Javier Erazo, district manager of Groot’s Elk Grove MRF (materials recovery facility) and Transfer Station, helps explain why some items can be put into our recycling bins and some cannot, as well as extra steps we can take to increase our recycling rate.

Groot sorts Evanston’s recycling at its Elk Grove Village facility, then sells sorted materials (glass, plastic, metal, cardboard) to processors for recycling.

Plastic grocery or takeout food container with plastic snap-on lid: YES

“We can take that, and keep the lid on,” Erazo said. If the container and lid are put in the bin separately, he explained, the container will be captured for plastic recycling but the lid will most likely end up being misclassified as paper and end up in a landfill.
First, check to make sure the container and lid are both stamped with the same plastic recycling code. If they are, then snap them together and put them in the recycling bin. If they have different recycling codes, then recycle the container and throw the lid in the trash, or group it with other identically coded plastics – see tip below.

Next-level tip: If the lid has a different recycling code, see if you can tuck it inside a plastic container with an identical recycling code. For example, if your #5 plastic container has a #1 lid, see if you have another #1 plastic container with lid and tuck your extra lid inside it before tossing into the recycling bin.

Plastic clamshell containers: YES

As long as they have the right number on them – #1-5 or #7 – they should be recyclable, says Erazo, who asks that they be snapped shut before going into the recycling bin. If you don’t see a recycling number, just throw them out, Erazo continues, because they’re going to end up in the trash anyway.

Small plastic prescription, OTC medicine or vitamin bottles: YES, with special handling

Credit: Meg Evans

Despite rumors that prescription and other pill bottles cannot be recycled, Erazo assures us that they can. As long as they are stamped with a recycling number (#1-5 or #7) the plastic itself can be recycled. It’s their size which causes problems: small bottles often slip out of the sorting process so they end up as trash instead of with other recyclable plastics.

Large vitamin, medicine and supplement bottles can go into the recycling bin without any problems; remove the lids if they have a different recycling code stamped on them.

Small plastic bottles – anything smaller than your fist is a general rule – can be tucked inside larger plastic containers as long as they have an identical recycling code on the bottom. Doing so increases the chance that the smaller bottles won’t escape and will be properly sorted along with larger plastic items, according to Erazo.

For example, if you have a #5 plastic container with a #5 snap-on lid, you could put a smaller #5 prescription medicine bottle (without the lid) inside it first, snap the lid in place and put that into the recycling bin.

What about those lids? Plastic bottle lids may have a different recycling code from the bottle (prescription bottles are often #5 and their lids are #1, so remove and either tuck the lids into an identically coded plastic container, as described above, or throw them away.

Really small bottles – for eyedrops and such – often don’t even have a recycling code stamped on them and should be thrown away.

NOTE: Prescription bottle recycling is often confused with drug disposal or take-back programs, which are meant to keep medications from being either flushed into the water system or thrown in the trash where children might get hold of them.
The Evanston Police Department collects unused or expired medications in its front lobby at 1454 Elmwood Ave., which is open 24 hours a day. The city’s website has more details on special types of disposal and collection, including medications and Sharps.

Foil seals from yogurt and other food containers: YES

Yogurt container Credit: zlatko_plamenov on Freepik

As long as they are not lined with plastic or paper, foil packaging seals are recyclable. Rinse them first and see the following tip for grouping them with other metal items.

Next-level tip: Put small metal items such as foil yogurt lids, balls of aluminum foil and can lids inside an empty metal can. Then (carefully!) squeeze the top of the can closed to keep everything inside and put that in your recycling bin.

Grouping metals together increases the chance those small metal items will be captured along with the metal can during the sorting process and make it to the proper recycling pile, rather than ending up in the trash, Erazo says.

Foil and paper candy wrappers: YES

Some candy bars are wrapped in thin aluminum foil and a separate paper label. If the foil isn’t coated with a layer of paper, it can be bunched up with other foil and metal items. And the paper label – as long as it isn’t coated with a layer of plastic or wax — can be recycled as paper.

Candy wrappers made of multi-layered paper lined with foil or plastic cannot be recycled and should be thrown away.

Foil-lined juice concentrate/peanut/potato chip tubes: NO

Rigid paper tubes containing juice concentrates, nuts, potato chips and other snacks are often coated with paper on the outside and foil on the inside, making them unsuitable for recycling.

“Any paper item that’s multi-layered is either going to contaminate the load or it will end up as trash,” Erazo explains, so we should just throw those out.

Next-level tip: Use a can opener to remove the metal ends from foil-lined paper cans, tuck them inside a metal can with other can lids and aluminum foil pieces, and (carefully!) pinch the open end of the can shut. Doing so increases the chance that all pieces will be sent to the proper metal recycling pile during the sorting process.

Shrink-wrapped bottles and jars: YES, with special handling.

Some bottles and jars have a plastic label shrink-wrapped around the entire container. Peel off the shrink-wrapped label first to reveal the plastic or glass container underneath, then put the container into your recycling bin.

Credit: Meg Evans

Next-level tip: That shrink-wrapped label can be recycled as plastic film along with plastic grocery and produce bags at collection bins around Evanston. (The plastic film recycling program is run by Trex, which makes composite building materials using reclaimed consumer plastics and wood dust.)

Plastic spray bottles: YES

Once they are empty of kitchen spray, window cleaner, laundry pre-wash or whatever else they contained, plastic spray bottles can be recycled intact, Erazo says.

Spray bottles. Credit: Image by pikisuperstar on Freepik

“That whole bottle should be made out of the same grade of plastic therefore it should able to be recycled,” he explains. Make sure to rinse them out and screw the sprayer back on.

