Dumping recyclable cups (when you forgot your own, or it's dirty) in the public recycle bins seems like an easy decision.

But, I've noticed that the recycle bins at places like Starbucks are absolutely stocked with normal trash. I watch people dump their cups, lids, soiled napkins, and straws in whichever bin is closest to them.

Our public utility tells us that even a small amount of non-recyclable waste mixed with recyclables can ruin the batch (or cause it all to be dumped in the landfill).

With that in mind, is it actually useful to put recyclable cups in these recycle bins?

I have to admit that I've begun just taking my cups home with me, and recyling there, where I'm confident of their fate.

But, is this a good decision? Does anyone have information on how much of these consumer recyclables actually get recycled? Possibly someone who's worked at places like Starbucks, or at a recycling facility that accepts commercial recycling, could comment.

It would be nice not to have to trust the stores' statements that they're taking steps to be green.

Note: I am in the US, and I can see that maybe this underlying misbehaviour by the customers is a somewhat localized phenomenon. If that's the case, then I guess my question is about the US (but, I certainly welcome global feedback!)

  • I remember hearing from a friend about 20yrs ago that McDonalds in Auckland just emptied their recycling bins into the trash as standard procedure. A few years later, they stopped providing separate bins, and they still don't. May 17, 2013 at 8:08
  • @HighlyIrregular, right. That's what I'm worried about. Just looking at those Starbucks bins (which, again, are mostly the fault of the customers), I don't see how they could actually recycle them. But, of course, that's just my personal experience (and maybe, yours, too!)
    – Nate
    May 17, 2013 at 8:12
  • I'm pretty sure that Starbucks doesn't even bother to try to recycle their recycling because of these badly contaminated streams. They only do it for appearances.
    – Ernie
    Feb 12, 2015 at 22:42
  • I concur with the comments above: it is common for either a company to knowingly decide it is easier to merge everything after users have been separating rubbish (providing recycling bins for their image only), or for employees to merge everything in the same general rubbish bin because they don't care and/or want to make it easier for themselves. I have witnessed that in two places I have worked at: a café that contracted a waste company (the Sita employee told me everything goes into the same truck), and a university where many of the contracted cleaning staff did not care about recycling.
    – stragu
    Apr 18, 2016 at 14:20
  • As what the above is saying, many people in my apartment complex contaminate the stream to a horrid degree. People try to recycle soiled paper towels, pizza boxes with pizza slices/crusts/chicken wings/grease inside, MDF furniture, old rags, plastic bags, lots of packing materials, and the list just goes on. I contacted the firm that is contracted to handle the recycling and never received a comment as to if they actually recycle or just dump to a landfill. My work (government) has some recycle bins but I still take my stuff home as they only do metal and plastic and I'm skeptical.
    – Greg
    Nov 21, 2018 at 11:46

3 Answers 3


Unfortunately, I think a lot of those heavily contaminated loads of "recycling" do end up in the trash. The only other option in many cases is for whoever manages the facility's waste to sort the good from the bad by hand, and that is generally not feasible. Some recycling centers are more strict than others about contamination, but even single-stream recycling systems won't take a load if there is more than a certain % of food, liquid, and trash. If a load of recycling is determined to be "unrecyclable" at the recycling center, it will be disposed of as trash, often at the expense of the customer (especially if the customer is a school or business that contracts directly with the recycling service). Hence environmentally-aware college students should remind their intoxicated friends to use the trash can because vomit is not recyclable (yes, I have witnessed this). In general, though, I think in the USA it's safe to assume that if the contents of the bins can be recycled, they will be recycled. Most companies won't spend money on recycling bins unless they actually plan to use them. So the answer to your question is yes, but only if you trust the American people to follow directions.


Waste Management sends food-contaminated materials to the landfill. The page linked explains the effect of grease and oils on paper recycling, and exploration of the site confirmed that WM sends food-contaminated plastics to the landfill. The site also indicates that food impacts aluminum foil recycling.

