These days, recycling is more ubiquitous than ever. The EPA estimates that the U.S. recycles 32 percent of its waste, and in many cities, residents need only place their glass, plastic or paper in the proper receptacle outside their front doors. But sometimes it’s hard to tell if a particular piece of garbage, like a greasy, cheese-encrusted pizza box, is actually recyclable. In these instances, is it better to toss something that’s potentially recyclable in the landfill-bound trash, or take your chances and send it to the recycler?

The Claim: When in doubt, throw it out.

The Facts: Misidentifying recyclables is costly. In Phoenix, for instance, almost 25 percent of items mixed in with the recycling aren’t really recyclable, and removing this errant trash (which is rerouted to the local landfill) costs the city nearly $1 million every year. Some unacceptable junk, such as plastic grocery sacks and extension cords, can jam conveyor belts and cause equipment breakdowns. Food scraps left clinging to cans and other packaging can also gum up the works. These work stoppages and machine repairs add to the costs that recyclers charge cities. And even if the non-recyclable trash doesn’t cause delays or damage, it still has to be separated and transported to a dump, which wastes resources and makes recycling more expensive.

The Conclusion: If you’re not absolutely sure that an item is recyclable, bypass the recycling bin and throw it in the trash instead. For a list of recyclables, contact your local recycler or the National Recycling Coalition. And if you’re still wondering about that pizza box — pitch it in the recycling bin only if it’s free of food and grease.

Story by Alisa Opar. This article originally appeared in Plenty in April 2007. The story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.