Main Menu

Sustainability Around the U

Real life recycling lessons: 5 recycling mistakes by Utah fans

Abby Ghent sorts recycling from the March 6 Utah Red Rocks gymnastics meet.
Sustainability Ambassador Abby Ghent sorts through items placed in recycling bins during the March 6 gymnastics meet at the Huntsman Center. Recycling Manager Josh James assists in the background.

By Abby Ghent, Sports & Sustainability Ambassador

After the March 6 Utah Red Rocks gymnastics meet—a competition where Utah handily topped Stanford and Utah Senior Kim Tessen scored a perfect 10 on the vault—members of the U Sustainability and Recycling teams sorted through all the discarded materials in the Huntsman Center recycling bins as part of the Pac-12 Zero Waste Challenge. Utah has some of the best fans, but there were few things we noticed in the bins that were problematic. Here are the five most common contaminants we found:

Soda cups, lids, and straws (combined or individually)

Soda cups are paper with a plastic film on the inside. This plastic film is to ensure the cups do not disintegrate while there is a liquid in them. However, this plastic film also makes the cups not recyclable because they aren’t true paper, and they aren’t recyclable plastic either. Additionally, the lid and straw that come with the cups are too thin of a plastic to be recycled and therefore must be taken to the landfill along with the cup.


Although many of the containers that hold liquids are recyclable, if there are liquids in them, they must first be dumped out (either in the sink or another appropriate place for liquids). After dumping the liquids, many of these containers can be recycled—like plastic water bottles that are #1 plastic. If the liquids are poured into the single stream recycling, any paper in the bin is contaminated and must be removed and sent to the landfill.  

Dirty ice cream and smoothie/juice cups

Many of the ice cream cups and smoothie/juice cups we saw still had remnants of food in them. These then harden and are difficult to remove from the plastic. For them to be successfully recycled, they must first be wiped or rinsed out. This is easiest to do as soon as the cups are empty. These dirty containers also have the potential to ruin other recycled items. (Note that the spoons and straws that accompany these materials are not recyclable.)

Plastic wrappers

Plastic wrappers are commonly confused to be recyclable, when in fact, they are not. These plastics are too thin and so cannot be made into another plastic, so they must be sent to the landfill. Plastic wrappers from candy, chips, food items, etc. must be thrown out.

Dirty food containers

Similar to the ice cream cups and smoothie cups, food containers are often contaminated with food remnants such as sauce, grease (in the case of cardboard boxes), and other food waste. Some plastic food containers, particularly #1 plastic containers, can be recycled if they are cleaned first, and if a cardboard box is free of grease and other food remnants, it also can be recycled with the paper/cardboard. Also, pizza crusts—or any food items—do not belong in the recycling bin.

Soda cups, as well as lids and straws, are not recyclable.
Soda cups, as well as lids and straws, are not recyclable.