Recycling Do's & Don'ts: Q&A with Knoxville's Waste and Resources Manager

Do my recyclables have to be squeaky clean? What plastics actually get recycled? The recycling system isn't standardized nationally, and with companies constantly creating new products it can be hard to know what can be recycled. We are all about source reduction here - stopping waste from ever being created rather than dealing with it once it exists - but when you do need to recycle, it's important to do so well. Recycling contaminants increase processing costs and can result in products that are recyclable being tossed. 

To answer all your recycling questions, we sat down with Patience Melnik, the waste and resources manager for the City of Knoxville. You can watch our full conversation below where we discuss the biggest mistakes well-meaning recyclers can make, where our recyclables end up, and what products are particularly challenging. Or scroll down to see a summary of questions that Patience answered! 



What are the biggest mistakes that well-meaning recyclers make? 

According to Patience, the number one contaminant that they see in the recycling stream are plastic bags. "Anything that is flexible should not go into the recycling." Do not bag your recyclables! She also pointed out that glass and food are two items that aren't only not recyclable in our single-stream bins, but they are contaminants that are detrimental and harmful to the system. 

Wishcycling is another big problem. If you don't know whether or not an item is recyclable, either don't put it in your bin - or better yet, set it aside and contact their office and ask! 

How much contamination can our recycling system take? How robust is the sorting process?

There's not short or easy answer to this question, because much of it depends on the material. Paper is very easily contaminated by food or liquid waste, which doesn't really affect other materials like metal or glass. Patience recommends: "Always remember that recycling is a business." If there's a lot of contamination, it can lower the grade of material and reduce the amount of money our local processor can sell it for, which then harms the system overall. "Only put things in the recycling that you know are recyclable."

How clean do recyclables have to be? 

Use the dishwasher test: if it's clean enough that you would put it in your dishwasher, it's likely clean enough to go in the recycling. You wouldn't put something in your dishwasher that had loads of food still on there or half a smoothie in it, but you also don't have to get them sparkling clean. Do your best!

Can you recycle aluminum foil if it's clean or bunched together? 

Nope. Try to find an alternative material, because this is one you can't recycle locally. 

What do our plastics get made into? Are they all really being recycled? 

Our plastics #1 and #2 get made into carpeting in North Georgia. But remember that this is downcycling - at the end of their life, they'll be landfilled. Other plastics (#3 - #7) aren't currently recycled because there aren't robust end markets for them, but that could change in the future. It's best to avoid plastics whenever possible. 

Still have questions? Check out the city's recycling page here or email Patience at or Makenzie Read, the Waste & Resources Coordinator, at 

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