinsed, and dry with lids and caps on. 

TRUTH: Plastic bags cannot be recycled

Plastic bags fall under category No. 4, and therefore cannot be recycled in Philadelphia. 

Furthermore, when plastic bags get into the city’s system, they can cause major problems with the recycling machinery and facilities, endangering the environment and the employees.

Recycling facilities see plastic bags daily, Lewis said, which forces workers to stop during the sorting process and slows everything down: “People have to go down like harnessed up and safety geared up to cut those plastic bags and any kind of film plastic out of the machinery.”

To collect your items, use a bin instead of a bag, box, or other container. 

Residents can get a free recycling bin at one of the six sanitation convenience centers in the city. Just  bring a government-issued photo ID or lease or utility bills to prove you live in Philly. Each residential address can receive a max of two bins per year and one bin per visit.