There is nothing like a hot cup of tea in
the morning. That is, until I’m done, and I have to
decide what to do with my cup. Can I recycle it? Is that a trick question? Yeah this is a great question. I just figure you can recycle anything that’s
cardboard-esque. I can’t recycle this? Knowing what you can and can’t recycle isn’t
easy. The rules depend on where you live, and there
are hundreds of products and materials where the rules aren’t always clear. I hear that that’s not recyclable. I don’t know if that’s like a legend,
an urban legend or something. My roommate and I actually have this discussion
where I’m like I’ll throw paper towels in there and she’s like ‘I don’t think
you can recycle them’ and pick them out. Like, I don’t know, it’s paper. I don’t know, this is so hard! The confusion means things that are actually
garbage still end up in the recycling stream. About 25% of what Americans try to recycle,
can’t actually be recycled. Waste management experts say what’s going
on here is something called “aspirational recycling”: When people are unsure if an item
can be recycled, they recycle it, because it feels like the right thing to do.
And while our intentions are good, this behavior isn’t harmless. Even small amounts of contamination can turn
entire hauls of otherwise recyclable materials into trash — and the problem has been growing. The rate of recycling contamination more than doubled in the last decade. So why is this happening? Well, it is at least in part due to a major
shift in how Americans recycle. Beginning in the 1990s and 2000s, municipalities
implemented “single stream” recycling programs. Paper, metal, plastic and glass no longer
needed to be sorted. They could all live in one bin. Communities quickly adopted the practice and
by 2014, 80% of all curbside recycling programs in the US were single stream. The problem is, there’s evidence that when
we put all our recycling into one bin, we’re more likely to throw trash in there along
with it. Take two neighboring counties in Florida,
for example: Palm Beach County, where residents must pre-sort their recyclables, had a contamination
rate of only 9 percent, while Broward County’s single-stream program had a contamination
rate of 30 percent. Single-stream recycling takes the responsibility
to sort off of the individual, and shifts it to Materials Recovery Facilities, or MRFs,
where trash gets sorted out from recycling by machines, but also by workers, who often
have to remove waste by hand: pizza boxes contaminated with grease, electronics that
aren’t processed at standard recycling facilities, even the likes of Christmas lights, animal
carcasses, and bowling balls. In Portland, workers remove thousands of dirty
diapers every month. In a perfect world, everyone would know how
to recycle correctly, but short of that, there’s something we can all start doing differently
right now: Unless you are absolutely sure, don’t recycle it. In fact, recycling education campaigns encourage
the opposite: when in doubt, the best option may be to throw it out. Most people want to do the right thing, and
sometimes the way to be a good recycler is to throw stuff in the trash. If you like this video and want more like it, we’ve launched a paid membership program on YouTube called the Vox Video Lab. For a monthly fee, subscribers get access to DVD extras, live Q&As with creators, and video recommendations. You can go to and be part of the Video Lab community. See you there!