Plastic-Free(ish)

11 Things You Really Should Stop Recycling

As someone who aspires to produce “zero” waste, I can find myself relying on my recycling bin more than I should. 

While my household trash has dwindled, my blue bin is almost always full. And when I do have something to toss, and it seems like it should be recyclable but am unsure, I most often will add it to recycling and hope for the best. In my mind, it’s better to send the item in question to a place where it might be recycled or composted versus straight to landfill...right?! 

With the growing spotlight on recycling, and especially recycling contamination, it got me to wonder—am I doing it right, or am I part of the problem? According to the Waste Management, one out of every four items that ends up in the blue bin doesn’t belong. And China, previously one of the world’s largest importers of recycling waste, recently set strict limits on what they will accept to reduce “yang laji,” or foreign trash—throwing a major curve ball at the U.S. recycling industry

“Wishful” or “aspirational recycling” happens when people mean well, but actually do more harm than good. Your household trash might be near empty, but placing the wrong item in recycling can contaminate the entire pile, and potentially an entire truckload, sending it straight to landfill. Recycling contamination also can break recycling equipment, slow down operations, create unsafe work conditions (especially when sharp or hazardous materials are involved), and can increase service costs.  

For this reason, many municipalities have pleaded with customers—"when in doubt, throw it out." I decided to look into some of the most common offenders contributing to recycling contamination, and admit that I found more than a few I was guilty of. 

So, learn from my mistakes and stop wishful recycling by avoiding these 11 common offenders:

1. Plastic Bags: You’d be surprised how many people add soft plastic bags to their recycling bin, or even bag their recyclables in plastic before adding them to their cart. The problem with soft plastic bags is that they can clog machines and slow down operations while workers remove the bags by hand. Bring your own reusable tote with you when you’re out shopping to eliminate the need for a plastic bag. You can also recycle soft plastic at many grocery stores. Plastic Film Recycling provides a handy directory by zip code to find a drop-off location near you. 

2. Pizza Boxes: If it’s got food stains or grease on it, it doesn’t belong in recycling. Lucky for us pizza lovers, cardboard boxes can be composted as can other food-soiled paper, so long as they’re not lined with plastic. A good example is take-out boxes—check the bottom of the box to see if it is labeled as compostable. Boxes with a shiny interior are most often lined with plastic and cannot be recycled or composted, unless your local municipality accepts them. Napkins and paper towels should always go in the compost.  

3. Gift Wrap: Shiny, metallic wrapping paper and decorative ribbons do not belong in recycling. Glittery cards are also non-recyclable and can contaminate an entire bin of paper. When wrapping a gift, opt for an unlaminated paper like newspaper, paper bags or butcher paper. A good way to test if your gift paper is recyclable is to crumple it into a ball—if it stays bunched up, it’s most likely recyclable. If not, re-use it or throw it away. 

4. Small metal bits: While bits of metal like soda can tabs and aluminum candy wrappers are technically recyclable, their small size makes them hard to detect and they often jam recycling machinery. To avoid this issue, keep soda tabs attached to the can or drop them inside the can when you’re done. Save bits of aluminum foil until it forms a large ball or place them inside an aluminum can and crimp the top shut before you place the entire can into recycling. 

5. Receipts: While the thermal cash register receipts you receive from a grocery store or boutique are made from paper, they also contain Bisphenol A, aka BPA, the nasty cancer causing chemical. When you recycle receipts, the BPA that they contain gets processed with other paper pulp and contaminates the recycled paper products that are being produced. It’s best to ask for no receipt when you’re shopping, or throw it away and wash your hands. 

6. Food Residue: Cleaning out food and beverage containers before you recycle them is just as important as placing them in the right bin. Food residue and liquids left in take out containers, peanut butter jars and even wine bottles can contaminate an entire truckload of recyclables. Containers don’t have to be perfectly clean, but they should be rinsed and washed with soap if they’re greasy. 

