20 Surprising Items You Can’t Recycle Curbside
Local recycling programs often can’t accept these cast-offs — but that doesn’t always mean you’re at the end of the line. Read on for the greenest ways to tackle them.
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According to the American Chemical Society, 93 percent of thermal receipts — that is, the slick kind printed with a heat process instead of traditional ink — contain Bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine disruptor that can pose serious health risks. When paper with BPA is recycled or composted, we’re exposed to it all over again, which is why experts say the safest thing to do is to keep it in your regular garbage. Better yet, decline (or ask for electronic versions of) receipts in the first place whenever you can.
Toothbrushes and Toothpaste Tubes
Oral care products and their packaging are made with everything from numbered plastics and nylon to aluminum and steel, and recyclers need to process each of those materials separately — which makes them a no-go for many local programs. If you’ve got the time to research what’s gone into your items and break them down yourself, Earth911 will walk you through how to do it. If you’d rather leave it to the experts, TerraCycle and Colgate offer a mail-in Oral Care Recycling Program.
Dental floss packaging can be recycled with a bit of research and extra effort, like other oral care products (though the American Dental Association notes that you shouldn’t reuse the floss itself, since it can fray or redeposit icky bacteria in your mouth). Waxed nylon floss, on the other hand, can’t be separated into its component parts. When it’s trashed, moreover, it can be deadly for wildlife. If you’re committed to flossing, reach for dental lace, which isn’t vegan-friendly (since it’s made of silk) but is compostable — and often available in low- or zero-waste packaging.
CDs and Jewel Cases
Compact discs and their cases are made of #7 plastic, a miscellaneous category that’s a no-go for many curbside recycling programs. Millions of them end up in landfills and incinerators each year, where they last forever or emit harmful gases. You’ve considered donating them to a local charity (if they’re in working condition) or upcycling them in a craft project (if they’re not), yes? Disassemble the stragglers, then pack them up, print a label and packing slip and send them off to CD Recycling Center of America.
Greasy Pizza Boxes
Once corrugated cardboard has become soiled with oils and other food products, its paper fibers are often inseparable from those contaminants during the pulping process. Portions of pizza boxes that haven’t been stained with grease or crumbs can be ripped off and recycled, and those soggy bits can be composted. (If you’re in an urban area, you can find a pickup service here.)
Plastic Shopping Bags
While plastic bags can be recycled at dedicated facilities, they’re also considered “tanglers” — that is, items that can jam up equipment at sorting facilities. They’re also problematic as vessels for other recyclables, since they make it more difficult for human sorters to separate items quickly (and they increase the odds of items contaminating one another). Long story short: Keep ’em off the curb and find a retail store or drop-off location that will accept them here.
Some so-called disposable batteries still contain corrosive and toxic elements that contaminate landfills (when they’re trashed) and other recyclables (when they end up in the wrong place). To find a rechargeable-battery drop-off location near you, plug your information into Call2Recycle’s search tool; Earth911, in turn, provides single-use battery drop-off points and mail-in programs based on your batteries’ materials here.
Disposable Coffee Cups
Most single-use cups are coated with a thin film of plastic that’s difficult and expensive for waste-management facilities to separate from their paper. Some municipalities (like New York City) accept “paper cups with non-paper lining,” but experts say that most do not — and unless you hear otherwise, you should put them in the trash. Here's a way to check whether to recycle or trash: Download Earth911’s iRecycle app, which offers guidelines on how to recycle more than 350 materials. Note that clean plastic lids and corrugated cardboard heat sleeves can be recycled, and that chains across the country offer bring-your-own-cup discounts.
Curbside recycling programs tend to reject wire hangers because their curved ends can jam recycling equipment (though it’s worth double-checking with your local waste management company as cities like Riverside, California, and New York City will accept them). That said, you can often return them to the dry cleaner that handed them over to you in the first place, or offer them to friends and neighbors via a local Buy Nothing group.
High-tech tanglers are no-gos for your recycling bin, but there’s a good chance you can drop them off at a local retail store. All Best Buy locations in the United States have kiosks “just inside the front doors, to drop off rechargeable batteries, wires, cords, cables and plastic bags,” per their website. Staples stores accept “accessories/adapters/cables” as well. While you’re at it, you might also be able to upcycle some of your old tech by donating it to the AFCEA Educational Foundation, a nonprofit that supports STEM programs.
