Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Recycling Paper, Plastic and Everything in Between
Can I put this pizza box in with the cardboard? What about that oat milk container? Does this envelope have plastic in it?
The recycling system in the U.S. is far from perfect, and recycling is often used as a scapegoat to justify overconsumption. The oil and gas industries – producers of virgin plastic – spent millions on advertising in the 80s to advocate for recycling, knowing that it wouldn’t be a large-scale solution to our waste problem and would encourage consumers to purchase more plastic. Fast forward to 2018, when 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste were generated in the U.S. in a single year: 4.9 pounds per person per day. Of this waste, 69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons were composted, amounting to a meager 32.1% recycling and composting rate.
Furthermore, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that only 10% of all plastic thrown in recycling bins over the last 40 years has actually been recycled. Some of this waste, however, comes from incorrect sorting on the part of the consumer. Because there are no universal rules for recycling – which is handled by individual counties and municipalities – the process is extremely complex and variable. While recycling is not the end-all-be-all of waste reduction, it is an important tool for keeping waste out of landfills.
It is always necessary to check your regional recycling rules, as the specifications for individual items vary widely. New York City even has a search tool to find common products and how they should be disposed of, and most counties will have this information on their website.
Here are a few pointers on how to recycle those common items – whether it be a pizza box, toothpaste tube, or hairspray can – that have you stumped.
Why Does It Matter?
The U.S. leads the world in plastic waste. With so many recyclable materials already ending up in landfills, incorrectly recycled items can impact the fate of the small percentage of waste that is recycled.
For our current recycling system to continue functioning, the operation must be profitable. After dragging your bins out to the curb, they’re taken away by the recycling truck on pick-up day, and the county or municipality pays for it to be brought to recycling plants for processing. Paper, plastic, glass, and metal are separated and consolidated into bales that are sold, and buyers use the recycled material to create new products, like post-consumer paper, pellets, etc. – all those products stamped with a “made out of recycled material” sticker. However, when a batch is too riddled with trash, it might be too dangerous or costly to sort it out, so it must be sold for a lower price. Sometimes, the whole batch is thrown away.
So, “wishful” or “aspirational” recycling – that is, wishfully throwing items in the recycling just in case they can be recycled, especially in single-stream recycling – can lead to even more waste. According to David Biderman, CEO and executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), 10-15% of all waste sent to recycling centers in the U.S. isn’t actually recyclable. Correctly separating recycling can prevent some of this waste and make sure all recyclables meet their proper fate.
The plastic bin is home to most rigid plastic containers. However, the recycling code dictates all. Every plastic recyclable will be stamped with a little triangle emblem and a number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, or 7, which indicates the type of plastic it’s made from, and ultimately how difficult it is to recycle (1 being the easiest, 7 the hardest). #1, for example, is the code for PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) products, like water bottles, and many other containers for oil, soft drinks, etc.
New York City, for one, accepts essentially all plastic bottles, jars, jugs, and containers, regardless of number, but not all municipalities are as inclusive; most accept at least numbers 1 and 2, but it’s important to know what codes you should divert to the trash instead.
While you can peel the paper labels off of these plastics before recycling them, it isn’t necessary, so save yourself some time and skip that step.
Milk, Juice, and Soup Cartons
These liquid cartons are an infamously confusing recyclable: are they paper? Plastic? Trash?
Unlike some mixed-material products, these cartons are luckily accepted as recyclables in 62% of American communities, reports TreeHugger.
There are two types of recyclable cartons: gable tops (usually found in the refrigerated section) and aseptic (shelf-stable containers of soup, stock, or other liquids). Chicago – which utilizes a single-stream recycling system – accepts these cartons, as does NYC in the plastic, metal, and glass bin. As always, however, don’t aspirationally recycle until you’ve checked recycling rules for your region, especially if you live in a place that doesn’t accept all types of recycling, or are serviced by a smaller recycling center; a misplaced carton could compromise the whole batch of recycling,
Bottles With Pumps
If a shampoo, soap, cleaning product, or lotion bottle is labeled as recyclable – which most are – you can put it in the recycling bin after rinsing out the remaining product. The pump, however, should be thrown away.
The clamshell containers holding your takeout salad and sandwich are made of the highly-recyclable #1 plastic, but the process by which they are made is much different from that of #1 plastic bottles, so some centers won’t accept them. Put them in your curbside container if your county or municipality’s website specifics that clamshell containers are allowed. Otherwise, save them in a separate bin and find a collection center near you where they are.
As of 2020, Keurig-brand K-Cups are newly recyclable – if your recycling center accepts #5 plastic, that is. The company transitioned the pods from #7 plastic to #5, so new K-cups can go in the plastics bin after removing the foil.