7. Broken Crockery: We’re all prone to breaking things. Unfortunately, broken plates, ceramics, porcelain, mirrors, light bulbs, cups, wine glasses and pyrex have different melting points and chemical compositions compared to recyclable glass and belong in the trash. Donate plates, cups and glasses in good working condition, and reuse broken crockery for another purpose at home or a craft project. 

8. Diapers: Yuck, and no! Hopefully, it’s no surprise that dirty diapers and sanitary products have no place in the recycling bin. Whether they are clean or dirty, they go in the trash. There are some compostable diapers, but most municipalities do not accept them in municipal compost bins. Look into a compostable diaper service that drops off clean diapers and picks up dirty diapers to compost at a dedicated facility, or switch to reusable cloth diapers and reusable pads or a menstrual cup

9. Shredded Paper: This one surprised me. Shredded documents and small bits of paper are too small to be valuable to recyclers and fall through the cracks or can even clog equipment. The good news is shredded paper can be composted! If composting isn’t an option, you can collect shreds in a paper bag, staple it closed and place it into recycling. 

10. Coffee Cups: Most to-go coffee cups are lined with a plastic film that makes them liquid proof, and difficult to recycle. The plastic lid might be recyclable, but it will depend on what type of plastic is accepted your local municipality. The paper heat sleeve that goes around the cup to protect your hand is really the only part of a to-go coffee cup that is likely recyclable or compostable. Better yet, say no to disposable cups and bring your own reusable coffee cup with you when you’re on the go. 

11. Paperboard Boxes: Freezer food boxes and ice cream cartons contain a plastic polymer to prevent freezer burn. Unfortunately, this plastic coating prevents the box or carton from breaking down in the recycling process. Gable-topped milk and juice cartons are also made from a paper/plastic hybrid to prevent leaks and shelf stable cartons (sold in a rectangular box) contain additional plastic and aluminum layers, making them even more difficult to recycle. While some municipalities accept cartons for recycling, many do not, so it is best to check. 

Hopefully, this list of recycling offenders has provided some clarity about what does and does not belong in your blue bin. With this new awareness, I’m committed to throw things in the trash when it’s unclear where it belongs, as much as it may pain me.

I do want to emphasize that there can be huge variations in recycling policies between cities, even within a few miles. The best thing to do is check your local public works website or give them a call. Some cities also offer tours of their recycling facilities, which sounds like good “clean” family fun to me! 

142 comments

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Dan

please check this part of point n.9
“you can collect shreds in a paper bag, staple it closed and place it into recycling.”

According to previous points about metals, you should not put a metal staple with paper.
Am I right?

J M B

I am totally shocked! I guess I have been doing this all wrong!!!!!! It seems everything that I thought was recyclable is garbage. I am trying to do the right thing but it seems my stuff is really all garbage! What happens to the garbage? Does it turn into mountains in the cities? I am really concerned, cause this stuff doesn’t just melt away. It’s there for a long while. Like all the new mountains in Florida!!!!!
I would really be interested to find out. Maybe it could be on the cities TV channel.
Let everyone see just what happens to all of our discarded stuff.

Gaynal Prather

Recycling has turned from a moral responsibility into an unfathomable nightmare of yes’s and no’s. The ONLY possible recourse is to enact a massive container packaging code for ALL products. No more ‘multi’ material packages.

Seth Crosby

How about pantry boxes like cereal boxes which, like freezer boxes, have an extra layer of…something.

Eva

Hey, thanks a lot. This really helped me.

Kate Skinner

It is my understanding that once paper has been shredded it is no longer useful to recycle because the fibres are too short to be turned back into paper.
As for plastic bags, in my municipality they are collected but they must all be placed together into one bag.
Thanks for the interesting article.

Deniel

Recycling is a very powerful aspect of environmental sustainability. The truth is we all require to get into the habit of using less stuff in the first place. And the things we do use ought to be reused as much as possible before being recycled, to minimize trash/waste. If you’re not sure how to recycle item then their so many organization like SwagCycle which help in recycling your items in an ethical, responsive or affordable way. https://www.swagcycle.net/

Joanne MacLellan

Even if your local transfer station accepts carefully sorted items, often it all eventually ends up in an incinerator, big hole in the ground, or the ocean.

