Recycling Tips & Tricks for Busy Families

Swag (reusable bags made from plastic bottles, a pencil made from recycled newspapers, and the 2016 Service Guide) from a recent Earth Day is Every Day workshop with the San Antonio Parks & Recreation and Solid Waste Management departments.


Moms, we all know we generally have a million things to do, dates to remember, and meals to plan. We’re not looking to take on more projects most days. However, one thing we can all agree on is wanting a better, brighter future for our kids. Which leads me to something I have decided to take more seriously recently: Recycling. 

Recycling is good for the environment because it helps reduce the amount of trash taken to landfills, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, saves energy, and reduces the need for raw materials. Further, we here in San Antonio are fortunate to have access to a robust and convenient curbside recycling program, so we might as well make use of it, right?

Yet, there is another thing we moms can agree on: Time is everything. And recycling can take time. But I’ve decided I’m going to do my part to the best of my ability (within reason, given all the other things life has going on). So I’ve found ways to make my recycling routine easier and more efficient.

I’ve started paying more attention to my family’s waste and recycling habits to see what we can keep out of the landfill. As I’ve learned from the folks at Solid Waste Management, putting the wrong items in the wrong place can actually mess up the recycling process and the machines that handle all the materials. This, of course, defeats the purpose of our efforts. So lately I’ve found myself going back and forth with my husband as I stand over the recycling bin questioning its contents, like dog food bags and chip bags.

Here are a few tips and tricks I’ve implemented to make recycling easier for me and my family:

  1. Storage is key. Having a place to put recyclables is the most important part of this process, in my opinion. If all that’s available is a trash can, most likely plenty of recyclables are being disposed simply because it’s easier than going out to the blue recycling cart or holding on to those recyclables until you find the right receptacle. At my house, we keep a recycling bin right next to the trash can in our kitchen. This makes it incredibly easy for my four-year-old to turn to me and ask, “Mommy, where do I put this?” He’s getting pretty familiar with recyclables these days. You don’t have to buy a special bin to put things in; you can reuse an old laundry basket or just a plain old cardboard box. I’m also thinking about keeping a small recycling bin in the bathroom for used toiletry bottles and toilet paper rolls and maybe one in my car for empty water bottles, soda cans, etc. For items that can go in the green organics recycling cart, I keep a bucket in my garage and dump it outside in the green cart often to prevent ants and stench.
  2. Keep it clean. Be sure you rinse your glass, plastic, and styrofoam recyclables so that they can be recycled properly and won’t contaminate the paper products. This has been harder for me because I feel wasteful using water to clean a styrofoam container or milk carton. It might be easiest just to clean these items when you are cleaning the rest of your dishes. Items don’t have to be spotless, but you want to be sure paper products being recycled in the same cart don’t get too soiled or wet, or else they won’t be recyclable. It’s important to remember that if a paper product is already soiled with food or grease, just toss it on the green organics cart, not the blue recycling cart. I also found this post from How2Recycle really helpful: To rinse or not to rinse.
  3. Schedule reminders. Pretty self-explanatory, but I set reminders on my smart phone calendar to be sure I’ve dumped all my recycling and organics the night before collection. Plus, I’m always happy to put those twice-a-year “bulky item and brush collection days” or even the “free landfill days” on my calendar, too. 
  4. Get to know your local solid waste department. You might be surprised by how many services San Antonio’s Solid Waste Management Department provides in addition to weekly collections. You can download the FY2017 Solid Waste Services Guide (PDF) in English and Spanish.

Ever wonder what happens to the stuff you recycle?

“Although there are many recyclable items out there, we only have four that can be recycled through the City’s curbside single-stream recycling program: paper, plastic, cans, and glassWhen deciding if an item is acceptable to be recycled, it is important to question whether or not that item is one of the four listed above and if it is made solely out of the accepted material.” —Sarah Jacobsen, Recycling Coordinator at SWMD

Paper and plastic can be recycled about five to seven times. Paper products get turned into cardboard and newspaper as well as many other post-consumer products. Some of the most interesting things plastics are recycled into include: reusable bags, clothing, toys, playground equipment, skate park walls, benches, and chairs. Apparently it only takes five plastic water bottles to make the fiberfill for one ski jacket.