Nespresso capsules, on the other hand, are made from 100% aluminum and can be easily recycled with other metals. The company also offers free bags to customers, which can be filled and sent back to the company as a part of their recycling program.
Or, sidestep the pod problem and try out a French press. They’re plastic-waste free.
Glass is very easy to recycle, which means most municipalities will accept common glass containers.
No need to get all the paper or glue off. If you don’t have a single-stream system and must separate metals and glass, remove metal lids and place them in the correct bin. If the lid is larger – at least 3 inches in diameter – most centers will capture them during sorting, so there’s no need to remove it.
Glass Beverage Containers
Kombucha bottles and non-jar-sized glass beverage containers can also be recycled. The little plastic caps are too small to recycle and are hard to sort out of the glass recycling, so make sure to put those in the trash.
Tin and aluminum cans from vegetables, fruit, soup, paint (if fully cleaned), and pet food are a safe bet for the metals bin.
The clean, empty can itself is recyclable. Simply remove the nozzle (which goes in the trash) and recycle along with the rest of your metal.
Some major cities will accept them curbside, if any attached paper or plastic is removed. Otherwise, donate to a local thrift store or dry cleaner, or bring to a scrap metal collector. Remember, however, that most recycling centers will not accept plastic hangers.
Despite its name, tinfoil is made of aluminum, which can be recycled and used over and over again. In fact, according to the Aluminum Association, 75% of all aluminum ever produced in the U.S. is still in use today. As always, however, be sure to check your regional recycling rules.
Make sure the foil is fully clean – with no oil, food, or residue at all – then wad it up before tossing into the bin. If you use foil frequently, it’s best to wad several pieces together, since the material is quite light and can easily blow away when put outdoors.
Foil wrappers can also be recycled if they incorporate no plastic, like yogurt lids and some gum wrappers. If a wrapper stays crumbled when you squeeze it in your hand, it’s foil; if it unfolds, it’s plastic, and should be thrown away. If it’s a really small wrapper – like the foil on a Hershey’s kiss – crumple several together to make a larger clump that won’t clog up a sorting machine.
Aluminum Takeout Trays / Baking Dishes
If a facility takes aluminum foil, it’ll probably take these trays too. Likewise, they must be perfectly clean before they go in the bin.
Beer and soda bottle caps are made of metal, and can go into the bin with those materials. If your recycling center requires metals to be separated by type, sort out steel and aluminum caps (steel will stick to a magnet, aluminum won’t), fill steel and aluminum cans halfway with their respective caps, then crimp the cans closed. This process keeps the small caps from wrecking machinery at the recycling center.
Alternatively, some bottle retailers collect caps and will dispose of them properly when brought back by customers.
Paper recycling bins are for just that: paper, and corrugated cardboard (that multi-layer stuff that shows a few layers when ripped apart). Some cities require cardboard to be broken down to specific dimensions and bound with twine. Regardless, these items will generally always be accepted in curbside recycling.
First of all, if they are in decent condition, consider donating books to a local library or thrift store. As a last resort, they can be recycled as paper in some cases. Hardcovers can’t be put in the bin unless all of the pages are removed and the cover thrown away, or books of mixed materials, such as those with laminated pages.
Phonebooks and whole paperbacks can be recycled by many centers, but check with your municipality to make sure there are no book bans.
Most envelopes can go in the paper recycling. For those with plastic windows and stamps, it doesn’t hurt to peel them off, but the plastic and glue will be filtered out in the sorting process, so it can be left attached. Jiffy paper-padded envelopes can also go in with paper. However, any mailing materials with bubble wrap should be tossed, as should heavily dyed goldenrod envelopes.
Chipboard or Paperboard
This material reveals itself as grey-ish or brown when torn, and is less sturdy than corrugated cardboard. It’s typically used for cereal, snack, gift, and tissue boxes. If it tears white, however, check with your municipality to see if it’s accepted as recycling.
Cardboard Egg Cartons
Egg cartons are easily recycled if made of 100% paper or cardboard. Some can even be composted, and will break down quickly in a home pile while delivering carbon to the compost. Plastic egg cartons are more complicated; check the number on the bottom to see if it should go in with the plastic.
Toothbrushes, for one, are usually packaged in glossy cardboard, which can be recycled with paper. Waxy cardboard has a similar appearance, but is actually a completely different material, and is usually used for transporting groceries to stores rather than for products on the shelves. Make sure the recycling-bound cardboard is “glossy” rather than “waxy” by scraping the material with your fingernail; if it comes away with residue, the cardboard should be thrown away.
