Recycling Guide: FAQs

What goes where??

View a quick waste sorting video here or get more details below!

Utensils = Landfill (most of the time)

  • Normally, utensils are made from #6 plastic, which should go to the landfill.
  • If the utensils are certified compostable plastic (PLA) and composting is available, they should go to composting.
  • Utensils are a common contaminant for recycling. They should not go in the recycling because even if they are a recyclable plastic, they are not recoverable in the typical automated recycling sort system.

Paper cups = Landfill

  • While a better option than Styrofoam because it is made from a renewable resource, these are not recyclable because they have a plastic liner to prevent liquids from soaking into the paper.
  • There are paper cups with a PLA liner, which is certified compostable. These can be composted where collection facilities exist.  Look for labeling on the packaging for guidance.

to-go-boxTo-go boxes = It’s complicated

  • If totally clean, these can be recycled. If composting is available, to-go boxes can be composted (but sort out the trash inside!). Otherwise it goes to the landfill. A large volume of food-contaminated to-go boxes will contaminate the recycling load and may cause it to be rejected at the recycling facility. Remember: food contaminates recycling!

Coffee cups = It’s complicated

  • Standard paper or styrofoam cups should go in the landfill. Some paper cups have a compostable PLA liner, which can be composted if composting collection is available. Look for labeling on the packaging for guidance.
  • Coffee cup lids are typically a #6 plastic, which should go to the landfill
  • Cardboard sleeves are recyclable and compostable!

Brown napkins = Compostable or landfill

  • Paper napkins are compostable if facilities are available, as long as they are not heavily dyed.
  • Used paper products are not recyclable because they are usually considered unsanitary; they are also made from low-grade, short fibers that cannot be recycled.

Bleached or colored napkins/paper towels/tissues = Landfill (most of the time)

  • These materials are not recyclable because they are usually considered unsanitary once used; they are also made from low-grade, short fibers that cannot be recycled.

Soup cups = Landfill

  • While better than Styrofoam because it is made from a renewable resource, paper cups are not recyclable because they have a plastic liner that prevents liquids from soaking into the paper.

Pizza boxes = It’s complicated

  • If clean, these can be recycled. If there is food residue or grease or half a pizza, it goes to the landfill.
  • Brown corrugated cardboard pizza boxes can be composted where collection is available.

Plastic milk bottles (individual milk bottles or by the gallon) = Recycle

  • If empty, these can be recycled.

Cardboard/paper milk cartons = Recycle

  • These are a different material than paper cups called aseptic packaging, which can be recycled at many recycling centers.

Plastic cups = It’s complicated

  • #1 PETE plastic cold cups are recyclable.
  • PLA compostable cups are not recyclable. They can go into the compost if compost collection is available. Look for labeling on the packaging for guidance.
  • #6 plastic cups (like the red Solo cup) are not recyclable at most recycling facilities. #6 plastic is polystyrene (PS) is the same chemical make up as Styrofoam, only it doesn’t have as much air. Polystyrene has negative environmental and health impacts, as well as low market value as a recycled commodity, so it should be avoided when there are alternatives available.

Have a recycling question? Contact Cassandra Hage ( Are you a recycling enthusiast? Consider volunteering to educate others. 

More Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Just how bad is our contamination problem?

A: When participating in the annual RecycleMania competition, the recycling problem became very apparent. WashU dropped in all areas, both in the volume diverted and within the ranks of competing schools. For example, in 2015, our diversion rate over the competition period was 45%. In 2016, the diversion rate over the same period was 34%. In one category, the “Per Capita Classic”, WashU went from ranking 9 out of 232 in 2015 to 110 out of 208 in 2016.

Since January 2016, at least 52% of our recycling loads have been rejected from Resource Management. We have been charged an additional $15,782 as fees for additional transportation and landfill tonnage. We have also lost out on $8,810 on recycling rebates. Similarly, about 40% of our compost totes end up going to the landfill due to contamination. In addition to the flat compost rate, we receive a $6 fee per 60 gallon tote that is contaminated. In Spring 2017, the fee will go up to $12 per container. At this pace, waste removal is tripling in cost, which will impact rental costs for administrative and academic departments.

