Myths, Rumors, Confusion: Recycling in Austin

These are the questions you submitted for clarification on curbside recycling in Austin.

We have the contacts and the resources to recycle a ton of items in Austin (we’re so lucky!) we just need to read the material to Recycle Right!

Recycling Numbers:
The often misidentified “recycling number” inside the little triangle on materials is actually called the Resin Identification Code. It is used to communicate the type of plastic. It was taken over as the universal sign for recycling. Many companies include the symbol on their items, whether or not the item can actually be recycled. The “recycling number/ recycling symbol” does not mean an item is recyclable. Cities tend to list the numbers of plastics they have contracts for as it’s easier for citizens to sort by number if a city only accepts a few types.

Austin does not need to list the numbers of plastics it accepts! We take all numbers because we have great contracts and contacts! What Austin does is sort by type of material. Rigid/Hard plastics go in your blue recycling carts. Soft plastics like plastic bags and plastic films go to a store drop-off station.

Lids can be recycled. It’s okay if there isn’t a number on the lid. Lids can be left on the bottle, but the bottle should be empty and rinsed out. If the lid has a different plastic feel, or metal, it should be removed from the bottle/bottom and recycled separately in the blue carts.

Labels can be left on!!! Yes, I get this question a lot. Early recycling back in the day required you to take off the labels yourself and no lids were allowed. But we take lids and the cleaning process at the factories get the labels off. Woo!

If your item doesn’t have a number, it is safer to throw it away so as to avoid contamination and possible fines. If you think you can determine the type of material (rigid or film) you could try to recycle it. Sometimes the little salsa/condiment containers don’t have numbers. Because those foods tend to have so much fat/grease/oil and not get used up all the way, I recommend you trash those.

Plastic utensils can be recycled now. Those may go in your blue recycling cart. *Update 12/31/19: plastic utensils cannot be recycled in the City of Austin. They are too small for the sorting machines and jam up the machinery. These go in the trash.

A product may say it’s recyclable, but that may not be true with your city, town, apartment, provider, etc. For example milk cartons may say they are recyclable. Milk cartons are a combination of paper, plastic and sometimes even metal, what is know as a composite, and it technically labeled liquid paperboard (LPB). Most places cannot recycle this as it’s difficult and expensive to  separate. A few places in the US can recycle it, so the companies can technically say it’s recyclable.  The City of Austin and the surrounding cities do not accept milk cartons, egg substitute cartons, eggnog cartons, or oatmeal containers for this reason.

China/It all goes to the landfill anyway
I’ve addressed the China situation in a separate post: Austin Recycles- Independent of China, and on social media so I will elaborate here on the City of Austin’s recycling process.

City of Austin employees of Austin Resource Recovery (ARR), the department for trash, recycling and compost, drive the trucks that pick up most residential customers’ trash. Some areas are contracted out for specific reasons; this will not be addressed here. ARR employees drive recycling to one of ARR’s two contractors for recycling: Balcones Resources or TDS. The trucks drop the materials at the contractors, the items are sorted by machines with individuals pulling out big contaminants and/or dangerous items like hoses and propane tanks. The items are baled, stored, and sold out of Austin, Texas to manufacturers to turn into new products. None of Austin’s curbside items are processed in this first stage outside of Austin and none of our items (that are in fact recyclable) are land-filled. I do not have access to our contractors’ contacts to know who is buying the recyclables once Austin bales them, but rest assured all your blue cart items are going where they’re supposed to.

All of our curbside blue recycling cart materials are kept in Austin until they are sold to the entity that will melt them or whatever the next step will be to reuse the material. All the materials dropped off at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center are sorted and sold. They may be trucked somewhere else in the U.S. for processing, but they stay stateside at this initial recycling stage.