Even more interesting, cans (aluminum and steel) and glass can both be recycled indefinitely. Just think about how that could reduce production of brand new materials. Cans are most frequently made into more cans; an aluminum one can be back on the shelf within six weeks. Recycled steel cans are also be made into construction materials, car parts, and more. Glass can be recycled into more glass bottles, but because of the difficulty in separating different colors of glass in the sorting process, it is usually sold to be made into construction materials like fiberglass.

A few other helpful hints that save time and energy:

  1. Don’t worry about removing labels from cans. It’s not necessary.
  2. Don’t worry about removing labels and lids from plastic containers. That’s not necessary either.
  3. If a container has a pump top, like hand soap, remove and throw away the top before recycling the rest of the bottle.
  4. Don’t bag recyclables. Keep all items loose in the cart (aside from the plastic bags themselves).
  5. When in doubt, throw it out! You don’t want to take a chance messing up the process or the machines. Just toss items you aren’t sure about into the trash.

Common kitchen & pantry items: Blue recycling cart or not?

Yes. OK, this is an easy one. Of course plastic bottles are recyclable. I listed this one first because of the astounding mass quantities of bottles used these days. According to one source, nore than 60 million plastic water bottles end up in landfills every day. (That doesn’t even include other plastic beverage bottles.) The United States leads the world in the consumption of bottled water. Please be sure to also recycle other plastic beverage bottles. Just rinse them out first!

Yes. Both of these bags can be recycled. SWMD currently accepts plastic bags and plastic film, if they are clean and bundled together. Use a single clean plastic bag and fill it with all other clean plastic bags until it is about the size of a soccer ball and tie the bag closed tightly before throwing it in the blue recycling cart. Other acceptable items include: dry cleaning bags, plastic wrap on DVDs, LEGO® (and other toys) bags, water bottle packages, and toilet paper packs, etc. However, black plastic bags cannot be recycled nor can produce bags with mesh material.

Yes. Here’s one that takes just a bit of effort. Cut the zipper off. Toss the part with the zipper into the trash, clean inside the bag (if necessary), and throw the remaining plastic in the bag where you’re storing all the other grocery, bread, tortilla, and produce bags to be recycled.

Yes. Styrofoam that was used for food or drink can be recycled. (You can usually find a recycling symbol on the bottom.) This includes to-go containers. You’ll need to clean off any food or liquids before recycling, though. 

Yes. Glass containers of all colors can be recycled.

Here’s what Solid Waste Management has to say, “For glass to be recycled, it had to have a food or drink in it when it was purchased. These will always have lids, which need to be removed, but can still be recycled. Examples are pickle jars, soda and alcohol bottles, baby food jars, salsa jars, etc. Mason jars are the only exception to the rule, as far as needing to have food or drink in it when it was purchased, as these can be recycled with the lids removed. Examples of glass items to keep out of the recycling would be mirrors, window glass, picture frame glass, vases, kitchen glasses, plates, coffee mugs, etc. These items are made with different materials than the accepted glass items and would melt at different temperatures in the recycling process, so they can’t be recycled together.”

No. You might think these could go in with the other types of recyclable plastic bags, but cereal bags are not made with the same plastic and cannot currently be accepted for curbside recycling. A tip I heard from another recycling expert is if the plastic cannot stretch it is not recyclable.

No. Straight from Sarah Jacobsen at Solid Waste Management, “Pizza boxes are one of the most common paper mistakes placed in the recycling. The pizza boxes are too greasy and not a good material to be recycled. If the top of the box is clean, you can tear that off and recycle it, but the greasy bottom part should be composted, put in the city organics cart, or thrown in the garbage.”

No. This is one that’s been an issue in my family. Since chip bags are made of mixed materials (usually foil and plastic), they don’t belong in the recycling bin. Pringles cans are made of even more materials—metal, cardboard, foil, and plastic—and cannot be recycled. The machines at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) don’t have the ability to separate an item made from multiple materials.

