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Are you wondering which are the things that cannot be recycled?
In this article, you can find a list of 28 items that you can’t recycle.
Under each item, you will find a short explanation of why they aren’t recyclable and an idea of what you can do with the thing.
I will separate them into four groups:
- Paper things that cannot be recycled
- Plastic things that cannot be recycled
- Other things that cannot be recycled
Now, let’s begin!
Paper things that cannot be recycled:
1. Paper plates, towels, or napkins
Such paper products can’t be recycled because:
- they are usually dirty with food, grease, or other liquids
- Most tissue paper is made from recycled paper already, and it can’t be recycled again, as the paper’s fibers are too short, resulting in low-quality pulp in the recycling process
2. Pizza boxes
But wait, pizza boxes are made from paper, so what’s the problem?
In short, the paper is often spoiled with oil, sauce, and food from the pizza.
When recycling, the machines cannot extract the oils, and in paper recycling, the paper is mixed with water.
When that happens, contaminants like food grease or crumbs will ruin the whole batch. That’s why it is best to compost greasy pizza boxes.
Related post: Can you compost pizza boxes?
3. Shredded paper
Collecting shredding paper can be a massive pain unless you contain it in a box.
Furthermore, once the paper is shredded, the fibers become shorter and less useful in recycling.
So what happens is that if you put shredded paper in your recycling bin, it usually ends up in a landfill.
4. Wet paper
The fibers of the paper are essential in recycling, as we figured already. When wet, the paper breaks down rapidly, and the fibers become shorter; this makes it harder to recycle.
Additionally, damp paper and cardboard can create a massive mess in recycling facilities, as they can stick to recycling machinery and clog it up. (think of coffee filters)
5. Waxed paper
Wax paper is not recyclable because it is coated with wax, and it is considered “mixed paper.”
Receipts are printed on thermal paper, which usually contains BPA, and it resists decomposition. That makes receipts not recyclable or compostable.
If receipts end up in recycling facilities, they can contaminate the whole batch of recycled paper or end up in products like toilet paper, paper napkins, paper food storage, shopping bags, etc.
Related post: Issues with recycling receipts
You can’t recycle stickers 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.
Books are mainly paper, which makes them a highly recyclable material. However, hardback books can be an exception due to binding methods.
A typical binding method uses glue, which is not recyclable, and because of that, many recycling centers will restrict taking in any hardcovers.
It’s best to check with your local recycling center and to see what is allowed.
Plastic things that cannot be recycled:
9. Bubble wrap
Bubble wrap is often a type of plastic #4 (low-density polyethylene – LDPE film).
It should NOT be added to your recycling container because the #2 and #4 plastic films can tangle with other recyclables, and they can damage the recycling equipment.
You can recycle bubble wrap with your other plastic bags in collection bins at grocery stores or other special locations.
10. Plastic bags
Most plastic bags are made from high-density polyethylene (#2 plastic), and the thinner-material bags, like produce bags – from low-density polyethylene (#4 plastic).
The recycling collection system is widely available, mostly through collection drop-off bins at grocery stores or other locations.
Related post: 11 Ways To Reduce The Use Of Plastic Bags
11. Clothing hangers
Most clothing hangers are made of recyclable plastic or metal, which is recyclable. However, the issue of their shape makes it likely that they’ll cause problems during the recycling process. They get tangled up on equipment at recycling facilities.
12. Plastic straws and utensils
Theoretically, they are recyclable, but that excludes drinking straws and utensils because of:
- Their size – as plastic is sorted for recycling, small items like utensils and straws fall through the cracks and end up being sent to the landfill.
- They are inconvenient to process and not cost-effective per unit.
13. Packing peanuts
Packing peanuts are made of expanded plastic, which means air is injected into plastic #6 (polystyrene).
It is also known as styrofoam, which is 98% air. You can’t recycle packing peanuts because it doesn’t break down well at the recycling plant. Additionally, there are limited uses to make new products.
Styrofoam is very light, but it takes a lot of space, which means that shipping it to a recycler does not provide much return on investment, too.
14. Bottle caps, lids
Plastic caps are so confusing.
Plastic bottles are made from plastic #1 (PET), and plastic caps – plastic #5 (polypropylene).
Some will ask you to leave the caps on the bottle, others want you to separate the cap, and the bottle, and third don’t accept caps at all. It is best to call your local recycling program and ask.
Styrofoam is made of polystyrene, and it is one of the most commonly known non-recyclable materials.
Though some parts of the country accept styrofoam, recyclers refuse styrofoam, as often contaminated with food, and breaks easily into tiny pieces.
Bioplastics are a tricky material. You cannot recycle it, often because it is dirty with food, but even if it’s clean, that type of material needs to be composted.
While you can compost some in your home, others require industrial compost that offers specific conditions.
If bioplastics enter a conventional plastic stream, it can cause problems in the recycling process.
Related post: Bioplastics: All you need to know
Other things that cannot be recycled:
17. Medical waste
Medical needles, plastic syringes, and prescription containers are classified as biohazards.
They can’t be recycled for safety reasons, so you should dispose of such items in a hazardous waste box.
You can find collecting places at a doctor’s office, pharmacy, hospitals, and sometimes collection boxes inside government buildings.
For safety reasons, that type of waste can’t be recycled, so it is often burned in special incinerators.
Disposable diapers can’t be recycled, as they contain mixed materials – often paper, plastic, and absorbent material.
