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What paper cannot be recycled?
The types of paper that cannot be recycled include –
waxed paper, shredded paper, wrapping gift paper, paper coated with plastic, receipts, sticky paper, and any paper contaminated with food or other liquids like pizza boxes, milk & juice cartons, napkins & tissues, paper towels, and toilet paper.
Keep reading to find more about why these paper types cannot be recycled, better alternatives to each product & a FAQ section.
11 Types Of Paper That Cannot Be Recycled:
1. Napkins and tissues
You cannot recycle any hygiene/sanitary products, such as – used tissues, napkins, wipes, kitchen rolls, or sanitary towels.
These paper products can’t be recycled, as they are usually contaminated with food, grease, or other liquids.
Furthermore, a lot of tissue paper is made from recycled paper already. So, they can’t be recycled again, as the paper’s fibers are too short, resulting in low-quality pulp in the recycling process. If you want to learn more about how exactly the paper is recycled, you can check my article, which covers the 10 steps of recycling paper.
Anyhow, even if the tissue is clean, the chances are that you still can’t recycle it.
While you might think that napkins are eco-friendly since they are made from paper, it is still a single-use product that can’t be upcycled.
The only thing you can do with these items is to compost them with your food scraps.
Instead of using single-use napkins, you can switch to reusable cloth ones.
2. Toilet paper
Toilet paper cannot be recycled, even if it’s not contaminated, as the paper fibers are too short. However, on the positive side, the cardboard roll can be recycled.
Worldwide, we use too much toilet paper in a very unsustainable pattern. We cut thousands of trees yearly for toilet paper, just to flush it down the drain.
Luckily, there are ways to reduce our toilet paper consumption by following a few simple tricks.
- Use reusable rags and cloth napkins whenever possible.
- Buy only 100% recycled toilet paper, lowering the demand for creating paper products from virgin material.
- Find sustainable tree-free toilet paper products. Various brands make toilet paper from bamboo, which is worth exploring.
3. Paper towels
Paper towels should not end up in the recycling container, because similarly to toilet paper and tissues, their fibers are too short.
Additionally, paper towels are often dirty with liquids, food, or grease, contaminating the whole paper batch, which is recyclable.
Instead of tossing used paper towels into the trash, you can compost them along with your food scraps – throw them with eggshells, coffee grounds, fruit and vegetable peels, etc. Composting, after all, is another form of recycling.
4. Waxed paper
Waxed paper comes in handy when handling or delivering food, but it is not great for keeping products out of landfills.
Wax paper is not recyclable because it is coated with wax, and it is considered “mixed paper.”
Reuse it – If the wax paper isn’t super dirty, you can wipe off the paper with a damp cloth and use it again.
Compost – If you are using waxed paper coated with organic wax such as soybean-based wax and vegetable oil wax, you can compost it – it will need about two to six weeks to decompose.
Wax wrap – A reusable, eco-friendly wrap usually made from cotton, beeswax, or soy wax and oils.
5. Receipts (Thermal paper)
Some receipts can be recycled, but most of them cannot. This is because they are usually printed on thermal paper, which contains BPA, and resists decomposition.
Furthermore, such receipts are not recyclable or compostable, and they have to go in the trash.
If this paper ends up in paper recycling centers, it will likely end up in products like toilet paper, paper napkins, paper food storage, shopping bags, and other everyday items we consume.
The bad side is that receipts can contaminate the whole batch of recycled paper with the chemicals they contain.
Go digital – Whenever possible, choose a digital receipt over a physical one.
Less frequent shopping – Try to shop less often, and buy more things at once. In that way, you will reduce the number of receipts you use.
Contact your local recycling center – The way receipts are handled depends on your local recycling program. Contact them and ask if they can recycle receipts, and if not, what’s the best way to dispose of them.
Related post: Can You Recycle Receipts? (problems + solutions)
6. Shredded paper
Do not place paper shreds in the recycle bin because when the paper is shredded, the fibers become shorter and are less useful in the recycling process.
Collecting shredding paper can also be a massive pain unless you contain it in a bag or a box.
In most cases, if you put shredded paper in your recycling bin, it will end up in a landfill.
Compost – If you have a compost bin, then you can throw your shredded paper in there.
Reduce the amount of paper with confidential information – Most banks and other financial services offer online statements instead of paper ones.
Contact your local recycling plant – Recycling plants have different rules everywhere (which is pretty annoying, I must admit). In some cities, shredded paper is recyclable as long as it’s contained, so it is best to contact your local facility and ask.
7. Sticky paper or stickers
You shouldn’t put sticky paper and stickers in the recycling bin.
These materials are hard to recycle because of the adhesive that is used in them.