It all goes to the landfill anyway -> Is recycling dead?
So you may have read the Sierra Magazine‘s cover story this month, You Can’t Recycle Garbage, seen The Austin Chronicle’s article, “Public Notice: Total Garbage, or had your Google feed inundated with depressing articles about the state of our country’s recycling. While it is true that Austin is in an excellent spot (so keep recycling), it is also true that recycling is not the answer or cure to the current situation. Yes, we should recycle, reuse and properly deal with what we have now, but we should reduce what we make in the future. We should hold manufacturers accountable to take back their packaging and their items, either to recycle or to be repaired. We should use more of our own containers, relearn how to repair things. Use items till they break, take care of our possessions so they last longer so we don’t have to buy a replacement because we didn’t maintain something or we carelessly stored it.

According to the sustainability site Treehugger, there are 7 other Rs to remember: reduce, return, reuse, repair, refill, rot, refuse.

Plastic Bags
No plastic bags of any type for any reason go in the blue recycling carts. I’m sorry to underline that but it’s on the cart lid that they’re prohibited and there are a ton going into the trucks every other week.

If you want to line your kitchen recycling bin with a plastic bag to keep it clean, super. However; you will need to empty that bag into the outside blue recycling cart. Shake it out! You can’t put bagged recyclables in the recycling carts. You can, but you may be fined and the human sorters at the recycling center just pull the bags off the conveyor and throw them in the trash. The human sorters don’t have time to rip open and shake out bags.

Unfortunately HEB sells bags they call “recycling bin” bags. Your office may use or require those to help the custodians quickly sort later, but they are not allowed or required in the City of Austin blue recycling carts. I’ve lived in several apartment complexes as well and everyone requires their recyclables to be loose, so while I don’t like the bags being sold since they cause confusion, people may need them for their business or their kitchen bins.

Bags get caught in the single-stream sorting machines. Single-stream is the type of recycling Austin has now, where all the solid items are mixed together in one big cart. The sorting machines at the facility use air, weights, magnets and infrared to sort the items. Bags (and straws) get caught in the machines and cause hours of delays to stop and clean the machines. If this happens too often the City may be charged by its contractors who can pass this back to us by starting to fine us.

Plastic bags and plastic film can be recycled, but at a drop-off station at a store. I’ve written a separate post on bags and film, It’s a Filmy Situation, so I won’t go into too much more detail. This site from How2Recycle on Store Drop-off is very helpful for explaining all about the process, types and who takes what.

Two notes on food bags: produce/veggie/fruit bags can be recycled, but please turn them inside out and get all the stickers and food bits out. Also, if you can’t rinse off the food residue and it’s all sticky and gross, toss it in the trash instead.

The Mueller HEB has a sign up that says they take plastic bags and rigid plastics in the same collector outside the front of the store, so you can drop off those items there. However, please remember, just because this HEB is accepting both types of materials in one bin does not mean the City of Austin does in the blue carts. No bags in the blue carts please. Mueller HEB is the only HEB the City of Austin Zero Waste Block Leaders are aware of that has this unusual sign and no entity we’re aware of accepts plastic film and rigid/hard plastics together for the aforementioned jamming reason. I’ll be talking to the store to address the signage, but in the meantime please remember no bags in the blue carts.

Check out a video of the Balcones Material Recycling Facility (MRF), where recycling goes when it leaves your curb. This will help show you why there are no bags in the blue carts and give you a good idea of the single stream sorting process.

Black Plastic
You may have seen articles lately on black plastics, like microwave meal trays, not being recyclable, or being discouraged from being recyclable. This does not apply to Austin. Austin accepts all colors and numbers of hard/rigid plastic such as your microwave meal trays, mushroom containers, packaging trays, etc.

Any black plastic mail-order bags should be recycled at a store drop-off center.

How many times can you recycle glass?
Infinitely. Earth 911 has an excellent article on how many times items can be recycled called, “How Many Times Can That Be Recycled?” Please read all of it but quickly to peak your interest.. 🙂
-Plastic: Once or twice
-Aluminum: Infinite
-Metals: Infinite
-Paper: 5 to 7
-Glass: Infinite

The white and blue plastic Amazon envelopes are recyclable at bag drop-off stations. Do not put these in the blue recycling carts. Try to peel the label off, which is paper, but as I can never get this off, I recommend cutting it off.

The yellow/brown paper envelopes with bubble wrap inside go in the trash unless you are going to collect them to donate to Austin Creative Reuse. These are what is called a composite material, a mixed material, of plastic and paper and they are not easily and cleanly separated so should go in the trash.

The windows in envelopes are an accepted level of incidentals in the paper recycling process. It’s nice if you can get them out, but you don’t have to.

Magazines and photo paper/glossy paper can be recycled in the blue carts.

Stickers and tape are okay on items. If it’s crazy, like a piece of paper got stuck in a tape ball throw that in the trash not recycling. But minor repairs of tape are okay, and stickers are okay, in recycling. Compost will be addressed separately.

I shared information how to get rid of Unwanted Mail or Junk Mail in an earlier post. I get almost no mail now, it’s great!

Windows (envelopes or boxes)
As in the mail section above, if you can remove the window or film, it’s better as it produces a cleaner material and more profitable product to sell. If not, it seems to be an accepted incidental in the steam but remember that if everyone thinks it’s okay, a little bit becomes a lot and may cross over into contamination.

I wrote a post on how to get rid of Unwanted Mail or Junk Mail. This will cut down on trying to get those windows out!

So if you have a window on your envelope, pasta box, rice box, Kleenex box, dog waste bag box, etc. try to get it out if you can. It won’t ruin the truckload if you don’t or can’t though. Don’t freak out or get frustrated if you can’t. Recycle it, it’s okay.

Carton Containers can’t be recycled in Austin
Carton containers for items such as half-gallon milk (almond, soy, etc.), liquid eggs and oatmeal are made of mixed materials that cannot be separated or recycled in the City of Austin. These items should go in your brown/gray trash cart.

Receipt paper
Most receipt paper is a product called thermal paper. This is the funny-feeling, sometimes shiny receipt paper that the inks fades from. Because the ink fades, it’s recommended you photocopy any receipts on this type of paper that you may need later on.

If you test the receipt paper with your fingernail, you can determine if it has BPA. If it does, it will make a blue mark and should go in the trash. If there is no blue mark, it is safe to compost or recycle.

This may seem nitpicky but consider the circular economy principal that first we need to make sure an item is safe before we circle it back in other forms. Do you want BPA showing up in your toilet paper or compost?

How clean do the items need to be?
The items in the blue cart should be “rinsed, dry, and crushed or flattened.” That being said, clean does not mean “soap and water and it went through the dishwasher and I used the steam cycle” clean. Rinse as much off as you can, try to let it dry, and crush or flatten it if you can to make more room and be kinder on the trucks. I’m sure you guys don’t watch the truck pickups (I’m a zero waste nerd) but stuff can jump/fly out of the trucks when it’s trying to squash boxes and other things that haven’t been broken down. Plus you’ll have more room in your blue cart.

The dry part helps the items not stick together so they can be more easily sorted by the sorting machines. The truckloads just keep getting piled on top of each other at the facility so there’s no airing the items out.

The clean/rinsed part is primarily a safety concern for the truck operators, but it also helps keep the sorting machines clean-ish and is the first rinse of the sorting and cleaning process. Items should be empty, rinsed and dry to help our truck operators. Do you want to be attached by cockroaches, bees and ants everyday all day long? The operators don’t either.

Aerosol cans like hairspray and shaving cream
Empty cans of these items may be put in the blue recycling carts.

Full or partially full cans of these items may be taken to the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center for reuse or disposal depending on the item, or you can try the Austin Reuse Directory to see if any entity is accepting donations of these types of items.

Aluminum cans vs. Plastic bottles
The specific question I received was, “I heard recycling aluminum is better for environment and easier to do.” It’s definitely easier; you decide what your definition of “better” is.

