What Can I Actually Recycle?

Recycle symbol with "What can I actually recycle?" from Here Comes the Apocalypse

“Wait a minute, is this recyclable?” 

We’ve all asked ourselves this question. For the more neurotic amongst us (it’s me… hi, I’m the problem; it’s me), being unable to answer it gnaws at us until we are just shells of the people we once were. We stand over the bin and try to remember what our crunchy friend told us… is this the carton that has the thin layer of plastic that makes it both non-compostable and non-recyclable? Does it matter if I just throw it in the recycling bin, since they can probably take it out if it’s not supposed to be there? Should I just lay down in the backyard and allow the earth to reclaim me?

thinking math meme GIF

I am here to help answer all of your questions! Firstly, do not lay down in the backyard and allow the earth to reclaim you unless you have changed into all-natural fabrics and fully biodegradable shoes. Do not needlessly burden the earth with your microplastics and leachates if you’re just tapping out anyway.

Secondly, the reason this topic feels confusing is because it is! Recycling policies vary (sometimes wildly) by location and changes to those policies aren’t uncommon. For example, in the last few years, we’ve seen a massive reduction in waste sales to China, which was previously buying a large majority our “recyclable” castoffs. 

plastic waste
Yikes. Welcome home, plastic.

How Does Recycling Work?

Recycling programs can only be effective if they route our waste to manufacturers who can give it a second life. As of now, the US is pretty bad at getting that waste back into the world as something new. We’re pretty good at turning discarded cardboard, paper, and metal into new products, but plastic is a very different story

Researchers estimate that only 9% of all plastic waste has been recycled. That means of all the plastic that has ever been discarded, 91% of it was burned, misplaced (i.e. chucked in the ocean), or sent to a landfill. Plastic has only existed since the early 1900s, but we managed to make its overproduction and disposal a major environmental problem in less than a century. Heck, we’ve even been saying “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” since the 1970s, but the promise of plastic recycling still eludes us almost completely. 

The status quo of recycling in the US is fairly dismal, but there are still ways you can optimize your waste stream for ideal recycling outcomes. Let’s talk turkey!

Rule of Thumb

Turkey isn’t recyclable, but it is compostable in most municipal/commercial composting programs.

DO Throw It in the Recycling Bin!

These things are accepted almost everywhere and are likely to be recycled effectively after they’re collected. What can I actually recycle? This!

  • Clean glass (food and drink containers)
    • Most recycling centers limit their glass recycling to glass jars and bottles, so divert your broken wine glasses and windows to the garbage can. Clean those jars and bottles, remove the lids, and put it all in the bin.
  • Unsoiled paper products
    • Any paper without laminated layers of plastic, metal, or wax are perfect candidates for recycling! If your paper is attached to a non-paper element, separate them before recycling. No need to remove the plastic windows from envelopes, though!
    • This includes printed paperboard (like cereal boxes), cardboard shipping boxes, and very lightly soiled paper food containers like pizza boxes with no remaining crumbs and just a few grease spots. 
  • Clean #1 and #2 Plastics
    • Look for the recycle symbol–the number will be inside.
    • Almost all #1 plastics are lightweight food or beverage containers (i.e. water and soda bottles). You’ll recognize #2 plastics as a heavier product (i.e. detergent jugs and shampoo bottles). Leave the lids on and put them in the bin!
  • Clean cans
    • Aluminum and steel are the most common materials for cans, and they’re the most-recycled metal items in the US. Clean them before you toss them in the bin! 
    • If part of your “can” is paper and part is metal, you can throw the metal in the bin if you remove it from the paper. If there’s a metallic layer on the tube that remains, remove it and throw it in the trash before putting the paper portion in the bin as well.
    • If your can had something hazardous in it, put it in the trash, instead.
  • Clean (balled) foil
    • Aluminum foil can be recycled if you clean all the food off of it and ball it up to make sure it has enough weight to make its way through the recycling center’s equipment. Aim for a ball two or three times bigger than your fist before throwing it in the bin.
glass to be recycled
This glass recycling bin is working overtime. We love to see it.
DON’T Throw It in the Recycling Bin!

This stuff just isn’t accepted by most curbside recycling programs. What can I actually recycle? NOT THIS.