As another example of how impurities effect recycling, Pacific Steel & Recycling in Havre, MT has very strict guidelines about sorting papers and cardboard because mixed newsprint/office paper bales are worth much less than pure newsprint or office paper, transport costs are high, and recycling volume is low in a rural town of ~9600 (source: conversation with an employee). And those are impurities that don't completely ruin the material for recycling the way food does.

As alluded to above, recycling companies make a profit by turning waste items into raw materials for manufacturing. So as long as what they receive isn't too badly contaminated, they do recycle it. If a business contracts with a recycling company for on-site pick-up, you can be sure that uncontaminated loads will be recycled.

  • The only thing I worry about is that a company that wants to promote a green image may be willing to put out the bins for consumers (the cost of the bin itself being quite small), simply to appear to be recycle-friendly. Plus, I could imagine that if a store didn't put out recycling bins, some eco-conscious customers would actually complain ... even though it may be hard for the store to actually do any recycling, because customers are contaminating the bins. That's what I fear, but again, I don't have much more than anecdotal evidence to support my fear :(
    – Nate
    May 17, 2013 at 18:35
  • In many US cities, the recycling infrastructure is developed enough that this isn't a huge issue. In such places, businesses that care about their image would rather just spend the money to recycle than risk the kind of outrage they would see if the public found out the recycling bins were a lie. Some businesses, particularly small ones, might still lie, but usually the ones that can't afford to recycle aren't willing to drop money on the bins, either. And in areas that lack good recycling infrastructure, the public is often all too happy to just use the trash bin. May 17, 2013 at 18:48
  • I think you're most likely to see "fake" recycling bins in places where recycling is inconvenient, expensive, or simply a new concept, but where bins have been provided for free by a third party or where there are bins but employees and managers haven't bought in to the idea of separating trash and recyclables. May 17, 2013 at 18:52
  • I just want to make sure you're clear on my question, though. I'm not particularly worried about businesses who put out recycling bins, and then simply fail to recycle for cost, or no good reason. I'm worried about businesses who want to recycle, and put bins out for customers (not the large bins behind the store ... I'm talking about in-store containers, which are cheap), but then wind up emptying the contents of the bins in the trash. Not because recycling is expensive, but because the customers contaminated the bins, and the employees don't have the time to separate the trash.
    – Nate
    May 17, 2013 at 21:08
  • 1
    This answer would benefit greatly from some sources to back up your claims.
    – user141
    May 22, 2013 at 19:38

In Randwick council, in Sydney, Australia, more than half of the material that's put in the general rubbish bins are diverted into recycling.

If they look for recyclables amongst general rubbish, then some recyclers must have a very high tolerance for contamination!

  • That's mighty encouraging to see! Thanks for the source link.
    – Nate
    May 22, 2013 at 22:14

It really depends on your community as to what level of service the recycling and waste companies provide. This goes into how important it is to the elected officials in choosing who they pay to haul their recycling and trash and where they take them to.

I may (well I know) I live in a bubble. I live in a county in the U.S. that is GMO-Free (no Genetically Engineered crops), that had the first ever County Fair that was 100% compostable (meaning anything sold there beer, food, whatever was served in or on compostable containers). The grass-roots of this county demands it. I know people in other counties or states would be pretty put-off if they were threatened to be fined for putting stuff in the wrong trash can (trash, recycling and compostable cans). I know they are pretty meticulous where I am but these things are on the front page of the county newspaper (or website).

If your community demands so, it will change. It takes a grass roots effort and maybe some investigative journalists (do you know anyone that has such as a hobby?) because sometimes it can be an uphill battle. We have passed a law or ordinance banning plastic shopping bags, vote on by the people (a proposition maybe) yet the plastic bag industry is a powerful one. The ban took effect and now they are back to using them but our perseverance will pay off!

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