Recycle contractors love metal, all types. It’s their “silver gold.” It weighs more than plastic and is infinitely recyclable. Most aluminum is recycled aluminum that has been in the system for awhile. Most plastic bottles are brand new oil, virgin oil. Plastic can only be recycled once or twice, and each time it’s usually a “downcycle.” So maybe that first time being recycled a bottle may become another bottle, but then since it’s weaker the next time it will have to be recycled into a more inferior product, downcycled.

Aluminum does not breakdown into microplastics like plastic bottles do. Every single piece of plastic that had ever been produced since man created it still exists. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, it just breaks down into progressively smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics which is what you may have read about being found in our oceans and sea animals like fish, birds and whales.

Health-wise, both items can have issues. I’m not a science blog, so I won’t site studies here on aluminum and plastic and their affects on food and the body. You have to know what is important or a medical concern for you, and research for yourself. For examples from me, my family is more sensitive and has issues with aluminum collecting in our systems so I don’t use deodorants with aluminum and I don’t eat or drink food out of aluminum if I can avoid it. Because plastic has been shown to leach chemicals into the food it’s touching, I don’t buy shelf-stable food in plastic, but I’ll buy produce and may buy a to-go meal packaged that day in plastic if paper or my own containers aren’t available or accepted.

How do I get my office to recycle?
The City of Austin’s Universal Recycling Ordinance (URO) supports Austin’s Zero Waste goal by requiring affected property owners to ensure that tenants and employees have access to convenient recycling.  So most businesses are required to provide recycling for it’s employees.

Signage, training, assistance and reporting lack of or poor practices can all be accessed at

Wire hangers could be returned to the dry cleaner they came from. If they are mangled they can be dropped off at the Scrap Metal station at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center.

Plastic hangers could be donated if they’re usable. You could put them up on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or freecycle. If they’re broken, they can be put in the blue recycling carts now (yay!) or dropped off at the Hard Plastics station at the Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center.

Wooden hangers could be donated if they’re usable. Otherwise these should go in the trash if they can’t be repaired. You can also try asking if anyone wants to reuse them for any craft projects.

Check the Austin Reuse Directory for places to donate if you don’t know one.

Wishful recycling
Always check the current list of accepted items /brochure or What Do I Do With? search program. Austin Resource Recovery does review and add new materials/names of items so if something doesn’t come up, recommend it.

The industry has coined a phrase for items that are put in the curbside recycling carts that shouldn’t be, “wishful recycling.” It’s been determined that it’s not malicious and that citizens are just hopeful or think these items can or should be recycled in their city. This is not the proper way to recommend new items for acceptance. Please recommend new items through
What Do I Do With? or contact ARR Customer Services through .

This all gets back to what I said above about making sure your know what your city accepts and what it doesn’t, and not to trust packaging. To avoid fines, contamination, increased costs to the city (increasing the budget), remember this helpful motto, “When it doubt, toss it out.” While Austin does have the Zero Waste goal of diverting 90% of material from the landfill by 2040, you won’t get fined for putting something in the trash that could have been recycled, it just shows up in cart audits to help us know where to educate citizens. You may or will get fined if you put non-recyclable items in the curbside recycling carts.

Apartments and some condos are serviced by the company your management has contracted with. They may have slightly different allowances the the City of Austin curbside residents do. If your apartment does not provide education material, or have their bins labeled, you can find out who the provider is and go to their website. The City of Austin’s apartment resources are listed at

Your management must provide recycling services. By Oct. 1, 2017, all properties were required to provide recycling services to their tenants and employees. Click to here to determine when your property is affected.

Per ARR: If recycling is not available or if recycling services need improvements (more signage, larger carts or bins, additional education, etc.) where you live, please talk to your property manager or let Austin Resource Recovery know where and how they can help by filling out this anonymous feedback survey.

That was a lot! Thank you so much for these great questions and your participation! If you read all the way through, you’re amazing and I appreciate your time! Let me know if you have more big questions and keep your eyes out for a similar post coming soon on composting!