Why did the guidelines change for curbside recycling?

Curbside recycling is facing a contamination crisis. Contamination is caused when people place materials in the recycling bin that do not belong. Recycling processors have a difficult time sorting out the trash, which makes its way into the sorted/baled material that is sold to market. For a long time, China was the largest buyer of this material from the U.S. And because of increasing contamination levels, China made the decision to stop importing this material. This left the U.S. with an overabundance of recyclable commodities (re: baled material) with a lot of trash mixed in.

To address the contamination issue and ensure curbside recycling is sustainable, we went “back to the basics” with four material types that have a strong domestic market—meaning, there is a demand for this material by manufacturers in the U.S. We call these materials the “Big 3” and include: 1) corrugated cardboard (like shipping and packing boxes), 2) metal food and beverage cans, 3) plastic bottles and jugs with a neck.



Why are some materials allowed in the recycling bin, while others go to a drop-off location?

In Salt Lake County, we use a process called “single-stream” recycling, where residents can put all their approved recyclables into one bin. These materials are collected and taken to a materials recovery facility (MRF) where they are sorted, baled, and sold to manufacturers, who turn them into new products. The sorting process is mostly automated, using various screens, magnets, and optical sorters to identify materials. MRFs are built to only sort certain items, so any additional materials are contaminants.
For some materials, like newsprint, plastics bags and Styrofoam, these materials can be recycled, but must be separated and taken to an approved drop-off location. Do not place these materials in your recycling bin, as the MRF cannot separate them and they may be contaminants, which are discarded as trash.

If something has the recycling symbol on it, does that mean it can go in my bin?

No. The “chasing arrows” symbol is simply a communication tool used by manufacturers. Sometimes it means a manufacturer used recycled material in the product. Other times it shares information about how the product is made. For instance, the chasing arrows symbol with a number indicates the plastic resin code—meaning the base type of plastic being used. But plastics are made in different ways, and use various additives, which give them their shape, flexibility, strength, etc. So, not all plastics with a particular number (ex: #1 PET) are the same.
Follow the Big 3 guidelines only when deciding whether something should be placed in your curbside bin. You can use the chasing arrows symbol as a guide when buying materials, as you look for items that include recycled content in the product.