Wrapping Paper and Gift Bags
If it has foil, glitter, or other decorative elements, send it to the trash. Wrapping paper must be 100% paper with no plastic layers to be recycled. If you can rip through the wrapping paper easily, it’s probably just glossy paper, which can be recycled. Unfortunately, it’s best to play it safe and throw it away if you’re not sure. Large pieces of un-recyclable paper in a recycling batch could send the whole lot to the landfill. If you can, make sure to wrap gifts with only 100% paper so you know everything being unwrapped at the holiday is recyclable. Remove ribbons or other adornments before putting in the recycling bin.
The same rules apply for gift bags: if it’s just paper, it’s recyclable, but if you can’t rip through it cleanly or it has a plasticky feel, keep the bags to reuse them, or put them in the trash.
Anything made with photo paper – including any family pictures that come in Christmas cards – should go in the trash, as should cards with adornments or glitter. If one half of the card is plain paper, however, tear the card in half and recycle it. Better yet, if the front piece is not written on, separate it from the second half and use it as a gift tag for next year. All-paper cards can certainly be recycled.
Instant Soup Cups
If they’re completely clean, some recycling centers will accept them in the paper bin – but only those that are wax-lined, and not completely wax-coated. The rules vary widely by location, but almost no centers will accept the cups if they are Styrofoam.
Alas, not all waste can be given a second life. Some items must be trashed, but by keeping non-recyclables out of recycling bins, we can help ensure that no recycling batches are contaminated and sent to landfills.
Plastic Bags and Packaging
Americans use hundreds of billions of plastic bags a year, and while technically recyclable, they should never be paced with other plastics in curbside recycling bins. These thin bags are considered “tanglers” in the machinery that sorts recycling, and can shut down entire recycling operations. Follow the “poke test” to determine whether a piece of plastic could be a tangler: if you can stick your finger through it with little resistance – like plastic sandwich bags, plastic wrap, bubble wrap, etc. – it should go in the trash. Unless required by your municipality, you shouldn’t even put recycling in plastic bags. At the Montgomery County recycling center in Maryland, for example, workers aren’t allowed to open plastic bags, so anything in them is considered trash, reports the Earth Day Network.
Single-use plastic bags and plastic packaging need to be taken to a collection center to be properly recycled. Use the Plastic Film Directory or How2Recycle’s search tool to find a drop-off site near you. Alternatively, check your local grocery stores; 18,000 plastic bag drop-off bins are located at major grocery store chains, reports NPR, and bringing a sack of plastic bags to recycle can easily be incorporated into your grocery-shopping routine.
To-Go Coffee Cups
Buying a coffee on the go is convenient, but, in most cases, the disposable, polyethylene-lined cup for your latte needs to go in the trash.
Some companies might tout the recyclability of their to-go cups, but not all areas will treat them as recycling. A Stand.earth experiment in 2018 studied this waste by placing trackers inside Starbucks cups in Denver, Colorado, and putting them in recycling bins. The cups were all ultimately traced to landfills, reports the New York Times. The plastic lid and cardboard sleeve, luckily, are usually recyclable.
Some cities do accept these cups as recycling. NYC, for one, will take paper cups with non-paper lining in the green paper bin, according to the Department of Sanitation. However, if you are unsure, it’s best to assume that the cup should go in the trash, rather than risk contaminating an entire batch.
Plastic cups for iced beverages are often a #1 plastic, and can be recycled regardless if the number stamped on the bottom is accepted at your facility.
Bottle Caps (and Other Tiny Things)
Earth Day Network reports that small items can shut down recycling machinery more than a dozen times a day. Anything smaller than a credit card – bottle caps, tiny condiment containers lighters, plastic cutlery, etc. – should be thrown away. Bottle caps can be recycled if screwed back onto their respective bottle, which is allowed by many facilities.
Toothpaste, Lotion, and Cosmetics Tubes
While lotion bottles can be recycled, the more flexible, squeezable tubes can’t. Some specific brands, however, might be recyclable: Tom’s of Maine toothpaste, for example, can be recycled as a #2 plastic. If you are unsure though, throw it out.
After a party or a picnic, don’t bother collecting paper plates to be recycled; instead, direct your guests to the trash can. Like paper cups, these plates have a protective layer of plastic, and become too soiled to be recyclable.
Plastic plates can go in the plastic bin if they are fully cleaned, but at that point, it might be worth it to just use regular plates.
Pens, Markers, Mechanical Pencils
These writing utensils are made of too many materials (ink, plastic, metal, etc.) to be recycled, and the individual components are too small to be put into their respective bins alone. BIC does, however, have a Stationery Recycling Program with Terracycle, through which individuals can send in all brands of utensils to be recycled.
