You Have Been Recycling Wrong Your Entire Life


Liam Sheriff, Staff Writer

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The early golden sunlight silently crept through my blinds as I lay asleep in bed on Thursday morning. Just as the first ray of sunshine spilled over my face, I was awoken by the sound of heavy machinery, a loud clanging and the smell of diesel fuel. I stumbled into the kitchen to fix myself a bowl of cereal, and I saw the source of the disturbance was the Lakeshore Recycling Systems truck and crew not-so-gracefully whisking away my recycling.

I watched as my empty La Croix cans, discarded cardboard and some unwanted papers fell into the belly of the mechanical dinosaur to be taken away, out of sight and out of mind. The driver released the brake, got into gear and drove off. And just like that, my recycling was gone.

Or was it?

With less than a month until Earth Day, it is important to reflect upon our practices as inhabitants of this planet. As we very well know, some of the best ways to help minimize our pollution-ridden footprints are to “reduce, reuse, and recycle”- a phrase that has been repeated by virtually every media outlet, science teacher and state government for the past 50 years.

Recycling has been around since the 1940s. However, the recycling movement as we now know it, as stated by Time Magazine, was born in the 1970s out of an American public’s growing concerns over their impact on the environment.

“Rather than recycle in order to get the most out of the materials,” writes Olivia B. Waxman for Time Magazine. “Americans began to recycle in order to deal with the massive amounts of waste produced during the second half of the 20th century.”

Now, in 2021, after years of recycling initiatives and public outreach promoted by every level of government, large private corporations and the American education system, a lot of people are surprised to learn they have been recycling incorrectly their entire lives. In fact, the majority of residential recyclers, like Elijah DelRisco, a local Wheaton resident and COD student, aren’t even sure what happens to their recycling once it hits the curb.

“I have no idea,” DelRisco says when asked about the whereabouts of recyclable materials after the refuse trucks take it away. “I’m not sure what they do for recycling. They do something so they can reuse it again, but I’m not sure exactly how that process goes.”

Elijah isn’t alone. The journey of recycled material is complicated, confusing and somewhat conflicting. Residential recycling is typically picked up by a refuse truck and taken to a local Material Recovery Facility (MRF) where items are sorted based on their composition (i.e. cardboards, aluminum, different plastics, etc.). For Elijah and other Wheaton residents specifically, Lakeshore Recycling Systems (LRS) are responsible for street pickup and the transportation of recyclable materials to their West Chicago recovery facility.

From the sorting facility, unwanted or non-recyclable items are shipped to a landfill, while the rest of the recyclable materials are sent to various domestic and overseas companies to be processed and recycled.

 It is at this point of the process, according to the New York Times Livia Albeck-Ripka, that the process becomes…messy.

“In the past,” explains Albeck-Ripka, “the municipalities would have shipped much of their used paper, plastics and other scrap materials to China for processing. But as part of a broad antipollution campaign, China announced last summer that it no longer wanted to import ‘foreign garbage.’”

What does this mean for the future of U.S. recycling? With other countries following in step with China, the materials that were once shipped overseas now find themselves back in the states to be put into landfills. The foreseeable future of recycling, as it appears, is not very bright.

It may seem like the current state of recycling in the United States may be too tall of an order for the average American to tackle, and in a way it is. Undoubtedly, how the United States recycles must be revamped. The system cannot handle the amount of consumption and waste that Americans produce. Nonetheless, there are concrete steps that one can take to increase the efficiency of recycling in the United States. As DelRisco points out, it all starts with education.

“I feel like people are not educated enough,” DelRisco said. “I didn’t even know there were different recycling practices for different towns and cities.”

One of the most effective ways to ensure people recycle correctly is through education – getting the word out about what is right and what is wrong. That vital information is having a hard time reaching the public.

So, what can you do?

Many regulations on municipal recycling pickup differ between states, counties and even individual cities. What is recyclable in one city may not be in another city. How and what a city recycles is dependent on that city’s budget and the recycling company they hire. For example, plastics labeled with a number 6 recycling logo are technically recyclable. Because of their composition, however, they are too expensive to process. This is why most cities will not list number 6 plastics as recyclable. It is important to look up what can and cannot be recycled locally. This information can be easily found on your local municipality’s website.

Now that you know what to recycle and what to throw away, it is important to dispose of the recyclable material correctly. As a general rule, you cannot recycle anything contaminated with organic substances. So, although your pizza box is made of cardboard, you cannot recycle it if it is covered in grease. The same goes for your plastics. Make sure to rinse out any recyclable plastic to rid it of any remaining organic materials that are not recyclable. Failure to do so will result in the inability for that material to be recycled in any capacity. The uncleaned material will end up in a landfill.

Finally, one of the biggest ways you help ease the strained recycling system is by reducing your consumption. Minimizing your shopping habits and becoming more intentional with your purchases are two great ways to avoid unwanted waste that will ultimately clog up an already struggling process.

As the implications of climate change become ever more apparent, it is now more important than ever to assess your impact on the world around you. Although Earth Day isn’t until April 22, residential recycling pickup is once a week, every week. Don’t wait. Help curb the effects of global warming by doing your part and recycling consciously and correctly.

So, the next time you wake up on a Thursday morning to the sound of a Lakeshore Recycling Systems truck, remember: just because your recycling is taken away, doesn’t mean it’s gone.


For more information on the recycling requirements of your DuPage County city, town, or village, visit:

For more information on the Lakeshore Recycling Systems’ company and services, visit:


For more information on the history and future of recycling in the United States, visit: