By Richard Keller, Department of Public Works

Painting of Goldilocks

We all are familiar with the story of Goldilocks and the three bears: she tries three different types of porridge and finds that one is too hot, one is too cold and the other is just right. Goldilocks the Recycler is very similar. She does not want to recycle materials that are too large. She does not want to recycle materials that are too small.  She wants to recycle materials that are just the right size to go through the materials recovery facility (MRF). At the Baltimore County MRF in Cockeysville, we see a lot of materials that are not recyclable because they are either too large or too small. To help prevent this, residents should apply the Goldilocks Principle: recycle only items that are just the right size. But what is the “right size” for recycling?  

Large materials are not only very difficult to handle, but they can also slow down the recycling process or even cause damage to equipment. Never put items larger than three by five feet in size out for curbside recycling collection (cardboard boxes exceeding this size should be broken down). Examples of these large materials include assembled boxes used to package large merchandise and plastic children’s toys such as playhouses, swing sets and kiddie pools. Of course, other large materials such as appliances, scrap metal, garden hoses and equipment, wood, tarps and construction and demolition materials should never be placed out for curbside recycling collection. However, many of these items can be donated or recycled. Check Baltimore County’s Reuse Directory for an organization that will accept these materials.

As for small items, they are very difficult to capture in the sorting process. The Baltimore County MRF operates at 30 to 35 tons per hour. As a result, the mechanical and manual sorting cannot capture small items in the recycling stream.

Photo of a conveyor belt with items to recycle on it

While there is no “magic formula” for what is too small, a rule of thumb you can use is the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules for what you can include in your carry-on bag at the airport. The TSA rules allow only 3.4 ounce (100 ml) or smaller containers. If the item is small enough that you can include it in your carry-on bag, don’t put it in your recycling bin; this means if the item is about as small as, or smaller than, a 3.4 fluid ounce container, it is too small to be sorted at the County's MRF.

Examples of small items include trial- or travel-sized plastic containers, unattached bottle caps and small cosmetic containers, prescription bottles, scraps of paper and similar items. Note that bottle caps can be recycled if they are still attached to their original container. The best guide for determining what is recyclable is to visit the residential recycling collection page on the County’s website or consult your 2018-2021 Trash and Recycling Collection Schedule. If you have any questions about what you can recycle, please contact the Bureau of Solid Waste Management at 410-887-2000 or