How To Curbside Recycle

I recently watched the holiday edition of Nashville’s How to Recycle Right webinar. Specifically, it was about what could and couldn’t go into a curbside recycling bin in Nashville. It explained a lot of the Whys and Why Nots of recycling.

These statistics caught my attention and have inspired me to become more informed and intentional about recycling:

  • 80% of all waste goes into a landfill. Landfills have no value.
  • 12% of waste gets recycled. Recycled trash gives new value.
  • 8% of waste gets composted. Composted matter gives new value.

Waste management and the concept of recycling to make new products is an extensive topic. This post addresses what can and can’t go into our curbside recycling bins and WHY. Check with your city’s waste management website for specifics for your area. For example, Nashville no longer has a buyer for dairy recyclables, so they now need to go into the landfill bin.

Recyclers all need to know this — recyclables are ultimately placed on a conveyor belt where they are inspected by humans who pull off unacceptable materials and put them into bins destined for landfills.

Here are items that get rejected and why:

Wrapping paper, ribbons, bows, anything with glitter: these items have minute particles of plastic and metal that can not be recycled by paper mills. An alternative is to save and reuse them.

Soiled pizza boxes: any cardboard that is soiled with food, cooking oil, or water can cause mold while sitting in the recycle bin. Mold weakens fibers in cardboard making it unusable by a recycling paper mill. The clean portion of a pizza box can go into the recycling bin; the soiled part needs to go into a landfill bin or your compost pile.

Plastic grocery and trash bags: these muck up the system by getting entwined around conveyor belt gears, not unlike a string that gets wrapped around the rollers of a vacuum cleaner. Thus, all plastic bags, full or empty, are pulled off the conveyor belt and put into a landfill bin, regardless of what is in them. Even a brown paper bag full of recyclables will be pulled because there is no time to open and check what is inside. Another reason to keep recyclables loose in the recycle bin.

Glass: cannot go in our recycle bins because if the glass breaks, the particles get embedded in cardboard, making it unusable by a paper mill. Also, broken glass can injure staff. Glass can be recycled separately at drop-off recycling centers, or in Nashville, by the non-profit Justice Industries. Check this organization out!

Foil and foil containers: there is very little metal in foil, so it has to go in the landfill bin. No coffee K-cups in the recycle bin, either.

Shredded paper and tissue paper: Too thin; it mucks up the machines. I put shredded paper in my compost heap.

Everything in the recycle bin should be loose and viewable by waste management staff. Whether paper or plastic, all bags of trash will be pulled and placed in the landfill bin. Tragic but true. There is no time for the staff to open and examine the contents.

Ignore the recycle symbol on the package. The numbers inside the triangle refer to the types of chemicals used to make the plastic containers. Clamshells, clear plastic produce containers, and dairy containers cannot go in the recycle bins because Nashville does not have a buyer for that type of plastic.

Anything smaller than two inches cannot go in the recycle bin. This includes plastic and metal bottle caps. However, it is okay to empty a plastic drink bottle and then replace the plastic cap. The same goes for emptied and rinsed laundry jugs and plastic food jars– replace the caps.

I have put some other No-No’s items in the recycle bin in the past, thinking I was responsible: broken plastic toys, metal chicken wire, empty paint cans, random pieces of wood. When in doubt, throw trash in the landfill bin, say the experts.

Here is what can go in a recycling bin in Nashville.

Aluminum or Steel Cans:

  • Drink and food cans ONLY. Please empty and rinse food containers.

No scrap or construction metal. No chains, coat hangers, wires, aerosol cans, pots, and pans, or electronics.

Plastic Bottles, Jugs, and Jars: Keep it simple and remember these are the only plastic items that can go in our recycling bins.

  • Empty drink bottles with lids attached.
  • Empty milk and juice jugs, rinsed with lids attached.
  • Empty plastic food jars, rinsed with lids attached.
  • Empty plastic laundry jugs, rinsed with lids attached.

No prescription medicine bottles, styrofoam, bubble wrap.


  • Clean and dry cardboard, corrugated cardboard, and cereal boxes.
  • Recycle companies prefer flattened boxes. Tape and labels can remain.

Paper and Cartons:

  • Empty food and drink cartons, rinsed, and dry. Even though cartons for things like broth containers appear waxed, they are not and are okay.
  • Junk mail, newspapers, magazines, paperbacks (not hardcover) are all okay. Envelope windows and staples do not need to be removed.

No padded mailers, even if they have a recycle symbol on them.