They’re cardboard, yes, but whole pizza boxes should go in the trash. Alternatively, remove any parts (like the top flap) not covered in cheese or grease and put those in with the paper recycling. Any soiled cardboard should be thrown away, as food residue can ruin a batch of recycling.
Packing peanuts, foam egg cartons, and other Styrofoam packaging is generally not accepted in curbside recycling. It also breaks apart readily and can easily contaminate an entire batch of recycling if incorrectly placed with plastics.
Local programs will often collect Styrofoam to be recycled by other means; Publix, for one, will take it, or check Earth911 for another drop-off site.
Anything made with multiple materials – for example, a paper envelope lined with bubble wrap – that can’t be separated is considered a “mixed material.” Send these to the trash.
Unless you have clear guidance from your municipality that your recycling center can accept black plastic, trash it. Black plastics are less valuable than their clear or white counterparts; it’s a less versatile material and can only be remade into other black plastic, so it goes for a cheaper price. Many facilities also sort plastic by beaming lights onto the waste, and black absorbs the light and thus can’t get properly sorted.
Mirrors are treated with a chemical that makes them un-recyclable, but be sure to throw it away safely. Wrap mirrors in bubble wrap or paper and label it before putting in the trash. If it’s cracked, crisscross the mirror with tape to hold in the splinters.
Chip bags, granola bar wrappers, and squeeze-able packs for kids’ food like apple sauce and yogurt unfortunately have to be thrown away.
As a whole, they should be thrown away. The outer tube itself might be recyclable, though; check the number, and if your recycling plant takes it, remove the lid and the different components inside the tube and recycle it.
While you can recycle glass bottles, drinkware is a bit different. Glass cups and wine glasses are often treated with chemicals so they can withstand high heat, which makes them ineligible for curbside recycling. Make sure to check with your recycling center, however.
Rules for disposing of light bulbs vary, but they can’t always be recycled or put into residential trash bins. Halogen and LED bulbs can be thrown away at home, or LEDs can be recycled at drop-off sites, including IKEA, Lowe’s, or local recycling centers. Florescent tube lighting and CFLs (compact fluorescents) can’t be thrown in regular household trash, but Bartell Drugs, Lowe’s, and Home Depot will take CFLs to be recycled.
Paper Towels and Napkins
They often get too soiled, and the fibers in disposable napkins and towels are too short to be recycled anyway.
Ceramics generally won’t be accepted curbside, but some recycling plants will accept them if brought in. Consider donating ceramic goods to nearby thrift shops if they are still in good condition.
Besides plastic bags, all kinds of cables, cords, hoses, and string lights can cause issues at recycling plants, and should be trashed. Christmas lights are made of recyclable materials, and some recycling centers might accept them, or you can send them to a mail-in service like Holiday LEDs and Christmas Light Source to be recycled. Best Buy will also accept cables and cords to be properly disposed of.
Single-use straws are usually made of plastic #5, which is more difficult to recycle, and thus not accepted in many areas. The straws are also too small for recycling machines to accurately sort. If you find yourself with a plastic straw, toss it in the trash, or equip yourself with one of the many cute reusable straws on the market to avoid this waste.
Alternative Recycling Methods
Curbside recycling, luckily, isn’t the final option for unwanted items.
It’s time to become more mindful of what we’re putting in the trash. Before throwing something away, research how that item might be recycled, especially if it’s one you confront on a regular basis. Earth911’s search tool allows users to search by material and zip code to find drop-off sites for all kinds of items, be it empty ink cartridges, used tires, or broken smoke detectors. Textile recycling is an excellent option for old rags, worn clothing, rugs, or other fabrics (although donation or resale is a good first option for clothes). Retailers and recycling centers often collect old electronics, which usually can’t be thrown in residential trash anyway. Construction materials – which are a huge source of waste – can even be recycled. The Construction and Demolition Recycling Association has a search tool to find a recycling source for various materials by location.
Companies and organizations are finding new ways to recycle what’s normally considered trash, like Terracycle. Individuals or businesses can purchase a box for certain types of items – like plastic packaging, face masks, and beauty products – fill it up, and send it back to be properly recycled. They also maintain public drop-offs to bring your waste; you can find one close to you on their website.
In the end, to reduce our waste, it’s best to start at the source, and remember the other two elements of our favorite mantra: Reduce and Reuse, as well as Recycle. Keep the lifecycle of the product in mind from the moment you buy it: how will you recycle this when you no longer need it? Maybe go for the cardboard carton of eggs instead of Styrofoam, the 100% recycled wrapping paper, or the clear plastic container instead of the black. Reduce what you buy, reuse what you can, and recycle the rest.