Furthermore, they are contaminated, so they should go to the trash and not in your recycling bin.
Even though some new technologies and machines that can recycle diapers, the process is still quite complex and not cost-effective.
19. Hazardous chemical containers
This includes household cleaning containers and chemicals, like bleach, motor oil, antifreeze, and other liquid coolants.
Some spray cans also contain propellants and chemicals, so most municipal systems treat them as hazardous material, too.
You can identify dangerous many waste items by these symbols on the packaging.
You can recycle some empty chemical containers, but not all.
No matter if it can or cannot be recycled, it needs to be disposed of following local or institutional guidelines.
Usually, you should clean the containers three times with a compatible solvent. Then it is recommended to air dry the box.
20. Treated/Scrap wood
You can’t recycle wood in things like ice pop sticks or bigger wooden things treated with any kind of finishing.
The chemicals found in wood treatments make it unsafe to burn for heat or energy.
Untreated wood may be recyclable, depending on your city. You can also look for a composting program that accepts wood items.]
21. Household glass
While almost all glass jars and containers are recyclable, not all glass is created equal.
Window panes, mirrors, dishes, coffee mugs, ceramics, pottery, plates, vases, and tableware are impractical to recycle.
Some are treated with chemicals to make them more durable, and they are heat resistant.
That’s why that type of glass should not end up in the recycling bin, as it can ruin recyclable material during the melting process and make the regular glass unstable.
You should place that type of glass in your household garbage container for disposal.
Bottles and jars are recyclable and compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs); however, the lightbulbs contain a small amount of mercury and shouldn’t be treated as standard household bulbs.
Homeowners should think twice before trying to recycle window glass, light bulbs,
Mirrors are hard to recycle due to the coating used on the glass to make it reflective.
22. Broken glass
You can’t recycle broken glass as it’s dangerous for the people who collect, sort, and melt them.
If you want to get rid of glass materials, donate them if they are in good condition.
If not, dispose of them safely by wrapping the glass in newspaper/old paper, or use it for DIY projects.
Throwing away mattresses should be a last resort as the vast majority goes straight to the landfill.
First, look for nearby mattress recycling facilities, or when you buy a new one, ask the store if they collect old mattresses and pick them when they deliver the new one.
If that’s not possible, consider reselling it or donating it (Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, or in shelters), or repurposing it.
24. Aluminum laminates
Laminated packaging usually refers to plastic/aluminum laminates used in various packaging of consumer goods such as food, drinks, pet foods, toothpaste, and cosmetic products.
Anything that combines aluminum and plastic is usually hard to recycle because it needs to be separated.
The net revenue from recycling laminated packaging currently appears to be lower than the cost of separation, so it is not financially viable as a stand-alone activity.
You cannot recycle laminated pouches in your local council’s kerbside recycling bin – disposed of them in your local council’s kerbside residual waste bin.
Often, electronics aren’t processed at standard recycling facilities, and in many states, it’s illegal to dispose of these electronics in a regular recycling bin.
Electronic products contain toxic substances such as mercury, lead, and cadmium that must be disposed of carefully and safely. The best way to dispose of old electronics is to:
- Donate it to people in need, especially if the device is still working – find great ideas on where to donate electronics.
- Take it to a designated recycler yourself or find a pick-up service. There are pick-up services that handle electronic recycling, so take a look if you have something locally.
- Giving them back to the company you purchased from as many tech firms and electronic retailers offer recycling programs to make it easier for the consumer.
26. Containers contaminated with food
If you want to recycle a container/bag with food before, make sure the item is clear from food residue.
If it’s contaminated with food, there is a big chance to spoil the whole recycling batch.
Give a quick rinse to remove food residue, and then throw it into the recycling bin.
27. Old clothing
Never throw old clothing in the trash or your recycling bin. It is best to collect old clothing, towels, and bedding and donate it to local thrift stores or shelters if they are in good condition.
For the pieces that are in bad condition, find specific recycling containers in stores like Patagonia, Levi’s, the North Side, etc. Find more recycling spots here.
Unfortunately, very few recycled clothing items are turned into new clothing.
This is mainly because sorting textiles are usually intensive, slow labor and the growing use of multiple fabrics in clothing also make it hard to do it mechanically.
Related post: What Are The Disadvantages Of Fast Fashion
28. Plastic toys
Just like clothes, there are plenty of thrift stores and shelters that would love to have old toys in good condition.
Broken and unusable toys can be incredibly challenging to dispose of sustainably. The problem is that many toys are made with mixed plastic materials.
Broken toys maybe recyclable by your local recycling program, but only if it accepts the plastic resins will the toys be made.
Conclusion (+ Important tip)
Recycling is a business, and usually, what you can and cannot recycle greatly depends on where you live.
Some municipalities may offer different recycling facilities that recycle some of the things from this list.
So, it is highly recommendable to check with your city recyclers and see their suggestions on how to dispose of things safely.
Unfortunately, the rules aren’t always clear, and they depend on your local recycling services.
Additionally, even if something is recyclable, the rate of recycling contamination more than doubled in the last decade.
If there is a small amount of contamination, it can quickly turn an entire batch of otherwise recyclable materials into NON-recyclable trash.
That’s why it is usually recommendable to:
- Throw things in the trash when you aren’t sure you can recycle it.
- To avoid single use items that are hard to recycle.
- Focus on long-lasting, plastic-free, recyclable products made sustainably.