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Things You Think You Can Recycle But Can't

Things you think you can recycle but can't

How do you know what to recycle? Do you have a list of what’s accepted through your curbside program? Or are you involved in the practice of “wishcycling,” where you assume certain things are recyclable? 

Unfortunately, the plastic numbers are NOT a good indicator of whether something is recyclable or not. Knowing the common things you can’t recycle is the best way to rid your blue bin of contaminants. 

Recycling: An Imperfect System

Between China’s 2018 National Sword policy ban, and bans from other countries, there’s a smaller market for recyclables. Add high contamination rates of recyclable goods being mixed with non-recyclables and the US hovers around a disappointing 32% recycling rate.

But don't plastic recycling symbols automatically mean that something can be recycled? Unfortunately no, they were developed as a marketing tactic. The plastics industry spent tens of millions of dollars to develop the numbers and misleadingly promote that each number can be easily recycled. 

Recycling is driven by market demand. When your blue bin is emptied at a material recovery facility (MRF), the recyclables are turned into raw materials that are sold to a buyer. If there is no market for certain materials, or if they pose a risk of contamination or damage to sorting machines, MRFs have to refuse to accept them.

Some types of plastic are still easily recycled, like PET and HDPE (plastic #1 and #2). While we can always toss something like a PET juice bottle in the recycling bin, knowing what you can’t recycle is equally important—especially because it's likely more than you think. 

14 Items You Think You Can Recycle But Can’t

Straws

Many are made of plastic, so can you recycle straws? While straws are usually made from recyclable materials, they’re often banned for a reason. 

Because they’re too lightweight to make it through mechanical sorters at recycling facilities, they’re not accepted in curbside recycling programs. They can slip through the cracks, jamming the sorter, and making huge problems for MRFs. 

Shredded paper

Paper is one of the easiest things to recycle, so can you recycle shredded paper? Unfortunately shredded paper is not recyclable for many of the same reasons as straws. 

Shredded paper presents challenges during the sorting process because the paper is typically washed to be transformed into a pulp before it’s spread on large screens to dry. When the paper is already in small shreds, it makes it difficult for it to stick to screens, oftentimes passing through as a clumpy mess. 

Blister Packaging

blister packaging

It's clear and it's plastic, so can you recycle blister packaging? While technically a rigid plastic, blister packs can’t be crushed and processed. 

Not only does this make them difficult to transport, but because they’re often made of different materials like aluminum foil or paper, they’re difficult to process. Even worse, blister packs are often made with plastic #3, or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is one of the most difficult types to recycle

Plastic Produce Containers

Plastic produce containers

For smoothie lovers asking: can you recycle produce containers, we’ve got some berry bad news. Plastic produce containers also referred to as clamshells, aren’t as easily recyclable as they appear.

While made with #1 plastic, clamshells are notorious contaminants in recycling systems. Their labels are attached with difficult-to-remove adhesives, and they’re also a different density. When heated with other #1 plastics, they’re prone to melting, causing ash, and ruining the entire batch. These should never be tossed in the recycling bin. 

Fortunately, compostable produce containers exist and paper produce containers are also recyclable!

Pizza Boxes

 Are Pizza Boxes Recyclable?

Can you recycle pizza boxes? For decades, consumers have been told not to recycle pizza boxes. This was due to contamination by grease, cheese, and sauce.

While many curbside recycling programs have changed their mind to now accept pizza boxes regardless of food residue, check with your local municipal recycling facility. Alternatives to cardboard also exist in compostable pizza boxes that also result in crispier, hotter, more delicious pizza. 

Milk Cartons

Like pizza boxes, how milk is packaged has made its recyclability confusing. So, can you recycle milk cartons? Made of paperboard, many assume these are recyclable. 

Unfortunately, many milk cartons are also lined with plastic or wax. Because multiple materials are used, it makes separating them very costly, leading many MRFs to exclude milk cartons from their accepted list. Check your local MRF for their policy. 

Paper Cups

Around 16 billion coffee cups are used every year in the US. So then, can you recycle paper cups? No, paper coffee cups are rarely accepted. 

So, why are paper coffee cups bad for the environment? Well, to keep hot beverages hot and the paper cup intact, a plastic lining coats the inside of most paper cups. While the plastic typically just accounts for around 5% of the total cup, just that small amount makes a big difference, resulting in two different materials that are difficult to separate in order to properly recycle.

Plastic Bags

Why are plastic bags bad for the environment? One reason is their lack of recyclability. 

Since they’re made from HDPE and LDPE, plastics #2 and #4, you might wonder, can you recycle plastic bags? While the materials certainly are, the lightweight nature of plastic bags make them difficult to recycle. Often getting caught in the recycling equipment, many MRFs will throw away the entire contents of a recycling bin if they spot plastic bags. 

Aluminum Foil

Aluminum is infinitely recyclable, so can you recycle aluminum foil? Unfortunately not. Although it’s made the same material as easy-to-recycle soda cans, they’re often contaminated with food waste or combined with plastic in drink boxes, yogurt tops, and candy wrappers. 

Because of the risk of contamination, most curbside recycling programs do not accept aluminum foil. That said, consider a fiber catering tray with a lid instead of foil for your next catering order or delivery of lasagne. 

Foam/Polystyrene

Is foam packaging recyclable?

Big, bulky, and made with #7 plastic. So then, can you recycle foam? Unfortunately, polystyrene or expanded polystyrene (EPS) is a recycling nightmare and a reason why foam cups are bad for the environment.

While they do well to keep drinks hot and cold, the very lightweight material is also composed of more than 90% air, making it bulky, difficult to transport, and not very cost-effective when it’s recycled. While a few recycling locations do accept styrofoam, it is very rare so check with yours. 

Kids’ Toys

Considered the most plastic-intensive industry in the world, the toy industry uses a whopping 40 tons of plastic for every $1 million in revenues. Since 90% of them are made with plastic, many ask can you recycle kids toys?

Like many other products on this list, kids’ toys are made with plastic that, in theory, is recyclable. However, toys are made from multiple components, often including electronics that could wreak havoc in an MRF. Many pieces are also very small and could get jammed in the sorting machines. That said, toys should never be placed in the recycling bin. 

Bubble Wrap

It's made of plastic that’s technically recyclable but can you recycle bubble wrap? Unfortunately, bubble wrap experiences the same fate as plastic bags. 

Made with LDPE (plastic #4) film, bubble wrap is extremely thin, meaning it can get tangled with other recyclables or the machinery at MRFs.

Paper Towels & Napkins

As the world’s top consumer, Americans go through roughly 13 billion pounds of paper towels every year. So what kind of impact does our paper product obsession have—and can you recycle paper towels and napkins?

Napkins and paper towels are commonly contaminated with food or chemical residue, and their extremely short fibers make them very difficult to recycle. Fortunately, compostable, unbleached dinner napkins made with recycled material provide a greener way to wipe up after dinner.  

Egg Cartons

Are egg cartons recyclable?

While the answer is a clear NO for those made with styrofoam, many egg cartons are made with paper and plastic.

Most paper egg cartons are made with recycled paper, but no longer contain material that can be easily recycled. Fortunately, they are compostable. As far as plastic egg cartons, they’re difficult to recycle and not accepted through most curbside systems but check locally. 

Final Thoughts on Things You Can’t Recycle 

When it comes to things you can’t recycle, this list demonstrates that recycling isn’t as environmentally-friendly as the plastics industry has led us to believe. That’s why we’d like to add another R to the list: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Replace. Consider replacing difficult-to-recycle cups, bags, boxes, and containers with something from Good Start Packaging’s compostable product line.

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