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What can be recycled? The ultimate guide to recycling

Which plastics can go in the recycling bin? Is it OK to recycle wrapping paper? Our handy guide on what can and can’t be recycled will answer all your questions.

Updated

Mother and daughter planting seeds

Confused about what can be recycled? You’re not the only one. Apparently, more than 90 percent of US consumers are unsure what can, and cannot, be recycled.

Add to that the fact that each state, city, town and local government has different guidelines and you have a recipe for bewilderment.

Most of the trash that ends up in the trash can could be recycled. So to help you recycle more, here’s our comprehensive guide on what can and can’t be recycled, plus where and how to do it.

Why is recycling important?

Recycling is one of the most important things you can do to live more sustainably. Here’s why…

It helps conserve our planet’s finite supply of natural resources:

  • Recycling paper and wood saves trees and forests. 

  • Recycling metals means there's less need for the risky, expensive and damaging mining and extraction of new metal ores.

  • Recycling glass reduces the need to use new raw materials like sand.

It protects ecosystems and wildlife

Recycling reduces the need to grow, harvest or extract new raw materials from the Earth. And that lessens the harmful disruption and damage being done to the natural world.

Plus, if our plastic waste isn't put in the recycling, it can be blown or washed into rivers and seas, polluting coastlines and waterways.

It saves energy

Making products from recycled materials requires less energy than manufacturing them from new raw materials. For example, producing new aluminum from discarded products (including recycled cans and foil wrap) uses 95 percent less energy than producing it from scratch.

It cuts carbon emissions

Because recycling means you need to use less energy on sourcing and processing new raw materials, it lowers carbon emissions. It also keeps potentially methane-releasing waste out of landfill sites.

If you’re uncertain, remember the 3 Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle

Recycling is better than not recycling, but it still uses energy, water and other resources. The fact of the matter is that we all need to get into the habit of using less stuff in the first place. 

And the things we do use ought to be reused as much as possible before being recycled, to minimize waste.

Going green: what things can be recycled? 

Only half of Americans have access to curbside recycling. If you do have access, it’s always a good idea to check the  website of your town's trash and recycling provider for a reliable list of what the service will take. You can find your local recycling scheme by entering your zip code at berecyled.org.

Don’t forget, if you can’t recycle something through your community program then you may have other options, which we’ll cover later on. 

Only some plastics are recyclable

Plastic recycling can be a bit like a minefield. Most of us know that bottles may be recycled. But what about yoghurt containers? Or food cartons? There’s lots to know about plastic recycling, but here are a few key tips.

  • Look out for labelling, which should indicate whether or not the plastic is recyclable. 

  • Bottles are widely recycled. That includes clear and colored plastic drinks bottles, detergent bottles, milk containers, shower and shampoo bottles and other kinds of household containers. You may need to remove spray-action pumps and dispose of those separately.

  • Most trays, tubs and jars can be recycled, including takeout food containers, yoghurt cartons and snack tubs. 

  • The big exception is black plastic, as it can’t always be identified by the automatic sorting machines used at recycling plants.

  • Some community recycling programs do collect plastic grocery bags, but many don’t. The good news is that you can recycle them at many supermarkets.

  • Food wrapping and plastic wrap are tricky. Generally speaking, bags and wrappers that resemble plastic bags can be recycled with your plastic grocery bags. This includes bread and fresh produce bags, freezer bags, and the plastic wrapping on toilet tissue and paper towels. Anything else probably can’t be recycled, including bubble wrap, plastic wrap, and food and drink pouches.

Almost all cardboard is recyclable

Cardboard—including egg cartons, cereal boxes, and old toilet paper or paper towel tubes—is a definite yes for recycling.

Although don’t forget to think about how you could reuse them first. If you have kids, there’s a heck of a lot of entertainment to be had from cardboard. From a fort made with boxes through to binoculars made from toilet paper tubes, there are lots of fun and creative ideas online. Then just recycle the boxes when you’re done playing.

The big caveat—look out for anything with a plastic coating on the cardboard. Some single-use coffee cups fall into this category as do some sandwich packs. Unfortunately, the plastic coating makes these items difficult to recycle. Their ultimate destination is usually the landfill, but do check what the label says.

Paper is a big yes for recycling

Paper, including magazines, newspapers, catalogs and plain wrapping paper, is also A-OK. Even plastic windows in envelopes can usually go in without you having to remove the windows first. The same goes for tape on wrapping paper (as long as it’s not excessive).

Talking of wrapping paper—it can only be recycled if it passes the scrunch test. Simple paper wrap that scrunches and stays scrunched can be recycled, but foil or glitter-decorated paper can’t and needs to go in the general trash.

