Discover the contaminated items that you should actually be tossing out.

By Nashia Baker
November 03, 2020

Understandably, your lifestyle has changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic—whether that means adjusting to a work-from-home routine or prepping meals instead of dining out. But one aspect of life that you can still maintain is recycling. "When residents recycle, the material can again serve a purpose and have a new life instead of filling a landfill," says Belinda Mager, the director of communications for the New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY). The DSNY, along with local recycling centers, are still accepting the items you throw out on a regular basis—including all metal types, glass, plastic, cartons, paper, and cardboard. But there are more precautions to take before tossing some of these in a recycling bin. Here, find out the best plan of action for recycling during the coronavirus outbreak.

young woman in protective face mask and rubber gloves throwing garbage into recyclable trash
Credit: Getty / Anastasia Gorlanova / EyeEm

Understand the products to recycle.

Before you start recycling, you should take a look at recycling symbols to understand what is recyclable in the first place. For example, on the bottom of plastic bottles, you will find symbols that explain what type of plastic is used, per the Plastics Industry Association. If you see PET, that means these plastics are used for single-use beverages, mouthwash bottles, and other food packaging. HDPE plastics are used for items like milk jugs, yogurt containers, and detergent bottles—which are then recycled into into pens, outdoor furniture, and floor tile.

LDPE items are used for grocery bags and plastic wrap, which, in turn, are reused for garbage cans, flooring, and bubble wrap after being recycled. PP (or polypropylene) is also used for food containers and recycled to make battery cables, brushes, pallets, and trays. PS, better known as Styrofoam, is not typically accepted in most municipal groups, but it can be recycled here and there to make egg cartons and carry-out containers. Lastly, plastics including polycarbonate—used to make sunglasses and baby bottles—shouldn't be recycled since they contains BPA (a toxic chemical that can cause health issues).

Clean your recyclables.

Keep in mind that recycling is not just a practice that benefits not just the environment, but it also helps produce the very items people need most during the pandemic. According to the United States Environmental Protective Agency (EPA), recycled materials can help produce essential supplies like paper towels, sanitizing wipes, packaging, and more. One way to be helpful in this process is by rinsing and air-drying items, like food containers, and recycling them instead of throwing them away.

Mager adds that supplies don't need to be sparkling clean for them to be able to be recycled. "Items such as glass food jars and plastic clamshells don't need to be perfectly clean, but we do ask that you give them a quick rinse before putting them in the recycling bin," she says. "This helps keep the old food bits from clogging up the recycling machinery."

Toss out contaminated items.

One of the main items to avoid putting in the recycling bin? Paper protective masks. "Disposable masks should be placed in the trash bin, along with other 'personal care' items such as bandages, diapers, and feminine care items," Mager says of these contaminated products. You can, however, still recycle other paper items during the pandemic—like paper bags, newspapers, receipts, and mixed paper.

The EPA also shares that other essentials you use amid the COVID-19 pandemic—specifically plastic bags, wipes, and latex gloves—should stay out of the recycling bin. To avoid cross-contamination during the outbreak, you should also toss out any plastic gloves after one use in a closed lid trash can and take them off in a specific way, too. "Gloves should be inverted for removal by turning them into one another, but you can very easily contaminate your bare hands by doing this, so immediately washing your hands once you have removed your gloves is always the best practice," Amanda Rempe, RN BSN at Wesley Medical Center, says. Adam Milstein, Detroit-based RN BSN, adds: "Grab one glove with the other gloved hand and remove (glove to glove), then with your un-gloved finger remove the second glove by sliding your finger under the glove and remove." If anyone in your household contracted the virus or has been exposed to it, the environmental agency adds that all of your recyclables should be treated as trash.


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