No. I have a feeling this is another one families often assume is recyclable. I know my family did. Plastic pet food bags should not go in the blue recycling cart but should go in the trash. However, if you have paper pet food bags, those can go in the green organics recycling cart.

No. None of these items should go in the blue recycling cart. However, even if they are soiled with food and dirt they can still go in the green organics cart! This makes me very happy because my family uses a lot of paper plates and a lot of paper towels.

Yes. You might think they are not recyclable because of the waxy outer layer and plastic lid. But according to several sources, you can put these in the blue recycling cart. Of course, you can also recycle plastic milk/juice jugs after they are rinsed.

Common household items: Blue recycling cart or not?

Yes. This is a pretty common question because of the plastic window a lot of envelopes have. You can actually leave the plastic window and it will still be recycled.  

No. You definitely don’t want to put alkaline batteries in the blue recycling cart or the trash. Store these batteries and take them to Household Hazardous Waste Drop-Off Center to be disposed of properly. Rechargeable batteries can be taken to a hazardous waste facility or a nearby Call2Recycle drop-off like those found at Home Depot. Call2Recycle can now accept alkaline batteries too.

No. This type of Styrofoam is not acceptable because it shreds, unlike the Styrofoam used for food and beverages.

From SWMD, “Packaging Styrofoam should not go in the recycle bin. The best way to determine if Styrofoam can be recycled is the ‘tear test.’ If you tear the Styrofoam and it stays in two pieces, it can be recycled. If you tear it and it flakes, it cannot be recycled at the MRF. The flaking Styrofoam ends up breaking apart and flying away in the process of sorting the recyclables, which ends up making a mess and none of it gets recycled.”

However, as I’ve learned from a fellow ACMBer, The UPS Store accepts packaging peanuts of all sizes, shapes, and colors for reuse

Yes, but only if the wrap consists of only paper. Tissue paper can also be recycled.

This was a post I grabbed from the Solid Waste Management Facebook page over the holidays:

No. You can’t recycle shredded paper because the pieces are too small for the recycling machines at the Materials Recovery Facility. But you can toss the shreds into the organics can.

No. A tube of toothpaste cannot be recycled, but you can recycle the box the tube came in if it had one.

Yes. Shampoo and other toiletry bottles can be recycled. You actually don’t even need to rinse them out!

No. These can only go in the trash. Definitely don’t try to flush these either. Have you seen the trouble they’ve caused in sewer lines?

However, you can usually recycle the container or bag the wipes came in (you might need to separate the top portion), and you can definitely recycle the cardboard box in multipacks.

No. There is not a single type of bulb that can go in the blue recycling cart. 

Incandescent and halogen bulbs go in the trash.

These types of bulbs should be taken to your Hazardous Waste Center: LED, LCD, compact fluorescent.

Create a storage space for used light bulbs so you can be sure to take them with you on your next trip to a designated recycling location. If you’re looking for more info on recycling bulbs, check this page on Recycle Nation’s site

No. Whether they are plastic or metal, they don’t belong in the blue recycling cart.

No. It may be obvious that you can’t toss these in the blue recycling cart, but you can recycle these at your area Office Depot/Office Max store. Even better, you can get $2 off a same-day binder purchase. Learn more about this program. Now you know what to do with those tattered binders once school lets out!

“But you don’t have to take my word for it…”

Additional recycling resources and information:

ReCommunity Recycling—A nation leader in recycling and sustainability. ReCommunity believes in the restorative power of recycling and what it can do to build jobs, revenue, and a future for our communities. I was particularly interested in all the educational resources on their site. This short video from ReCommunity Recycling might be fun to share with your kids.

SA Recycles—This is your best resource for local recycling guidelines and programs. Check out the School Recycling Program flier. If you’re looking for children’s books about recycling, a good place to start might be this guide from San Antonio Parks & Recreation, which offers discussion topics for three books on recycling.

San Antonio Brush Recycling Centers—There are two sites in town where you can take your brush, leaves, and grass. This is when you can take your real Christmas tree after all the holiday decorations have been removed. These centers recycle all the brush into mulch, which is available to purchase. 