Our goal for 2020 is to achieve a 55% diversion rate – an 11% drop is a huge step back for this strategic goal. More information…

Q: What can be recycled?

A: Paper products, cartons & cardboard; glass; metal (Aluminum, foil, steel); rigid plastics #1-5, 7. NO TO-GO BOXES OR PAPER CUPS. Frequent contaminants: food soiled to-go containers, coffee cups and lids, paper cold cups, soup cups, plastic utensils, #6 plastic plates (particularly after catering events), PLA compostable plastics, latex gloves (back-of-house). *Follow signage posted in dining areas to avoid contamination.

Q: What can be composted?

A: Food and certified compostable serviceware (paper to-go boxes, napkins and PLA cups and cutlery, etc). Many uncoated brown paper products (like cardboard, brown cardboard pizza boxes or paper bags) can be composted as well. *Follow signage posted in dining areas to avoid contamination.

Compostable plastics typically have a green stripe or “compostable” written somewhere on the product.

Q: It seems like the rules are always changing – why is that?

A: When you send something to the landfill, that is it: end of life. Simple, right? However, with both recycling and composting, companies are taking our waste and developing a commodity, creating jobs and contributing to the economy. In order for recycling centers to remain revenue generating, the materials must be converted into a commodity that buyers want as a feed stock for their operations or as a final product.

Like any commodity, sorted recyclables are responsive to both the demands and the volatility of the market. For example, when cardboard was selling for a premium, it made more sense to separate and bale cardboard to get a bigger rebate. But when the market dipped, single stream became more cost effective.

The materials a recycling facility will accept is influenced by the sorting process, how the materials act in the automatic sorting line. For example, flat plastic packaging acts more like paper than a plastic beverage container, so the automatic system that is designed to sort out plastic containers will miss the flat plastic packaging. Rules may also change as technology advances. We used to be told to take caps off of bottles because lids and bottles are different types of plastic. Now, machinery has developed that can easily separate the two plastics, so you should leave the lids on. If lids are loose, they fall thorough sorting screens and become land-filled as waste.

Q: Why aren’t all the signs the same across campus?

A: Because there are literally thousands of recycling containers throughout campus, a complete redo of all signage is very expensive. We are planning a phased approach to signage updates, starting with the most high-impact areas.

Q: Why can’t #6 plastic be recycled?

A: #6 plastic is PS or Polystyrene. It is the same chemical make up as Styrofoam (also known as EPS or expanded polystyrene). #6 plastic has little value in the market for sorted post-consumer plastics and it is most commonly shipped overseas for further processing. Within the St. Louis region, some recycling facilities will accept #6 plastics, mainly to simplify the message, but the #6 plastics are still being baled together with other low-value plastics (#3 – #7) and sorted/processed elsewhere. Because there is no market for #6 plastic, recycling companies would rather not accept it. #1 and #2 plastics on the other hand have well-established regional markets and are often recycled into consumer goods in America. Where possible, purchase #1 plastic items and seek out consumer goods packaged in #1 plastic instead of #6 or Styrofoam.


Q: How much food residue is allowed in/on containers? Do I need to clean containers before recycling them?

A: With most containers, a quick rinse or wipe should be enough for residential recycling. However, no food residue (cheese, grease, sauce, ketchup, etc.) is allowable on paper products.

Q: What do I do with my compostables if I’m not at a location that collects compost?

A: If you are willing and able, hold onto your compostables until you can toss them at a compost location! Otherwise, unfortunately, these materials will have to go to landfill.

Q: Why is campus-wide composting not available?

A: While we have a long-term goal to offer composting at dining facilities across campus, pilot locations have not yet demonstrated ongoing success. With continued education and making to-go materials more uniform across dining locations, we anticipate achieving a shift in campus culture and awareness. Once contamination is consistently below the allowable threshold, we will be able to better advocate for campus-wide post-consumer composting.

Q: Where can I find compostable collection on campus?

A: Post-consumer composting can be found at Bear’s Den, the Law School, Common Grounds (Hillman Hall), and the Village. The Medical School, Whittemore House, and the DUC collect pre-consumer compost.

Have a recycling question? Contact Cassandra Hage (