  • Plastic bags, plastic wraps, air pillows, bubble wraps, and plastic pouches
    • This includes the plastic bag you may have used to collect your items
    • Stretchable plastics gum up the equipment at the recycling center, but most of these items are recyclable if you make sure they’re clean and dry before returning them to a store drop-off location. Read each package’s label carefully for recycling instructions!
      • Bags you shouldn’t take to a store drop-off include compostable bags, metallic bags (i.e. chip bags, coffee bags), pet food bags, and ready-to-eat salad bags.
  • Styrofoam (#6 Plastic)
    • Almost no recycling programs are able to accept expanded polystyrene. If you have a piece of styrofoam that you need to discard, the best bet is reuse, or you can look up where to discard it near you.
  • Packaging that has held hazardous material
    • Containers for motor oil, pesticides, and other heavy duty stuff should be thrown in the garbage.
    • Cleaners are an exception in most locations. For example, if you clean your bleach bottles thoroughly before placing them in the bin, they’re likely to be accepted, but look up your local rules to be sure! 
  • Ceramics or pottery
  • Photographs
  • Corks
  • Water filters
  • Disposable masks
used disposable mask
Make sure your used masks make it alllll the way into the garbage can, so they don’t break loose from the pack and choke innocent ocean creatures. We also recommend cutting the straps when you’re done to prevent them from strangling wildlife.
  • Toothbrushes
  • Most toothpaste tubes
    • Most tubes currently on the market have a metal layer that makes them difficult to process. Check your tube before discarding to see if it’s a new style tube made of #2 plastic, which you can chuck right in the recycling bin! 
  • Coffee pods
    • Unless your pod is clearly marked as compostable or otherwise includes instructions for easy recycling on the package, you should trash it. Even if you dismantle the items, the plastic is likely to be #5, which most locations don’t process.
  • Oyster pails (Chinese takeout containers)
  • Takeout containers made of unknown materials
    • #1 and #2 plastic, aluminum, styrofoam, and uncoated paper are all pretty easy to figure out, but sometimes it’s not clear what your container is made of. If you’re not confident that the container is made of a recyclable material, it’s better to throw it away than wasting additional resources on wishcycling.
    • To-go cup lids are notorious for being unlabeled, just like disposable utensils. If you’re not sure what it is, trash it.
  • Really soiled food containers
    • Big pieces of food should never go in the recycling, so be sure to brush off your paper and rinse off your plastic. If your item is sodden with grease on more than 10% of its surface, it’s best to place it in the trash.
  • Plastic utensils
    • They’re almost never labeled with a number, and they’re almost never made of #1 or #2 plastic, meaning they’re not likely to get processed even if your center accepts them.
  • Plastic straws
straw in trash
We meet again, my sustainability nemesis.
  • Takeout paper cups
    • There’s almost always a layer of plastic in there, unfortunately.
  • Fabric items
    • From clothes to pillows to scraps of fabric, they’re better to donate or put in the garbage than to try to recycle.
  • Wrapping paper with non-paper elements
    • Ink is fine! Glitter, flocking, and foil are common non-paper elements that will render your paper unrecyclable. 
  • Paper towels, paper napkins, and tissue paper
    • Even if they’re totally clean, the fibers are already too short to be reused.
  • Mirrors, windows and any other glass that isn’t a jar or bottle
    • The reflective backing laminated to the back of a mirror renders the glass unrecyclable for most centers.
    • Jars and bottles use a fairly standardized glass formula, but every other type of glass (including windows, drinking glasses, baking dishes, etc) has additives that make it harder for remanufacturers to process waste glass into new, stable glass products.
  • Ropey stuff
    • Christmas lights, metal chains, rubber hoses, and anything else that could easily wrap around other items or equipment at the recycling center should be left out of your recycling bin.
  • No-brainers
    • Electronics of any kind, batteries, light bulbs
      • Look up your area’s e-recycling rules to learn where to discard these items
    • Diapers
      • Don’t be gross.

If you’ve ever put a used diaper in a recycling bin, stop reading right now and begin composing a letter of apology to the recycling center. You must atone immediately.

Look up Your Local Recycling Rules

These items are accepted by some recycling programs, but not others, so putting them in the bin will depend on where you live! What can I actually recycle? Maybe this? Earth911 is a great place to quickly find your local program’s rules.