Empty and clean container glass (e.g. bottles and jars) can be recycled, of course, but glass bakeware and drinking vessels are another story: They’re made with additives that change their melting points, so they can’t be processed along with container glass. If your kitchen glass is intact, turn it over to a donation center rather than tossing it in with — and contaminating — your recyclable container glass. It should go without saying that broken glass of any kind is dangerous to sort, but we’ll repeat it for emphasis: Broken glass of any kind is dangerous to sort, and it should be wrapped in paper and discarded with your household garbage.
Loose Shredded Paper
The key to recycling shredded paper is to contain it: Depending on where you live, your city might ask you to place it in anything from a clear plastic bag to a paper bag or a cardboard box (and this prep is important, so you should be sure to find out what’s expected in your area). Another consideration: Shredded paper is more difficult to recycle, since shredding shortens its fibers and makes it unsuitable for high-quality products. If you’re only looking to protect a small bit of information (like a name or a number), consider blacking it out in pen and skipping the shredder altogether. The recycling process will remove the ink.
The cloth, leather and plastic used to make durable books aren’t easily separated from the pages between their covers. So, while paperbacks are suitable for curbside recycling, their heftier cousins are not. If your hardbacks are still in good condition and don’t make the grade for sale or donation at a secondhand seller, library or charity, find a local drop box or pack up a shipment for a large-scale seller like Better World Books or Discover Books (both of which help reduce waste and contribute to literacy projects).
Bubble wrap (and completely plastic padded envelopes and plastic packing pillows) are usually made from low-density polyethylene film, much like the film used in plastic shopping bags, and can jam up machinery after traveling from your recycling bin to a materials recovery facility. Similarly, they’re often accepted for recycling at collection points like grocery stores and pharmacies. It’s worth thinking twice before passing that wrap on, though: It can come in handy for everything from protecting plants over the winter to DIY padded hangers.
Plastic Shower Curtains
Most plastic shower curtains and liners are made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is bad news for both you and the environment. Scientists say that “new-curtain smell” that can linger for up to a month is off-gassing toxins, for starters, and those plastic pieces aren’t recyclable once you’re done with them. They are upcyclable, however, and can find new life as drop cloths, drawer liners, ponchos, kids’ mattress protectors ... you get the idea.
Loose Aluminum Foil
Pee-wee Herman was ahead of his time with his giant foil ball: Clean aluminum foil is recyclable in some cities, but it needs to be crumpled into a sphere that’s at least two inches in diameter so that it won’t tear or jam sorting machinery. As you’re assembling an orb of your own, keep in mind that you can clean and add foil toppers from products like yogurt containers and coffee pods. Foil that’s combined with other materials and can’t be separated (as in drink boxes and baby food pouches) should be thrown away.
Used Napkins and Paper Towels
Like other potentially recyclable products, napkins and paper towels can’t be recycled when they’re contaminated with things like food waste and bodily fluids. Because they’re made with short fibers that aren’t suitable for other types of paper products, it’s simply not worth the time and resources to try to “clean” them enough for reuse. Happily, paper products that aren’t heavily soiled with grease or cleaning chemicals are A-OK for composting.
Brightly Colored Paper
Experts liken tossing a neon flyer in your curbside recycling to letting a bright red sock sneak into a load of white laundry: It can ruin a whole batch of otherwise-recyclable paper, thanks to “beater dyes” that go unsorted and add unwanted color to new products. Save those scraps for art projects or toss them in the compost pile if you must.
Hard Plastic Toys
Unlike plastic products like food packaging, toys don’t tend to have recycling codes stamped on them (which means it’s difficult to ID their components, and most municipal programs won’t accept them). As the experts at Treehugger note, shelters, child care centers, thrift stores and donation programs are always in need of clean and functional toys; if your items are unusable, consider disposing of them with a Zero Waste Box from TerraCycle.
CFLs (or compact fluorescent light bulbs) are a poor match for curbside recycling programs, since the trace amounts of mercury they contain are released as soon as they break. They’re unsuitable for the trash for the same reason; in fact, it’s against the law to toss them in the garbage in some states and jurisdictions. Retail stores like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, True Value and IKEA have collection bins at some locations; find one near you at Earth911.