  • Glass bottles and jars can not go in the recycle bins but can be brought to recycling drop off centers. Labels can remain attached.

Remove all caps, lids, and corks and put them in landfill bins—no windows or mirrors either.

I’m grateful to Waste Reduction Program Manager Jenn Harrman for answering my many questions. I asked her what to do with hard to clean containers, like an empty jug of olive oil. Her response: “You might let it sit upside down for a while into a drip jar or on a pan you plan to use, which will get quite a bit of those remaining drips out, then give it a good rinse, and let it dry. Do the best you can and do put the cap back on.”

She continued, “If you are doing your best without driving yourself crazy over it, you are doing it right. The biggest issues we have comes from bagged recycling, plastic bags, bulky items, scrap metal, construction debris, materials covered in food, and excessive moisture from containers that haven’t been emptied/rinsed at all. The cleaner and drier your recycling is, the better, but don’t sweat it if a few bits of moisture make it into your bin.”

If we all filled our recycling bins with what is recyclable, we could move the dial on increasing the percentage of trash that stays out of the landfill. That has been my goal for the last month since watching this webinar. Should you be inclined, Jenn provided a link to the webinar. Here is the passcode: 1xg3V#2w.

Happy New Year! 

Related Stories:
Seed Starting in Recycled Milk Jugs @JudysChickens
Last Ditch before You Pitch Rotisserie Chicken Soup
How to Make Cork Bulletin Boards
How to Make Gorgeous Birdhouse Gourds
How to Cook a Pumpkin: Roasted and Puréed

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19 thoughts on “How To Curbside Recycle

  1. Thank you for this information! I went to a class on recycling and one thing I learned was to put shredder contents in a paper grocery bag and staple it closed.

    1. Sheila, one thing I learned during my research for this post is the buyer of the recyclables determines what is acceptable in each municipality. I never appreciated the role of the buyers. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This recycling is quite interesting- different in every community! Windsor Tower has done education on it! I can recycle things in Wy that I can’t recycle in La or Nashville and visa versa! Merry Christmas and thank you for your fun informative bliss and Instagram info!

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Thanks for this. I recommend everyone check the rules and requirements for curbside recycling in their locality. Ours, for example, does accept glass and clean aluminum foil. It would be too bad to put things in the trash that can be recycled.

    1. Totally agree! Yes, check online for rules about curbside recycling in your municipality. Thank you for mentioning that— I just added a sentence about that on the post. Thanks, again.

  4. Judy,

    Thank you for this info. It is so clear and very helpful. We all need to be aware of the details of recycling. Do you know about Justice Industries?

    “Justice Industries is a nonprofit organization that creates social enterprise businesses. We seek to employ those who find it difficult to obtain and retain work because of barriers, such as criminal history, addiction recovery, mental illness, domestic abuse, and generational poverty. Our largest industry, Just.Glass, offers curbside pickup of your glass for recycling. Click here for more info!

    Our newest industry, Just.Wash, offers interior and exterior mobile car wash services in the Nashville area. Click here to learn more! “

    I work with this organization which was started by Mark DeVries, a youth pastor from First Pres. We partner with local schools to help spread the word. At this point we have about 900 residential clients and before covid several commercial (restaurants and places like the Courty music hall of Fame). Our employees are wonderful people and I have the pleasure trying to help grow this business to help employee other people who need work. After seeing your wonderfully written article on recycling, I wondered if you would do a follow up on Justice Industries, Just Glass Recycling program? It’s Christmas and we certainly can discuss this after the holidays!

    Merry Christmas to you, Kelly, your children and grandchildren!

    Grateful, Lee


  5. So glad Lee Oakley alerted your readers to Justice Industries! I’ve used their curbside pick-up service Just Glass for years. Very dependable.

    Thanks for all the info Judy. I’ve probably been told before–and I usually buy my produce loose–but if I’m feeling pressed for time, or just lazy, I’ll buy prewashed lettuce and spinach in clear plastic containers. And berries usually in these, too. And I didn’t realize the containers were not recyclable.

    1. Those are the three things (lettuce, spinach, and berries) I buy in those clear plastic boxes. During the growing season, I save them to store fresh-picked veggies from my garden or the farmers market. I didn’t know they weren’t recyclable either until I watched the webinar, as well. From now on, I’ll save them in the garage until a need emerges or I grow new greens in the spring- which ever comes first. Thanks for commenting. xo
      PS I need to start recycling bottles again… As I said, I’ve gotten lazy.

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