CCDES is a member of the Illinois Recycling Contamination Task Force, a group that addresses pressing recycling issues throughout the state. To answer specific recycling questions, the task force has launched the Dirty Dozen Campaign.

What makes something recyclable or not?

An item is recyclable only if it (1) can be correctly sorted using current technology at the material recovery facilities (MRFs); and (2) has a viable end market – someone is willing to recycle it because someone else is willing to buy the final product. 

The MRF is the next place recyclable materials go after they are picked up from curbside recycling bins and carts. MRFs use a combination of human and mechanical sorting systems and can only sort certain materials and shapes. And if there is no end market for a material, then it will not be recycled.

What about the numbers on plastic containers?

Confusion about plastic recycling comes largely from that popular symbol – a number inside the chasing arrows triangle – which manufacturers imprint on plastic products. Because many people believe that the number means it is recyclable – which it does not – a ton of plastic items that are not actually recyclable end up in the recycling bin. The number, which tells you the type of resin an item is made from, does not in fact tell you whether it is recyclable in any given program.

Rules for Recycling Plastic:

  1. Forget the number.
  2. Only recycle CONTAINERS – Bottles, Tubs, Jugs, and Jars – in the curbside recycling cart.
  3. If it is not one of the above shapes, then it is not recyclable after you place it in the bin at the curb.
  4. Rinse lightly, only if needed.
  5. Put the lids back on the empty containers and place them in the cart.

Non-Recyclable Plastics

  • No plastic bags or flexible plastic packaging in your curbside recycling. See Plastic Film Recycling for a drop-off locator.
  • No straws, cups or lids.
  • No plastic plates, trays or utensils.
  • No candy wrappers, cereal bags, snack bags- or chip packets.
  • No plastic toys, chairs or shelves.
  • No hoses, cables, ropes, or other “tanglers”.
  • No black plastic.
  • No empty motor oil, pesticide or chemical bottles.
  • No diapers.
  • No Styrofoam or polystyrene.

Why can’t these things be recycled?

  1. There are many different types of plastic and come in many different forms, much of which is neither sortable nor marketable.
  2. Much of the non-recyclable plastics listed above are such a low grade of plastic that no one is re-manufacturing it.
  3. It is cheaper (in our present economy) to make things out of raw material – petroleum, than it is to collect, sort, transport, pelletize and remanufacture all the various kinds of plastics.

Yes, recycling is still worth the effort; but we must get better at “Recycling Right!” You can do it, and your actions do make a difference.

Do not put non-recyclable items, clean or otherwise, in the recycling container, as that just gives the facilities more sorting to do and the materials inevitably end up in the landfill anyway. Or worse, they slip through and end up as a “contaminate” in the recyclable plastics lowering the quality of the material in the bale. This makes it harder to market recyclable material and is a major detriment to the recycling industry.

Click here to download easy recycling guidelines of what can and cannot be recycled.[


It is up to us as individuals to change our habits to stop the avalanche of plastics ending up in elements of our environment. The best thing you can do to help is to reduce your use of plastic at the front end. Look for alternative products that are not packaged in plastic or made of plastic. Reuse items when you can.

See the Conserve Cook County Pledge for more ways to make more sustainable choices.

For more information on acceptable and unacceptable items in your recycling bin: