What Can I Recycle And Where outdoor blue recycling barrel with ‘Recycle Only’ placard

What Can I Recycle and Where?


Introduction

Contrary to popular belief, recycling isn’t the answer to solving our waste problem. There’s a reason it’s last in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan. But when you have to recycle, it can get confusing. What can I recycle in the first place? Where can I take things not accepted by my curbside pick-up? What do those numbers on my plastics mean? How can I make sure my recycling actually gets recycled?

When I started searching recycling in my area, all I could find was a short list of items and I didn’t understand what some of them included or excluded. So this post will contain plenty of pictures to be a more visual guide to recycling.

Paper

Paper is a very easy item to recycle, but not all paper can be recycled curbside.

CURBSIDE MAYBE RECYCLABLE TRASH
Printer Paper Newer Photo Paper Shredded Paper
Notebook Paper
(without binding)
Magazines Laminated Paper
Newspaper Mixed Paper Older Photo Paper
Cardboard and Paperboard  

Most paper items you use on a daily basis is recyclable. The equipment at the recycling plant is equipped to remove things like staples and paperclips so you don’t need to spend time doing that yourself.

Many people believe you can recycle shredded paper, but this is not the case. The pieces are too small and can clog and damage the equipment. A better use for shredded paper is adding it to your compost pile as browns. This goes for small paper scraps too.

Photographs may or may not be recyclable. Older photos were created using chemicals that contaminate the paper and make it unrecyclable. A way to test this is to tear the photo. If it tears in layers, the photo is old and contaminated. If it is cleanly tears like a magazine page, the photo isn’t contaminated with photographic chemicals. You should be able to recycle these newer photographs so long as your recycler/town accepts mixed paper.

Photo tear test for recycling
Photo tears like magazine paper so is a new photo that can be recycled with mixed paper

And what is mixed paper? Mixed paper is a paper grade encompassing things like mail, phone books, catalogs, and even sticky notes. Check with your town or recycler for these items.

Mixed paper with magazine envelopes and mail
Mixed Paper example

Metals

CURBSIDEELSEWHEREMAYBE RECYCLABLE
Soda Cans Scrap MetalsAluminum Foil
Canned Food CansSharpsGas/Propane Tanks
Pie TinsPaint Cans
(even if empty)
Baking Trays Aerosol Cans  

Most metals can be recycled. Metal cans, tins, and trays can be recycled curbside so long as you rinse them clean. Some states have deposits on beverage cans so you can return them to the store and get back the 5 or 10 cent deposit you paid at time of purchase. The cans will say which states have this type of program.

You can bring scrap metal to private scrap metal recycling companies who will pay you for your material. Nonferrous metals like copper and brass are much more valuable than steel or aluminum.

Do not throw sharps in with your recycling OR your trash. Needles and syringes should be properly disposed of at collection sites.

Paint cans are also not recyclable curbside even when empty. Paint is considered a hazardous material, and cans should be picked up on a household hazardous waste day or brought to a collection site. Aerosol cans are sometimes accepted curbside with other metal cans, but may be considered hazardous waste just like paint cans.

Aluminum foil is recyclable so long as it is cleaned off; however, very small bits are too small to recycle. Instead gather bits together in a ball for recycling. Helium and propane tanks are not recyclable curbside, but some metal scrap recyclers may take them.

Larger balls of aluminum foil can be recycled but small pieces cannot
The ball on the left is large enough to be recycled. The bit on the right is not.

Composites

TRASHMAYBE RECYCLABLE
CanistersCartons

Composites are multi-material items. Canisters are the Pringles and Planters peanut containers that are a mixture of metal and paperboard. These items cannot be recycled; however, there are many upcycling ideas for these items to be used for organization and storage.

Planters peanuts canister that cannot be recycled
Canister example

Cartons are paperboard with a plastic waxy coating on the inside to prevent liquid leaks. Many places do not accept them, but you can check by typing your zip code into this website, although I cannot vouch for its complete accuracy. For instance, my town’s site says it doesn’t accept cartons, but Recycle Carton’s database says it does. Calling your town or recycling company will provide the most accurate answer.

Almond milk carton made from composite material
Carton example

Plastics

Did you know the recycling symbol on plastic does NOT mean it is recyclable? You heard that right. The recycling symbol with a number inside just indicates the type of plastic, which may or may not be recyclable in your area. Now let’s take a look at what those numbers mean.

Easy to Recycle

#1 and #2 plastics, PETE and HDPE respectively, are the most recyclable types of plastic and nearly always accepted curbside. Disposable plastic bottles and containers are usually #1 plastic. Cereal bags, milk jugs, and butter tubs are #2 plastic. #2 plastic is usually opaque.

Many retail locations accept #4 plastics, or LDPE. These are your plastic shopping bags, bread bags, and produce bags. The store will have a drop-off bin near the entrance of the store, bottle return machines, or customer service desk. Be sure the items are clean and empty.

This bin can usually accept the following plastic items:

  • #2 and #4 plastics
  • Bread bags
  • Shopping and produce bags
  • Cereal bags and cracker wrappers
  • Plastic films
  • Air pillows and bubble wrap
  • Dry cleaning bags
  • Sandwich/Ziploc bags
#2 HDPE plastic cereal bag recyclable at store dropoff
#2 Plastic example

Harder to Recycle

#3 plastics, vinyl and PVC, can rarely be recycled. Check out this directory for recycler locations in the US and Canada. Common PVC items include plastic shower curtains and plumbing pipes.

#5 plastics, polypropylene or PP, is often not recyclable curbside, but there are many programs like Preserve’s Gimme 5 program. Preserve recycles these plastic items into their bath and kitchen products. Yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, and “microwave-safe” plastic containers are all #5 plastics.

#5 PP polypropylene yoplait yogurt container that is harder to recycle
#5 Plastic example

#6 plastics, polysterene or PS, are the foamy plastics. Bring foam packing materials to UPS stores for reuse. Some areas will recycle #6 plastics or you can check this directory from the EPS Packaging Industrial Alliance.

#7 plastics are in the “everything else” category and are hard to recycle, but some places do accept them.

You can learn more about the health risks associated with these various types of plastic here.

Electronics

Electronics and batteries can be recycled at various hazardous waste facilities or drop-off locations, but I have often seen churches and other organizations hosting e-waste recycling days. There are also those cell phone recycling vending machines that you see in malls which will pay you to recycle your phone.

If the electronic is still in working condition, I highly suggest selling or donating it to extend its usable life before getting recycled.

Conclusion

There are a lot of rules on recycling, and because it differs from town to town, you must take special care to ensure you are doing it right. Check out Earth 911’s recycling resource to search for recycling locations in your area.

Properly sorting your recycling is more important than ever now that China, who used to buy most of the world’s recycling, have raised their standards. Contamination from non-recyclable items or even recyclable items mixed together will result in buyers rejecting the lot. This leaves countries to deal with their own waste so the lot is usually sent to landfill or incinerated because there aren’t enough capable local recycling facilities. Check out my post on China’s Recycling Ban to learn more!

What Can I Recycle And Where outdoor blue recycling barrel with ‘Recycle Only’ placard


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