My Waste—There’s even an app for that! I downloaded the app and connected to my local Solid Waste Management to sync with collection schedules. I’ve also used the “What Goes Where?” tool when I don’t know if a specific item is recyclable. Just a quick search will get you an answer.

Recycle Coach—What kind of recycler are you? Take the quiz and find out. It will also compare your score to the average score in other cities and countries. In the USA, the average score is 65. Canada’s is 70, and the United Kingdom’s is 65.

TerraCycle—Eliminating the Idea of Waste® by recycling the “non-recyclable.” This was a new one for me and quite ambitious. TerraCycle partners with individuals/organizations, retailers, manufacturers, and small businesses across 20 different countries to recycle those hard-to-recycle products like baby food pouches, energy bar wrappers, snack bags, and much more. Groups can sign up to earn points to be redeemed as a cash donation to schools and nonprofits.

Earth911—”A community that helps consumers find their own shade of green, match their values to their purchase behaviors, adopt environmentally sound practices, and drive impactful environmental changes.” They’ve also put together a great recycling app, iRecycle.

How2Recycle—These label aims to clarify actual recyclability of packaging components to consumers. The How2Recycle™ Label is a voluntary, standardized labeling system that clearly communicates recycling instructions to the public. I first noticed these labels on a Target-brand package and really appreciated the clarity and direction. Numerous national brands are joining this movement which I think is great.

Elements of the How2Recycle Label


Retailers with recycling programs—It’s becoming more common for retailers to offer recycling options. Here are just a few moms will find useful.

H&M—In addition to all the great nonprofits you can donate clothes to, we’ve heard that H&M will accept your old clothes for recycling and give you a 15% discount for a future purchase at their stores. One of our ACMB staff members recently took advantage of this offer.

Best Buy—Many of the kinds of items that are sold new at Best Buy can also be recycled at the store, ranging from computers to vacuums and rechargeable batteries to e-readers. You can get 15% off on HP inkjet printer when you recycle an old printer at Best Buy.

Home Depot—Stores with Call2Recycle drop-off locations accept rechargeable batteries and cell phones. Find one near you. Many Home Depot locations also accept compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) for recycling. 

Lowes—You can recycle rechargeable batteries, cell phones, and compact fluorescent light bulbs at most stores.  

Office Depot/Office Max—Recycle your ink and toner cartridges and get points towards a rewards certificate for your next purchase.

Batteries Plus Bulbs—Need we say more?

We can all make a difference.

There is so much to learn about recycling it’s never-ending, because scientists, researchers, and businesses are constantly finding ways to improve the current recycling system. Like I said, recycling takes a bit of time and effort, but if we all try just a bit, or even a bit more, we can have real impact. The United States currently recycles only about 1/3 of its waste and sends about half of its waste to the landfill. Wouldn’t it be great if we could reverse those numbers?

We’d love to hear how your family recycles! Please share your ideas and helpful hints in the comments for everyone to learn more.

Heather was born and raised in San Antonio and became a mom in 2013 and again in 2018. She never imagined she'd be raising two sons but is grateful for the opportunity! Heather enjoys the outdoors and even mowing her own lawn. She and her husband Santiago look forward to raising two feminist boys who will hopefully be better at Spanish than she is. Her professional experience since graduating from Tufts University with a degree in Art History includes working for a variety of arts and cultural nonprofit organizations, from grassroots to governmental. She spent a few years as a stay at home parent and is easing her way back into the workforce. Her dream job would be to work for Sesame Workshop, or President of the United States. In the meantime, Heather enjoys filling her family's weekends with the diversity San Antonio has to offer. Favorite Restaurant: La Tuna Favorite Landmark: Hemisfair Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Breakfast tacos


  1. Metal hangers are accepted for reuse at most dry cleaners.
    What I’d love to find a recycling option for is black nursery plant pots. Lowe’s promoted a program online a few years ago, but I’ve never seen a recycling receptacle in stores.

    • That’s a great point about taking hangers to dry cleaners! My husband usually takes a bundle with him to be reused. Are none of the black nursery plant pots recyclable? We usually stock pile ours for other uses but I never looked for a recycling symbol. Thanks for your comments.

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