10 Surprising Things You Can’t Recycle


If you live with a greenie, dramatic scenes can play out over the blue recycling bin. Styrofoam can be recycled, right? Hangers for sure. Why are you putting that pizza box in the trash? For the love of Al Gore, won’t anyone think of the cardboard? (And cue silent scream.)

As it turns out, throwing certain items into the recycling that you are utterly convinced can be recycled is actually worse for the environment. Oftentimes, bad items can taint an entire bin, resulting in the whole load going into a landfill. This largely depends on how well a city’s recycling facilities can sort. But it’s enough to throw a person into high anxiety with every trip to the waste bin.

Not to worry. Here’s a quick list of 10 surprising things on the “Do we or don’t we?” list. And always, if you’re in doubt about an item, check Earth911.com for a facility near you that may take your questionable trash bit.


Pizza Boxes I know, I KNOW. It seems like these cardboard boxes are made for the recycling bins. But pizza boxes are often tainted with food and grease. Many items are recycled using a heat and water process, which is not problem for plastic and glass. But throw some cardboard soaked in oil into the process, and you’ve got a messy muck. Terry Gellenbeck is a solid waste administrative analyst for the City of Phoenix. As he told Earth911, “The oil causes great problems for the quality of the paper, especially the binding of the fibers. It puts in contaminants, so when they do squeeze the water out, it has spots and holes.”


Wet Paper Paper fibers that have been soaked are shorter. This makes them less valuable to paper recyclers, who won’t collect and mill them.


Plastic Bottle Caps Plastic bottle caps are considered less valuable on the market, so most recyclers won’t take them. Make sure you separate them from your plastic bottles. Also, you can check Earth911 to find a facility near you that does accept plastic bottle caps.


Juice Boxes Check to see if your juice box is specially-processed for recycling. If it isn’t, you have to throw it in the trash. The plastic coating on much of the cardboard renders them unsuitable for recycling.


Plastic Bags When recycling bins are sorted manually, workers cannot open plastic bags to see what is inside. It isn’t cost-effective and could be dangerous. So they get trashed. (Note: don’t put your plastic bottles and more in plastic bags.) You can often take your plastic bags back to the store for recycling – and consult Earth 911 again for places that will take them.


Styrofoam Another one that kills me, because how many times do we get handed Styrofoam containers we don’t want? But Styrofoam is a petroleum product and, more importantly, highly flammable. It’s considered a danger to most recycling centers. Again, Earth 911 may provide locations that will take it from you.


Wire Hangers Most recycling centers are not set up to handle wire. However, experts agree that your local dry cleaner may take them. Often, they reuse them or send them to a scrap metal dealer. Sure, they get the cash, but you get the knowledge you’re not sending wire hangers into the great abyss. Joan Crawford would be proud.


Paper Napkins or Towels Again, food contamination often takes these paper products out of the running. Try to use wash clothes or handkerchiefs instead.


Ceramics You would think that your old coffee mug would find a home in your recycling bin. Alas, they are not accepted at most recycling centers. Consider giving them a second life with a houseplant or in your garden.


Heavily-Dyed Paper When paper is recycled, it is heat-treated. So if something is heavily dyed, it has the same outcome as a blue sock or red t-shirt thrown in with your whites in the washing machine. Consequently, a lot of paper mills won’t take the results. (Pastels are okay.) Life can still be colorful, just a bit toned down!


The 5 Step Program For Better Recycling

16 Ways to Trim Your Trash

The Top 20 Things That We Throw Away That We Shouldn’t

Images: mukluk, crabchick, kaz k, cogdogblog,stevendepolo,Urban Woodswalker,
eatatree, Michael_Lehet, noego, raphernalia_vintage, minor9th

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27 thoughts on “10 Surprising Things You Can’t Recycle

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  3. Simmer down everyone. Good lord. It’s just good general information

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  5. We do need to be less wasteful. But good luck getting average Americans to do that. It’s hard enough to make them recycle, with or without the government stepping in. At least us trying to recycle is something…jeez

  6. Really, what is the point?

    Around here, even if you dutifully sort it all, they throw it all back in a pile when it gets to the recycling center. It’s right across the street from where I work and I can see they don’t actually recycle much of it. It just sits in the yard until it gets taken to the landfill.

    It’s a colossal scam.

  7. I should print this out and post it in the trash/recycling room in my apartment complex. It frustrates me to see people not sorting the recycling correctly. If I could I’d go down there everyday and sort it myself.

  8. Why are these items, if they cannot be recycled, being manufactured then?

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  10. People should check with their local recyclers or trash service about pizza boxes. Locally there are two bins, one for yard and food waste and one for other. They actually WANT your pizza boxes for composting.

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  14. I like to take all my wire hangers back to the laundromat. They usually take them, and sometimes give you a small discount.

  15. Good Post! I always have trouble discerning what can go in the recycling bin and usually default to just putting it in there. Thnx for the Earth 911 link…great resource!

  16. Great points everyone. It does seem like items are in flux — if in doubt, be sure to check with Earth911 http://earth911.com/. This is a fantastic resource for local recycling. Unfortunately, general recycling might not take a lot of items — but luckily, specialty recyclers will.

  17. Yes, recycling collections are restrictive. But much of what is listed above can be “recycled” directly. All food contaminated cardboard or wet paper goes into our compost. The highly coloured paper gets ripped up and sorted to make new paper when I get enough together (use a food processor – heavy american style are the best and add to a big vat of water – use a frame with a mesh on and drag up through the vat of water and pulp and layer onto scraps of fabric – then squeeze with heavy weight and dry).
    I have used the plastic lids in my jewellery http://www.flickr.com/photos/abscraft/sets/72157615681351498/ and have also community artists who have used the lids to create mosaics.
    Wire coathangers can be used like an wire for many things in the garden or to create sculptures like David Mack (scottish sculptor)
    Ceramics can be re-used in the bottom of plant pots (as can styrofoam) or used to create mosaics. I have created paving slabs with cracked plates for my garedn when I lived in Canada.

    Wendy Williams in the UK is creating artwork from plastic bags http://www.wendywilliams.me.uk/ and I sue them in my work occasionally if I get a good colour.

    Tetra pack recycling points are becoming more common in the UK, I use them for drinks containers and even fish finger packets (all clean).

  18. We live in an upscale apartment complex in a highly educated community, and I am always surprised and disheartened by what I see in the recycle bins here. Corrugated cardboard in with regular paper (even though there is a special corrugated only bin nearby), plastic and paper bags full of plastics, and other junk like paper towels, styropfoam, and almost everyone leaves the bottle caps on the plastic bottles. I guess I expect intelligent, educated people to be able to read and follow directions, but alas, they mostly don’t. Very disappointing as I know that much of what people think they’re recycling ends up in the landfill after all. C’mon people — it’s really not that hard to get it right!

  19. Excellent list! Lucky for us, San Francisco takes pizza boxes and used paper towels in its new green compost bins.

  20. Before you give up on recycling some of these things, be sure to check with your recycling company. We can now throw food (including MEAT) as well as oil soaked pizza boxes and some other recycling unmentionables, into yard waste containers. This is relatively new and if you’re not reading your mail, you may miss it.

    I also think it’s a great idea if your community doesn’t do this type of recycling (or rather composting), to call whomever is in charge of recycling and let them know you want it. If they think no one is interested, why would they propose it.

    Meantime, when it comes to bottle caps and hangars, before tossing, try freecycle. You’d be surprised how many people are crafting with these items and would welcome them.


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