Next-level tip: In lieu of recycling, you could re-use thoroughly rinsed plastic spray bottles to hold DIY cleaning solutions, insecticidal soaps, weed killers and more.

Paper bakery bag or box with clear window: YES, with special handling

“Mixed paper or multi-layered packaging like that usually can’t be recycled as a whole,” Erazo explains, but separating the pieces improve its recyclability.

If the paper box or bag is not coated with a layer of wax or plastic it can be recycled, so remove the plastic window first and then put the paper portion in the recycling bin. The window is often a type of crinkly plastic that is not recyclable as plastic film, so that should be thrown away.

Flexible plastic pouches: NO

Flexible plastic pouches with zipper-type closures have become popular containers for snacks, drinks, pet food and treats, cereals, specialty flours and other grocery items. They are generally not recyclable and are not accepted in Evanston recycling carts.

Note: Some plastic pouches are recyclable through Terracycle, which offers many recycling collection programs.

Paper or plastic pet food bags: NO.

Pet food bags are often made of thick flexible plastic or plastic-coated paper, neither of which is recyclable curbside or in the Trex plastic film recycling program. Both types of bags should be thrown in the trash.

Note: Some plastic pet food bags are recyclable through Terracycle, which offers many recycling collection programs.

Solo cups and other #6 rigid plastic cups: NO

“Red cup, red flag!” advised Erazo. Solo cups are made of polystyrene – labeled #6 inside the chasing arrows – which is not accepted in Evanston recycling carts.
It is best to avoid buying and using #6 plastic cups in the first place. If that’s not possible, Terracycle has a free Solo Cup Recycling Program which also accepts other brands of #6 rigid plastic cups.

Polystyrene foam take-out containers, foam packaging, etc.: NO

Polystyrene foam – also labeled #6 inside the chasing arrows – is not accepted in Evanston recycling carts.

Abt in Glenview, Village of Winnetka and Dart Container Corp. all have polystyrene foam collection programs.

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...

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  1. Could a handout summarizing all these guidelines be made available, on line, and easily printable? without all those ads? these guidelines need to be made much more accessible, on the City of Evanston website, in stores, libraries, community centers, etc. The public relations people need to step up here.

  2. It’s been about a year since I tried going to Winnetka Public Works to drop off foam, but last time there was a sign that it was for Winnetka residents only. Did they change the policy back? Those stupid foam produce trays, which Illinois might ban(?), were one thing I was able to bring there, since it’s even harder to recycle colored foam than it is to find a place for white styrofoam.

  3. I live in a multi-unit building where each unit places recyclables directly into a dumpster from whatever paper or plastic bag they are in (then discarding that bag or keeping it. Does that mean if only one unit tosses in a non-recyclable item the entire dumpster is “contaminated”? Or is there a pre-recycling separation of items in a dumpster?

  4. Thanks for the article and its details.
    As we learned a couple years ago via pro publica and Frontline investigations, the majority of our recycled plastics (and some other materials) aren’t actually being recycled in the US. (haven’t been for many many years). This was extremely depressing to learn as a recycler of decades who used to drive our separated recycling to drop off locations.


    So aside from separating out paper and glass—which are somewhat being recycled—what is the purpose of this plastic dance when the vast majority of it isn’t actually recycled at the end point?
    We still do it at home out of 30-year habit, but knowing the plastics aren’t going to be recycled seems a futile effort—especially if they’re simply going to a different kind of landfill.

  5. Great article, agree we need a part 2! Specifically what’s the standard for food on plastics that are getting recycled? If there are take out cartons or yogurt containers, do I need to rinse them a little bit, not at all, or thoroughly clean them? If there’s water from the rinsed plastic that gets on paper products does that deem them unrecyclable?

  6. This would make a great recurring column with reader-submitted questions.
    My question: Since #7 is a catchall category containing a wide range of plastics, how do they get recycled?

  7. Wondering about those coated paper containers for broth, non-dairy “milks” and some juices. Are they recyclable or not?

  8. This article is quite a wakeup call. It is about time recycling is clarified! The lists published by the city clearly leads to a lot of items being trashed. All the details are not explained and recycling becomes a failed effort. I don’t understand why the city doesn’t publish this information? The city will be my next contact. Thank you Ms. Evans.

  9. Great article! Can we have a sequel, please? Is the plastic that floral arrangements are wrapped in recyclable? I work with a group that puts a large amount of them in the plastic recycling bin at the Levy Center, but I wonder if we are in fact “contaminating” the entire bin. Also, the City now accepts paper cups for recycling, but- what type? The paper cups I see are either lined with wax or plastic to prevent leaking, and if they aren’t, they are saturated with the drink. Thank you!

  10. Great story Meg. I was surprised to find #6 a no-no for recycling in Evanston. Re styrofoam—my most hated plastic—the Village of WInnetka accepts all forms of clean styrofoam at its public works building on Willow Road. I go there regularly with a big reusable plastic bag filled with my styrofoam and that from friends and family.

  11. I was told any BLACK plastic cannot be recycled regardleww of number.. I am a gardener and most of the pots with seedlings or plants to transplant into the garden are black with a #5 or less… is this a fact or is it possible I can recycle them? It’s also lots of carryout containers as well….thanks

    1. The black nursery containers can be recycled or reused at Windy City Garden Center on Green Bay Road, which reopens in April. They keep a shelf in the parking lot for nursery pot returns and said last year that the containers are returned to the nurseries or recycled at a plant in Michigan.