Glass bottles and jars are widely recycled

Most glass bottles and jars can be placed straight in the recycling bin (after a quick wash out). However, not everything made of glass is recyclable through your recycling program (although you may have other options—see later).

Glass you can recycle at home

  • Bottles of any color. For example wine bottles, beer bottles or olive oil bottles.   

  • Jars—for sauces, jelly, peanut butter, baby food (but think about whether you could reuse them first).

  • Non-food bottles, such as for perfume, aftershave or face moisturizers.   

Glass you can’t recycle at home

  • Glass cookware (like Pyrex) or microwave plates

  • Broken glass

  • Dishware

  • Nail polish bottles

  • Mirrors and window glass

  • Light bulbs and tubes   

If items like cookware, glasses, mirrors, or vases are still in good condition, then the best thing to do is pass them on or donate them to charity. But if the item isn’t reusable it will need to be disposed of with your household trash or at your local solid waste center.

Recycling metal, foil and tins

Metal packaging such as cans, food tins and foil is also widely recycled, although it’s best to check with your community or local service provider to make sure. That said, as with glass, not everything that looks metallic is actually recyclable.

Metal you can (usually) put in your recycling bin

  • Soda cans

  • Food cans (put the lids inside)

  • Cookie or candy tins and their lids

  • Aerosols (remove plastic caps and recycle these with plastics)

  • Aluminum foil (usually)—scrunch foil together to form a ball

  • Aluminum trays

  • Aluminum tubes like those for tomato puree (again, remove plastic caps)

Metal you can’t put in the recycling bin

  • Laminated foil, such as cat food or coffee pouches that spring back when you try to scrunch them

  • Potato chip and other snack packets and candy wrappers

  • Metal containers for chemicals like cleaning alcohol, paint or engine oil

  • General kitchenware, like eating and serving utensils, pots and pans

  • Kettles, irons, pipes, large home appliances—although many of these can be recycled in other ways (see below)

Do you need to clean your recycling?

We’ve alluded to this a couple of times. The short answer is, yes. Unfortunately, recycling plants aren’t there to rinse out your jar of peanut butter or dispose of the last crumbs and leftover ketchup from your takeout containers.

Dirty containers could contaminate an entire batch of perfectly good recyclable items, meaning they all end up going to landfill. Which is a huge waste—literally.

Your recycling doesn’t have to be squeaky clean, but you should at least scrape out any obvious leftovers and run the container under the faucet for a good rinse.

And remember, if in doubt, leave it out. Don’t put anything in your recycling bin that can’t be recycled. If there’s too much non-recyclable waste mixed in with the good stuff, the whole truck load can end up having to go to landfill. 

What else can be recycled? And how?

Just because you can’t put something in your recycling bin doesn’t necessarily mean it can’t be recycled at all. Solid waste facilities usually have recycling drop-offs and often accept a lot more than your trash pick up. So let’s take a look at what else you can recycle...

Clothes and textiles

From an old pair of unflattering jeans to a bedspread you’ve fallen out of love with, you’re bound to have cloth and textiles you’ll be thinking of saying goodbye to.

Those in good condition can be given away, donated to Goodwill or even sold online.

And items that aren’t suitable to be passed on can be recycled and made into new items, such as padding for chairs and car seats, cleaning cloths and industrial blankets. Just take them to your nearest recycling center.

Computers and cell phones

Donating your unwanted computer equipment to a not-for-profit organization is a great way to help others. For some charities, it’s important that the equipment is in good working order. But other groups have technicians who can repair them. Do make sure you use a reputable program and wipe all your information off the device before you donate it.

The same applies to cell phones. It’s always best to see if you can find ways for them to be reused rather than recycled. Otherwise, phones can go to your local recycling center in the same way as other small electrical items.

Recycling electrical equipment

Many electrical items can be recycled, including hairdryers, fridges, and washing machines, to name a few. Although (again) it’s worth remembering if they’re still in good working order, you should try to give them away first.

As to whether an electrical item is recyclable, the answer is usually yes, if you can answer yes to at least one of the following:

  • Does it have a plug?

  • Does it use batteries?

  • Does it need charging?

To recycle electricals, your first port of call is electrical retailers. In addition, if you’re buying a like-for-like replacement of an item (even online) some retailers will take away the old, unwanted item for free.

To recycle or not to recycle: what to do with almost any item

From getting rid of unwanted furniture to donating clothes to a charity, there’s so much that can be reused before it needs to be recycled, so make sure to explore your upcycling and donating options before throwing anything in the trash.