Recycling is simple, right? Discard your paper, plastic, and glass into your recycling bin and boom! You get to feel great about doing good for the environment. Except, unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
First of all, we don’t actually recycle most of what goes into those well-intended bins. We used to send the majority of our recycling to China, but in 2017 they put major restrictions on the kinds of material they accept, and the U.S. is having to figure out what to do with its own waste. Since we don’t have enough facilities to handle all our recycling, we are just dumping it in landfills or incinerating it.
So let’s be extra careful with what we put on the curb for recycling. You probably already know that all plastics are not created equal, like that the disposable bags from the grocery store can’t go into your recycling bin. But there are lots of other things that people regularly toss into their bin that definitely don’t belong there.
Below are 13 common waste items that are often disposed of in the wrong way, and how to dispose of them correctly.
1. Plastic Bags
Most people already know this is a no-no, but if you didn’t realize and have been attempting to recycle your used plastic grocery bags, here’s why you shouldn’t: The bags clog the machines and cause workers to have to remove them by hand. There are two options for how to deal with plastic grocery bags. Most grocery stores have a recycling station for them, so you can recycle there. If not, try this handy search tool to find where you can recycle your plastic bags.
The best option, though, is not to use them in the first place. Buy five or six reusable bags and stack them in the passenger seat or even put one in your lap as you drive to the store so you don’t forget to bring them in with you (like I always used to do). The less we use these bags, the better. They take hundreds of years to decompose and are a major source of marine debris.
Obviously you’re not tossing triple As from your kid’s toy into your recycling bin, but did you know you can recycle them other ways? Many places, like home improvement stores or office supply stores, accept rechargeable batteries and old cell phones for recycling. Single-use batteries can be a little trickier. There are facilities that accept single-use batteries for recycling though, so set aside your used-up batteries to take to the battery recycling location nearest you. I keep a shoebox of dead batteries in my linen closet and take it to my local place once per year or so. And of course, the best way to reduce single-use battery waste is to purchase rechargeable batteries instead. These can generally be used more than 1,000 times, and they’re still recyclable!
Again, you really shouldn’t be throwing these items away, either in your recycling or your regular trash if you can help it. Donate your old cell phones and other electronics to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Electronics cables and connectors can be donated to places like Best Buy and Staples. They generally accept any kind of electronic device regardless of brand or condition.
Wow, Americans really do have too many damn hangers. Americans import 40 billion hangers each year, and 85% of them end up in landfills. Ouch. Unless your local facility specifically says hangers are acceptable recyclables, they most likely aren’t, because of their awkward shape which can damage machinery. Unfortunately, you just have to throw these in the trash. Because of the overabundance of hangers, these really can’t be donated.
5. Light bulbs
Incandescent, fluorescent, halogen, LED… with so many different types of light bulbs, it feels impossible to keep track of what’s allowed in the trash and what’s not. And can any of these be recycled? Here’s what you need to know: Your basic household incandescent light bulbs, halogen light bulbs, and and LEDs can go in with your regular waste. Compact fluorescent and fluorescent tubes need to be taken to a separate location to be disposed of properly. Check this link to see where you can recycle different types of light bulbs if you’re not sure.
And, in general, whenever possible, buy LED bulbs. Not only do they have extremely long lives, but they also use a fraction of the energy of other types of bulbs. So, despite their higher up-front cost, they will pay for themselves in the long run by saving big on your energy bill. Also, since they last so much longer than other types of bulbs, that further reduces your carbon footprint because it means you’re consuming less over time.
In the United States, we have an extremely short attention span for clothes. The fashion industry encourages this — last season’s hot trends quickly become today’s trash, and clothes are made cheaply, expected to endure for only a season or two. First of all, if you care about the planet, limit your clothing purchases. Build a foundation of timeless pieces that you can add a piece to here or there without having to switch out your entire closet every six months.