The main issue is the effect that the adhesive can have on recycling machines – it can get caught in the recycling process.
This is why most recycling plants refuse to accept stickers as a recycling product.
8. Paper coated with plastic
If the paper has a plastic or aluminum coating, it can be recycled, but it is much more expensive and complicated.
Some plastic coatings can be separated from paper during the recycling process. Still, it is often cheaper and easier to use virgin materials to create new products than recycling paper coated with plastic.
Paper coated with plastic isn’t suitable for composting, and most times, such products are incinerated for heat or landfilled rather than recycled.
For example, “paper” coffee cups and plates have a thin plastic layer (polyethylene) to hold liquids without leaking all over the place. That’s why takeaway coffee cups aren’t recyclable nor biodegradable.
This type of coated paper is mostly used in the food and drink packaging industry. Try to buy things in single-layer packaging materials, like – glass, aluminum, or paper.
If you are not sure if a paper material has a plastic coating inside, look for a recycling code on the packaging. For example, it is paper if the recycling code is – 20 PAP, 21 PAP, or 22 PAP.
If it is paper-coated plastic, the code should be – PAPPET (81, 82, or 83), or 84 C/PAP.
9. Wrapping gift paper
Some wrapping paper includes textures, sellotape, foil, sticky tape, ribbons, bows, glitter, or other decorations that cannot be recycled.
If you are not sure if you can recycle it, do the scrunch test. If it stays scrunched up, it’s likely to be paper.
Before recycling, remove any sticky tape and decorations.
Wrapping paper is used for a short period, and then it’s ripped apart. If you still want to wrap a gift, find out how to do it without wrapping paper or tape.
10. Milk or juice cartons
Milk and juice cartons are made primarily of paper. Yet, these cartons also have a thin layer of plastic inside, aluminum, or sometimes both.
There are two types of cartons – shelf-stable cartons like juice, milk, soy milk, soup, broth, etc., stored at room temperature, and refrigerated cartons like milk, juice, cream, and egg substitutes.
Shelf-stable cartons typically contain ~ 74 percent paper, 22 percent plastic, and 4 percent aluminum.
Refrigerated cartons usually contain 80 percent paper and 20 percent plastic.
Some milk cartons and juice boxes can be recycled, and others cannot because other non-recyclable materials are mixed with the paper.
Additionally, specific municipal recycling programs do not accept plastic/paper hybrid cartons, so it’s best to check your local recycling or waste disposal service for recycling guidelines.
When recycling milk or juice cartons, you should throw them in the plastic/metal bin and not paper.
If you have options, try to pick things in glass or aluminum packaging.
11. Pizza boxes
If the pizza box is clean (not stained with food), you can recycle it. First, however, you should remove all the dirty parts.
Greasy pizza boxes cannot be recycled; they should be composted instead.
That’s because when the paper is recycled, it is mixed with water. So adding any oil to the mix essentially contaminates and ruins the whole batch.
Compost the dirty parts, and recycle the clean ones.
Related post: When Can You Recycle Pizza Boxes?
What paper cannot be recycled – FAQ:
Can you recycle paper with ink on it?
Yes – if you used paper to write, draw or print things, you can throw it into your recycling bin.
Is colored paper recyclable?
Yes – you can recycle most colored paper.
You can quickly check if you can recycle it – rip a small piece of it. If it is white in the middle, you can recycle it for sure.
Can I recycle brown paper bags?
Yes, but only if they are not contaminated with food or coated with a second layer. For example, if you can see a glossy coating, it may be from plastic; therefore, you can’t recycle it.
Can wet paper be recycled?
It is best to avoid recycling wet paper. That’s because when wet, the paper breaks down rapidly, and the fibers become shorter; hence it is harder to recycle it.
Additionally, damp paper and cardboard can stick to recycling machinery and clog it up.
Can I recycle paper with paint on it?
No, you can’t recycle paper with regular or water-based paint on it. This is because the paper has been wet, and the fibers are damaged and can’t be recycled.
Can you recycle shiny/glossy paper?
You can recycle the shiniest paper, such as glossy magazines, flyers, leaflets, and catalogs.
Glossy paper is accepted in local recycling programs, but make sure the paper does not have a plastic coating. If the glossy paper is easy to tear apart, it should be fine.
All in all, recycling is tricky, and most times, what paper cannot be recycled depends pretty much on your local recycling plant.
Different recycling facilities have different capabilities, and some plants may have more specialized equipment and sorting techniques than others.
If you are not sure about something, try to do an online search and make a phone call to your local recycling plant.
Learn more about the 10 steps of recycling paper to understand even better why some things aren’t suitable for recycling.