  • #3, #4, #5, and #7 Plastics
    • These plastics are all technically recyclable, but they are not usually processed in the US. Check your recycling program’s rules to find out which numbers they accept.
    • Note that even if your recycling program accepts them, they may be collected and sent to a landfill if a buyer is not available. Reuse is a great option for these, if you can find a way! If not, there are some other routes to a second life for your trash.
  • Scrap metal
    • Almost all metal is recyclable, but if you have an uncommon piece of metal to discard, like a broken pot, piece of metal roofing, or some bent flatware, check your recycling program to find out if you can put it in the bin or if you’ll need to do a special drop-off.
  • Aerosol cans
    • If your can is completely empty, it’s possible your recycling center will accept it, but no centers accept partially full cans, since they can be a major hazard for workers down the line. If your center only accepts depressurized cans, don’t attempt to depressurize them on your own.
    • Plastic aerosol bottles are also on the rise! Check for the number in the recycling symbol.
  • Black plastic (any number)
    • Black plastic is just harder to sell to people who want to make products with recycled plastic. It also requires hand-sorting in many cases, since it’s harder for robots to see. Some places accept it, but most don’t!
  • Spray bottle tops and other multi-component items
    • If you have a complexly assembled item in your hands, you’re probably going to need to call in reinforcements. Some are made with a single material and some mix a few materials together. Find out if your recycling center accepts them or if you should trash them.
kid with spray bottle
This is the face of a child who has no idea if he can recycle that spray bottle once it’s empty.

So, there you have it. It’s an imperfect system!

Recycle Conscientiously!

You may have heard it before, but it bears repeating: “When in doubt, throw it out.” We’re just not ready to recycle every part of our waste stream, and individual choices that make sorting or processing more difficult keep us from putting our dedicated recycling funds toward system improvements. 

Keep an eye out for these markers on your packages. They’ve been redesigned to make it more likely for items to end up in the correct waste streams. Here’s what they mean:

No guidance = Widely Recyclable

No guidance = Widely Recyclable

  • Accepted at recycling programs serving at least 60% of Americans
  • And not a challenge to sort, process, or sell 
“Check Locally” = Sometimes Recyclable

“Check Locally” = Sometimes Recyclable

  • Accepted at recycling programs serving between 20% and 60% of Americans
  • Or is a commonly collected item that is difficult to sort, process, or sell
Line through recycling symbol = Not Yet Recyclable

Line through recycling symbol = Not yet recyclable

  • Accepted at recycling programs serving fewer than 20% of Americans
  • Or very difficult to sort, process, or sell
“Store Drop-off” = Drop off at participating store

“Store Drop-off” = Drop off at participating store

  • not accepted in municipal bins, but can be recycled in collection points in many retail locations if clean and dry

If you’re feeling studious, check out all of the possible indications on these four part labels, as well as an example of a multi-component label at How2Recycle.

How Does This Get Better?

If all of this has bummed you out, that’s understandable. (I mean, it’s a lot and we didn’t even get started on the plastification of the ocean.) The best way to become unbummed is to reduce the amount of plastic your household uses. Almost every piece of plastic you have touched in your lifetime has been single-use plastic, according to our current stats. That won’t change, unless you make an effort to limit your plastic purchases, and–when plastic is a must–choose options that you hope to use for a lifetime, or that you know are widely recycled.

That’s easier said than done, but there are ways to ease yourself into a low-plastic lifestyle. It’s always good to start small with new habits, so go for something you think is doable, like:

  • Put a metal utensil and a few compact reusable bags in your purse or backpack so you’re less likely to take single-use items when they pop up in your life. 
  • Swear off take-out from places that don’t have compostable or widely recyclable packaging; call ahead to ask about their packaging if you have to! 
  • Take stock of the things in your house and determine your infrequent, but persistent, plastic purchases that might be ripe for a change. Did your apples really need a plastic bag? Cleaning products are notoriously wasteful when it comes to plastic packaging. Try making your own vinegar-based cleaning supplies so you can reuse your plastic spray bottles until they give up the ghost. 
  • Start making Ecobricks with your clean, dry unrecyclable plastics! It’s your fun new hobby. Everybody’s doing it.
  • Keep voting with your dollars, even if it feels futile. When you buy objects made of recycled materials, you are helping to create the post-consumer waste market that is essential to more efficient recycling.

Whatever path you take to start, thinking more about your interaction with plastic packaging will make it easier to reconcile your personal choices with the fact that 85% of single-use plastic food and drink containers end up in landfills

Once you’re thinking about it, you might also want to know more! Earth911 is a great resource for learning how and where to recycle when you’re just not sure what to do! They’ve catalogued thousands of recycling collection points (and the items they accept) in an easy-to-search map database. If you’re interested in keeping tabs on the changes to recycling policy in your state or in the wider US, you’ll also enjoy WasteDive’s tracker. And of course, the EPA is always there to help answer your questions and point you in the right direction.

Now, get up out of the backyard and stop being so dramatic. We’ve got more recycling to do.

tired girl
Just five more minutes.

About the Author

Writer, editor, and professional joker with an environmental science background. Like most trivia nerds, she's an ardent admirer of Only Connect competitors, but more at home on the QI field.

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