But what’s the best way to dispose of clothes once they’ve served your purpose? They definitely can’t go in the recycling bin. Good condition used clothing can be donated to second-hand stores or shelters. For clothes that are heavily worn, it’s becoming more and more common for clothing retailers to accept old clothing to reuse. Some stores, like H&M, have bins right there in the store and may even offer a discount on their products when you bring in a bag of used clothing.
7. Mirrors, window panes, and drinking glasses
Mirrors are made of glass, of course, which makes it seem like they should be recyclable, but they have a special coating on them that makes them reflective and also very difficult to recycle. When mirror glass ends up mixed in with regular glass at the recycling facility, it makes all of it unrecyclable.
The best thing you can do with your mirrors, assuming they’re still in one piece, is donate them. Someone is always looking for a mirror. The person who owned my home before me left a large one leaning against the wall in my garage from when they renovated the bathroom. I offered it up on Facebook Marketplace and within a few hours had a lovely woman show up to claim it — she was grateful because she was opening up her own hair salon needed a large mirror for the wall. Broken mirrors can be used for craft projects. (Again, offer to donate!) If you must throw away mirrors or mirror bits, put them in the regular trash, preferably wrapped in newspaper to avoid injuring workers at the waste facility.
Window panes and drinking glasses have similar problems to mirrors. Window panes are made of a different kind of glass to more resistant to breakage, and drinking glasses are made to withstand higher temperatures. Recycling facilities aren’t set up to handle these types of glass, so, again, first try to donate them, and if you can’t, they need to go in the regular trash.
8. Paper towels, napkins, and shredded paper
Okay, these are just paper, so why on earth can’t we put these in our recycling bin? Well, they’re tiny paper. Paper towels and napkins are made of teeny fibers that have likely already been recycled — those fibers are too small to be re-recycled. Shredded paper is similarly problematic, falling through cracks and clogging equipment.
However, paper towels, napkins, and shredded paper can all be composted. So if you’re considering trying composting, maybe this is your inspiration. Better yet, avoid this waste altogether by using cloth napkins. My family switched to cloth napkins last year and it now takes us about a month to go through a roll of paper towels, whereas it used to take a week or less. As for paper, whenever possible, keep your documents in electronic form.
9. Pizza boxes
Sorry folks, but we really, really can’t put gunky pizza boxes in the recycling bin as the food and grease jams up recycling machines. You may occasionally have a pizza box that manages to emerge goo-free, and in that case, go ahead and recycle it. Also, don’t recycle any boxes that have a shiny coating on them (like ice cream cartons) — that’s plastic, and because of the way it’s mixed with the paper, it can’t be recycled or composted. Most boxes that are recyclable will have some kind of marking on them (like the triangle made of arrows) indicating as such.
10. Aerosol cans
Although aerosol cans are metal and technically recyclable, because they are pressurized, some communities may not allow them for recycling. You can check here to see where you can recycle your aerosol cans.
As in, cards or paper with glitter on them. Glitter can contaminate an entire bin of paper and make it un-recyclable, so keep these out of your recycle bins. As if we needed one more reason to hate glitter!
12. Gift wrap and ribbons
Some gift wrap is recyclable, but the metallic stuff that’s so popular right now is not. Ideally we should be using un-laminated papers like newspaper, paper bags, or butcher paper to wrap presents. A quick way to determine if wrapping paper is recyclable: Crumple it up. If it stays crumpled, it’s probably recyclable. Ribbon tangles in the recycling machines, so keep that out of your bins.
What? Who knew? I’ve been recycling receipts for ages, but it turns out they contain Bisphenol A, aka BPA, a cancer-causing chemical. Yikes! If this is processed with other paper pulp, it contaminates the recycled paper products that are being produced. Opt out of printed receipts whenever possible, or throw them away and then wash your hands.
And there you have it. If you’re hankering to do good for the environment, consuming less is the best answer. But just as important is how we process the products we do consume. So bookmark this page to keep handy so that next time you’re not sure what to do with that box of burned-out light bulbs or the pile of batteries from your kid’s toy that finally bit the dust, you’ll know the safest place to dispose of them.