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Can I Recycle This? Answers to Common Recycling Questions

sustainNU regularly fields questions from the campus community about the University's best practices for handling waste and recycling. We have listed answers to frequently asked questions below. If you need more information or a response to a question not covered here, please visit the recycling page on sustainNU's website or contact sustainNU at

What Can I Recycle on Campus?

The main thing to remember is that paper products, cardboard, glass, plastic (labeled 1-5), and metal (e.g., cans and foil) can all go in the mixed recycling bins located throughout campus. sustainNU’s website provides additional information about what can be recycled on campus, including electronics, batteries, ink cartridges, and more. There is also a program flyer available for posting or sharing electronically.

How can I get a recycling bin (or updated bin labels)?

If you need additional recycling bins, or your bins need updated labels, please contact sustainNU at

Do we recycle at Northwestern?

Yes, we do! Custodial staff are regularly trained and know how to keep recycling and trash separate. Recycling efforts at the University are quite successful. Northwestern's Sustainability Year in Review, Resource Conservation Report demonstrates progress towards diverting waste on campus. If you have concerns about how the University handles recycling collection in a specific location, please contact sustainNU at 

What happens to trash and recycling once it is placed in a bin?

Please watch this video demonstrating how custodial staff work to ensure trash and recycling remain separated and end up in their proper disposal locations. This sustainNU newsletter article explains what happens to items after they are placed in recycling bins around campus.

If a piece of trash gets into the recycling bin, will everything in the bin end up in the landfill?

The goal is to place acceptable items in the recycling bins, but modest amounts of contamination will not cause all contents to end up in the trash. Recyclable materials disposed of in the recycling bins are sent to a processing facility for sorting. The sorting process removes small quantities of waste materials from recyclables. The sorting facility uses magnets, fans, and other mechanisms to separate and classify different commodities such as glass, metal, plastic, paper, cardboard, etc. These commodities are sold to companies that use them to make new products.

On the other hand, if recyclables get disposed of in trash bins, we miss the opportunity to recover them, and eventually, they end up in landfills. So while it is helpful to avoid placing non-recyclable items in recycling bins, it is equally important to avoid putting recyclable items in the trash. sustainNU's website provides more information about what you can recycle on campus.

Can I get compost collection in my building?

Composting is currently available at all major food service operations on campus. We are exploring the possibility of composting in other spaces such as offices. However, we need to consider volumes of compostables generated, and whether it would be cost-effective and practical to add the service.

This past year, sustainNU went through an extensive waste audit to understand and measure what exactly is in Northwestern's waste. We looked at specific waste categories from a variety of building types and space functions, including compostable waste disposed of in trash bins. The results of the audit, which will become publicly available in the coming months, will help us refine our strategies for reducing our waste. Waste minimization strategies could involve exploring opportunities to expand compost collection on campus in the future.

Are there recommended best practices for waste and recycling bin location and quantity?

sustainNU recommends pairing a recycling bin with every trash bin to make it easier for the user to sort waste and recyclables into the correct bins. Concerning quantity, you should first ensure that there are enough bins to collect the usual amount of waste generated in a location. Also, the quantity and distribution of bins should make it convenient for everyone in the space to access them. Finally, recycling bins get identified with a mixed recycling label. Contact sustainNU at if you need recycling bins, bin labels, or signage to help with general awareness.

Can I bring items from home to recycle at work?

Recycling services cost the institution time and money and should be used for workplace-generated items. The same general guidelines should apply for personal use of campus mail or phones. See the Northwestern Staff Handbook, page 6, for guidance. sustainNU provides resources for off-campus recycling. Alternatively, you can check with your local municipality for specific recycling services in your community.

How do I recycle electronics on campus?

You can recycle electronics through Northwestern’s e-Cycling program. More information on this program is available at this link.

Can we recycle ink or toner cartridges on campus?

Yes, sustainNU’s website provides information about how to recycle different things on campus, and printer cartridges are included. The information can be found at this link.

Do I have to clean food containers before recycling them?

Food containers should be empty before they are placed in recycling bins. They do not need to be completely free of food residue. The main reason for cleaning food containers before recycling them would be to avoid odors or pest issues in locations where recycling is not collected every day.

How can I recycle plastic bags?

Plastic bags cannot go in the regular campus recycling bins. Many grocery stores also have collection stations for plastic bag recycling. You can also reduce plastic bag waste by carrying a reusable shopping bag.

Can we recycle writing instruments like pens, highlighters, and pencils?

Currently, we do not offer a pen, pencil, and highlighter recycling program on campus. You can see what is and is not recyclable on campus here.

Can I recycle coffee cups? What about coffee cup lids?

Paper coffee cups can not be recycled, but the lids often can. Look for a number in the lid inside a small triangle. If a plastic lid is labeled with a number one through five, it can be recycled. Plastic items labeled six or seven and those with no number cannot be recycled on campus.

How do we recycle shredded paper?

If you have University documents that need to be shredded and recycled, you can schedule a pickup or arrange regular service through Northwestern’s preferred vendor, Shred-it. If you are shredding in your office, the shredded paper can be placed in recycling bins.