To toss or to recycle? It’s not always clear. Some materials (like packing peanuts) can’t be recycled, but can be reused. Other items (like mattresses and some electronics) can’t go into normal recycling, but can be donated or collected by special services. We’ve compiled a list of the most common household items that won’t be picked up by your curbside recyclers.
Related: The 10 Biggest Myths About Recycling
Grease- or Oil-Soaked Cardboard
That gooey, yummy pizza you enjoyed last weekend most likely came in a cardboard box, which is typically recyclable. If, however, the box is too greasy or contaminated with food waste, such as cheese stuck to the lid, it can’t be recycled. That’s because the grease and food particles might damage the recycling equipment or contaminate other materials in the bin. A little oil and crumbs are okay, but if the box is soaked through or saturated with cheese then put it in the composting bin or the trash.
Packing peanuts are made of expanded polystyrene and therefore can’t be recycled. If you receive a passel of packing peanuts in a delivery, rather than ship them off to a landfill, consider reusing them around the house; many commercial shipping services also will accept clean packing peanuts from consumers.
Ceramic or Oven-Safe Serving Pieces
Ceramic and oven-safe dishes, bakeware, cookware, and serving pieces are designed to withstand high heat, so they have a higher melting point than conventional glass. For this reason, most recycling centers will turn away these handy kitchen necessities.
Styrofoam or Polystyrene Containers
Styrofoam and polystyrene containers (egg cartons, fast food take-out boxes, coffee cups, and the like) aren’t recyclable—and even worse, they don't biodegrade in landfills. Many restaurant chains have shifted away from styrofoam and polystyrene packaging, and homeowners should consider doing the same.
Plastic Straws and Utensils
Plastic utensils and some disposable straws contain plastic #6 (polystyrene). Because this material costs big bucks to recycle, most municipalities will not accept your plastic serving items. Before you toss them in the trash, however, consider reusing them for DIY projects!
Although aerosol cans are made of metal, the pressurized contents could damage recycling machinery. As a result, these items should be discarded with the regular trash.
Plastic Bags and Plastic Wrap
Plastic shopping bags and plastic wrap usually aren't accepted for recycling because the lightweight material can tangle, clog, and potentially damage the machinery used in recycling centers. Keep in mind, however, that many grocery store chains allow consumers to reuse plastic shopping bags; some also have collection bins for torn or unusable bags.
Windows, Mirrors, or Broken Glass
While almost all glass jars and containers are recyclable, not all glass is created equal. Homeowners should think twice before trying to recycle window glass, light bulbs, fluorescent light tubes, mirrors, plate glass, drinking glasses, eyeglasses, vases, and glass art pieces.
Plastic Shower Curtains and Liners
Most plastic shower curtains and liners are constructed with polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Because of the chemicals used in the manufacturing of PVC, these items can’t be broken down and recycled. They are, however, ripe for reuse: Try giving curtains a new life as outdoor tablecloths, drop cloths, drawer liners, or craft supplies.
Waxed Paper and Cartons
Do you buy broth, stock, and orange juice in cartons? This convenient packaging should not be recycled, because the wax fibers on the coating won’t break down properly. Other products with wax coatings, such as waxed paper, silicone baking paper, waxed baking cups, and most frozen food boxes, should also be tossed in the trash—but as some municipalities do accept cartons, check first with your local sanitation department.
Related: The 10 Biggest Myths About Recycling
Old TVs and Electronics
Some donation centers, like Goodwill, won’t accept electronics that aren’t in working order, including old cathode-ray tube TVs. And curbside collection won’t pick these items up either. Instead, head to Best Buy, which is currently the nation’s largest recycler of e-waste, no matter how old it is.
Check the label before disposing of cleaning products. Water-soluble formulas can be mixed with water and poured down the drain. Solid products—scrubbing pads, sponges, disposable dusters—can be thrown out. Anything containing bleach or ammonia should be flushed down the toilet (in small quantities), or, when possible, shared and used up. For other cleaners, contact the manufacturer’s toll free number or call your local hazardous waste disposal center.
If you’re completing a home renovation project, you can’t recycle wood treated with any kind of finish. The chemicals used in wood finishes can contaminate water supplies if not properly disposed. Burning treated wood is typically prohibited unless you have a permit. Small amounts of treated wood can be taken to a landfill; for larger amounts of scrap wood, call your city’s waste management team first.
Like plastic bags, bubble wrap can’t be placed in curbside recycling. However, grocery stores often have special recycling bins for bags and plastic wrap, including bubble wrap. You can also search Earth 911’s extensive database of recycling solutions.
Related: 9 Extraordinary Uses for Bubble Wrap
Metal hangers have an odd shape, which can get caught on recycling equipment. Meanwhile plastic hangers are often made of mixed materials, so they can’t be placed in single stream recycling bins. And wood hangers are treated, so they can’t be recycled at all. Many dry cleaners and thrift stores will accept donated hangers. Hangers that are broken or beyond use should be thrown away or repurposed.
Throwing away mattresses should be a last resort. They clog up landfills and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions as they decompose. While curbside services typically won’t pick up an old mattress, there are several options for mattress recycling. Many cities offer special mattress donation services—all you have to do is call or book online. You can also contact your local Goodwill, Habitat for Humanity, or homeless shelter to see whether your mattress fits their donation criteria.
Related: 9 Ways You’re Ruining Your Mattress
Expired and Unused Medicines
Unused and expired medicines are another recycling no-no. This extends to donating expired medicines to free clinics, which have strict rules regulating what kinds of medical products they accept. Your best bet is finding a CVS drop box near you, and safely disposing of prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
When it doubt, check for labels on the item-in-question to see if it belongs in the recycling bin. No luck? A quick Internet search should do the trick.
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