This is an archived article and the information in the article may be outdated. Please look at the time stamp on the story to see when it was last updated.

SAN DIEGO — We’ve all been there: staring down the trash can and recycling bin, clutching something we need to throw away but unsure where to toss it.

Recycling is a powerful tool for cutting waste and aiding the environment, but throwing dirty or improperly sorted items into the blue bin does more harm than good. To cut out the guesswork, California put together a database to help residents determine what exactly gets recycled in their local curbside program.

The city of San Diego’s guidelines are generally applicable, but feel free to search the database for your specific city’s program if you live elsewhere in San Diego County, including Oceanside, Vista, Carlsbad, La Mesa, El Cajon and Chula Vista.

For now, here’s a closer look at the San Diego Environmental Services program:

What can I recycle?

Blue bin recycling

Do include:

  • Aluminum and steel bottles and cans
  • Aluminum foil and trays
  • Glass bottles and jars
  • Boxes and cardboard
  • Mixed paper and shredded paper
  • Food and beverage paper cartons
  • Plastic: Bottles, cups, containers, jugs, trays, buckets, tubs and toys
  • Styrofoam packaging and drink containers

Green bin

Do include:

  • Grass clippings
  • Flowers
  • Leaves
  • Wood
  • Untreated, unpainted wood
  • Shrub and tree trimming
  • Undecorated Christmas trees

Do NOT include:

  • Plastic bags, plastic wrap
  • Food or liquid
  • Hoses
  • Clothing
  • Wires, electronics, batteries
  • Fluorescent light bulbs
  • Compostable and biodegradable plastics

Do NOT include:

  • Pet poop
  • Plant pots
  • Dirt
  • Rocks
  • Plant tags

How clean does recycling have to be?

“Empty and dry” are the key words used by the state of California when generally describing how to prepare your blue bin recyclables.

Ahead of Earth Day, review this guide from the City of San Diego on recycling, including tips for home composters. (Photo: SD Environmental Services)

Contrary to what you may have been taught, you do not have to rinse out containers before you recycle. Instead, the state says to shake or wipe out any liquid or food, then leave the items to dry right side up in the recycling bin.

Keep in mind: If the item you’re tossing out isn’t easy to empty and leave clean, you probably shouldn’t recycle it.

A hastily-rinsed food container with dirty water and sauce stuck to the sides is better off in the trash can. When that food mess spreads to other items in the blue bin, it all becomes less likely to actually get recycled, according to the state.

“Containers with liquid or food can spoil everyone’s recycling in a collection truck,” a warning on California’s I Recycle Smart site reads.

Want to learn more? Check out the state’s tips on recycling food scraps and watch CalRecycle videos for further tips.