Recycle or Not? for the Environment

Recycle or Not? for the Environment

Turns out a lot of people put the wrong things in the recycling with confidence that they are doing the right thing for the environment. What they don’t realize is that wishful recycling can do more harm than good.

Too many residents in the Portland metro area are putting garbage in the curbside mixed recycling containers, which is undermining the entire system and making it harder for recyclable materials to get recycled. So, Metro set out to research why this is happening and created some new tools to address what they learned.


Turns out a lot of people in our area put the wrong things in the recycling with confidence that they are doing the right thing for the environment. 51% of those surveyed looked at a picture of a hinged to-go container and said, “yes, I am very confident or somewhat confident I can place that in the recycling.” 62% said the same for coffee cups and a whopping 89% felt confident they could put the ice cream frozen food box in the recycling. Each of these items are problematic for recycling and should be thrown in the garbage.

What is even more useful about the study is that it revealed why people thought they could put this trash in the recycling. Many read the labels and looked for chasing arrows or numbers, not knowing that these can be misleading. Others would just feel or look the material and felt like it was the type of material you can put in. A surprising number of people were confident the items go in, because that is what they always knew to be true.

Most agreed that it was better for the environment to recycle more -than to recycle right. So, when they weren’t really sure, they would throw it in with the hope that someone would correct the mistake if it didn’t belong.

How to Recycle Right

  • Take a quick scan through the NEW so you can check for sure what goes in the recycling and what goes in the trash.

  • When you have a confusing item in hand, don’t look at the labels. Visit or send a picture to @recycleornot and they will post it with the answer.

  • If you are still in doubt, throw it out or Ask Metro 503-234-3000.

  • Recycle or not will also periodically feature items that are especially bad for the recycling and confusing for recyclers. Right now, the feature is plastic bags and wrap.

Embrace the Garbage Can


Putting trash in the garbage is better -for the environment- than putting it in the mixed recycling.

It can be heartbreaking to learn that the frozen dinner box that you have always recycled actually belongs in the garbage. Until you realize that the garbage can is just as much a part of the curbside collection system designed to help protect the environment. Garbage cans stop litter, keep plastic out of the ocean, and keep our recycling clean.

Perhaps you want convincing before you are ready to embrace the garbage can? Take a look at this chart that shows where the plastic in the ocean is coming from. We worry a lot about throw-away single use plastic because it might end up in the ocean. This chart shows that the US is not the greatest source of plastics in the ocean (or not directly at any rate).


The countries who are sending plastics to the ocean don’t have garbage collection or don’t properly manage their landfills. Landfills there are open pits, often near waterways, that overflow into those waterways. Our landfills were just like this until the 90’s when we began to regulate them for the environment. We are privileged to have access to well managed landfills. If we put trash in the landfill, we can be assured it will stay there.

However, if we put trash in the recycling, where does it go? It goes to countries with landfills that are sending plastics to the ocean. They can’t recycle it, so they throw it away. One of the most direct ways we can send non-recyclable plastics to the ocean (besides littering or throwing them directly in) is by throwing them in the mixed recycling.

Some have noticed that the Recycle or Not program tells people to throw some items in the trash even though they may have non-curbside recycling options. It is intentional. It is that important that we stop putting non-curbside recycling into the mixed recycling. It is great to use the Metro Recycling Hotline 503-234-300 or find a recycler to find other places to take materials. But the hard-to-recycle materials are better in the garbage than the curbside recycling.

Putting Recycling in its Place

Recycling basic paper, metal, glass and plastics does help the environment by displacing the need for raw materials. Oregon carefully selected items for its curbside program that can be broken back down and sold to manufacturers to make new products. When we put these specific items in the mixed recycling we save energy, reduce deforestation and mining, and curb climate change and air and water pollution.

So, shouldn’t the curbside collection system let us recycle more? Recycling is good, and it is part of a larger hierarchy of actions we must take to curb the impacts materials have on human well-being and the environment. Recycling is not at the top of that hierarchy.

David Allaway from the Oregon DEQ says that we recycle about half of the waste we generate and that is pretty good. He agrees we need to recycle more and recycle right, but even if we worked to get near zero waste by recycling and composting 90% of our discards, it would be grossly inadequate in addressing our global environmental problems like climate change. You can see on his chart that Materials make up about a third of Oregon’s greenhouse gas emissions. And you can see what a small part of those emissions would be reduced if we were to reach the goal of a 90% recovery rate.

He encourages us to recycle right and then redirect our creative energy and political will to move up the hierarchy to reduce and reuse.  


We can empower change!