Surprising Things That Cannot be Recycled

There are some things that you may have thought were curb-recyclable, but aren’t. Even if they have recyclable markings on them, local recyclers often don’t have the machinery to process them, or they are coated with something problematic. To name a few:

You can toss corrugated, plain cardboard and paper food containers into the recycling bin, but not if it has a glossy or waxed finish, or if it’s greasy, oily, had salad dressing or sauces, or cheese on it. They are resistant to the water used by machinery in the breakdown process. So that’s a no for the burger clamshell, the chicken bucket, the salad bowl and the pizza box. Anything oily or greasy can contaminate everything in your recycling bin.

In fact, just about anything that comes with fast food: styrofoam containers, waxed or glossy paper cups, milk or juice boxes, plastic straws, single bottle caps and eating utensils, for example, is not recyclable. 

Styrofoam releases toxic and carcinogenic compounds when broken down. Most places will not accept it in any form, including meat containers and packing supplies. 

Also not curb-recyclable, regardless of the circulating arrows, are those inflatable packing pillows, bubble wrap, plastic wrapping, drycleaning wrap, and plastic grocery bags. They get caught up in large scale recycling machines. Check with your grocery store for returns there, or with the American Chemistry Council’s Plastic Film Recycling Directory for participating stores nearby.

A pilot program in Atlanta by Hefty is an EnergyBag initiative to recycle those typically non-recyclable soft plastics. You buy the special orange bags to collect the air pillows, bubble wrap, grocery bags, salad bags, candy wrappers, plus foam products, plastic straws, cups, plates and utensils. Then you simply put the bag in your regular curbside bin to be delivered to a different sorting center. They say the cost for the bags offsets their costs for the delivery service. 

Shower curtains and party table cloths are often made of PVC, which is not recyclable. Those who can afford it can order a Terracycle Zero Waste Box to return curtains, tub mats, soap dispensers, cosmetics, cleaners, mops and the like. Send it all back to them and they will recycle it properly. This could be a handy, earth-conscious solution during a move or a renovation. 

All plastic toys are not recyclable because of their complex chemical compositions. However, Hasbro, Mattel, Lego and other toy companies now take back used toys directly, and use their own machinery to break them down and reuse the components.  

Also, do not try to recycle clothes hangers. Thrift stores always enjoy donations of usable ones, however. 

Other things you probably haven’t thought about are hardbound books (paperbacks are OK), aerosol cans, anything that contained chemicals such as household cleaners or pesticides, ceramic dishes and pottery, and wood that has been treated with any kind of a finish, whether it is stain, paint, oil or varnish, because of toxic fumes.

Rather than tossing away knowledge, consider donating your books to thrifts, charities, libraries and Little Free Library. Even if the books are tattered and out of date, you’d be amazed how used book stores and antique shops would love to have them. 

Some hardware, mobile phone and computer stores are accepting old cables, phones and computers for rebuilding. Call a scrap dealer about taking metal furniture and appliances. Talk to the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore, or furniture banks about taking your wooden furniture. Habitat would like to have your old tools as well. 

Absolutely no one wants balloons and plastic ribbons. It’s better to skip these as party decorations.

Check with your county for a list of everything that they will firmly accept in your curbside recycling program. Also, ask where bottles, mirrors, glass, batteries, lightbulbs, paint, microwaves and used medical items can be dropped off. Often, county recyclers are happy to provide answers about where to bring other goods for recycling and repurposing.