Gina

In the image, do you think you captured the attention of more people by pairing the tiny jar with the oversized image of the crotch area of a curvy woman? I find this image offensive.

Jennifer

In Scarsdale, their recycle machines completely sort and wash everything, removing anything that can’t be recycled. They also recycle more substances than CT does, like styrofoam. So the biggest lesson is to know the local rules.

EILEEN MCDERMOTT

What about ziploc bags and plastic wrap?

Yolanda

It’s good to keep up with this information and also to look at the guidelines in your individual town or city and everywhere seems to have different rules! I really wish coffee shops all used recyclable cups and there were more government regulations on what companies are permitted to use. It would make our lives a lot easier! I live in Canada and next year the government is banning ‘harmful single use plastic’. This makes me hopeful that there will be more initiatives like this to come – but we still have such a long way to go to make a real impact.

Linda E Timm

I would like to know where to recycle styrofoam? Some cups and food containers have the triangle with a {9} listed. It is used for insulation. Waste management stated that they do not except syrofoam. So what do we do with it?

Louis P. Kelley

Over the past few years my trash / recyclable pickup bill has more than doubled. If the collection company cannot handle the various types of trash, which we already partially sort, then maybe they should get into another business.

DeaconMac

In Montgomery County MD, we are instructed that shredded paper CAN be put in the same container as other recyclable paper. They only ask that you not put it on the bottom or top of the contents of the container (so it is less likely to be scattered by the wind at pickup).

Also, they recently announced that pizza boxes are okay for recycling, too, even if they have some grease stains, as long as there is no actual food in them.

Susie Saalwaechter

Manufacturers should be required to take back what they produce. Let them set up the infrastructure to deal with their products. Leaving it up to municipalities which have neither the resources nor manpower is asking for failure.

Susie Kepner

One of my sons who is in charge of recycling in a Southern CA community says: “plastics with a 1 or 2 on the bottom are definitely recyclable, any higher number is likely to not be acceptable.” This is about as far as I go with deciding where to throw what.

Rebecca Riffe

This is helpful.

Sarah

Where I live, plastic bags are recyclable but black plastic is not. My city has an online too you can check to see if the item is recyclable, is organic waste that the city will pick up to compost (plants, bones, fruits and vegetables, paper towels, tissues, diapers, sanitary napkins…) or if it goes in the garbage. You really should check locally to find out what is recyclable or what is not.

Ashley Granger

Our city actually has a database online. You can type in what you want to recycle and it will tell you how to dispose of it. We have a “household hazardous waste” drop off a couple times a month for most of the year where you can get rid of household cleaners, old paint, and batteries. I agree with another commenter about buying a battery tester. They’re super cheap and a great way to find out if your batteries are still good. You’ll want to use new batteries in things like smoke detectors, but if a battery still has some charge, you can put them in something you don’t use that often.

Laura Stockdale

Just keep sharing and keep learning. We want to do better and when we have the info, we can do better! Thanks for this post!

Adri

Good info! Except the aluminum foil in an aluminum can: it is a lesser quality aluminum and also considered a contaminant with beverage cans. Check with your local facility but it can usually go in a steel food tin and be recycled that way.

Camilla

I’ve known every one of these rules since my city started its recycling program over 20 years ago. Still, I can’t convince the person I hire to help with some housework (and other occasional helpers in the kitchen) that food containers must be washed and that putting things into the recycling bin that can’t be recycled (pizza boxes, boxes from frozen food, jars that aren’t properly washed, plastic that isn’t No 1-6 recyclable) is not helping the environment. It’s making recycling less efficient and costlier. People need to get over recycling as a “feel-good” action. It needs to be a habit like putting trash in the trash bin. Maybe this needs to be put in the K-3 curriculum in schools so that it is learned before people reach an age where they think that already know it all.

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