The Ultimate Guide to Recycling

by Kathryn Kellogg

Reducing waste is now on the radar more than ever before, and the author of 101 Ways to Go Zero Waste shows us how.

There is still a lot of mystery around recycling. Each municipality accepts different items, making it difficult to figure out what is and isn’t recyclable. A lot of people want to recycle properly, but it can be confusing to know where to start.  

This is a rough guide to what is generally considered to be recyclable. Since the rules can vary, I encourage you to check with your local waste management facility or visit their website for more specific information.

aluminum cans Aluminum cans are light like plastic and create fewer emissions when distributed than glass, and, unlike plastic, aluminum is infinitely recyclable without any loss of quality. An aluminum can can go from the curbside bin to the store shelf in as little as 60 days. Aluminum cans are typically used for beverages, so after you’ve finished your drink, tap out the excess moisture, and place the cans in your curbside bin. They don’t need to be crushed.

aluminum foil Aluminum foil is reusable. If you have it, use it until it starts to flake and fall apart. Don’t forget about aluminum pie tins or baking dishes. Wash food scraps off the foil and let it dry, then ball up the aluminum foil until it’s at least 2 inches in diameter. If it’s any smaller, it can get lost and wind up in the landfill. 

brown paper Brown paper is recyclable in your curbside bin. It’s also compostable. Before recycling, see if you can reuse it. 

butcher paper Butcher paper or freezer paper is coated with plastic. It’s neither recyclable nor compostable.

cardboard boxes With the onslaught of online shopping, we have more cardboard boxes than ever before. These boxes are completely recyclable. You do NOT have to remove the tape and the labels (unless it’s excessively taped all around the box), but you should break the boxes down. First reuse the cardboard boxes as many times as possible. Recycle it only when the cardboard box can no longer be used.

cup lids Cup lids are typically made of plastic #6. You might see “PS- 6” or a “6” inside of a recycle sign. Plastic #6 is not generally recyclable in the curbside bin. 

envelopes If you have paper envelopes, be sure to remove the plastic windows before recycling. 

glass bottles Glass is infinitely recyclable without any loss of quality. It is recyclable in most munici­palities.

magazines with glossy pages Magazines are recyclable. However, many artists use magazines as part of their art projects. See if you can reuse this material before recycling it. If you have newer magazines, donate them to libraries, waiting rooms, family shelters, nursing homes, etc.

metal lids from glass bottles Lids on glass bottles, like pasta sauce or tahini, are often made from steel. You can unscrew those from the glass bottles and place them in the recycle bin. The lids are large enough that they aren’t going to be lost. Typically those lids are lined with a very thin layer of plastic. Because of the high-temperatures used to recycle metal, it’s burned off. 

milk and juice cartons Milk and juice cartons are made from paperboard and coated with plastic, typically polyethylene. Recycling of these items varies across the country. 

newspaper Newspaper is recyclable and compostable.

paper cups Coffee cups, like milk cartons, are actually lined with plastic. They’re not compostable, and they’re not recyclable in most locations. In order to recycle coffee cups, waste management facilities have to have special machinery that separates the plastic lining from the paper cup. The lids are plastic #6 and not normally recyclable in most curbside bins, but the cardboard sleeve is!

paper napkins and towels The fibers are too short to be recycled, but they can be composted. Paper can only be recycled an average of eight times before it can’t be anymore. Each time the paper is recycled the fibers get shorter and shorter, so by the time it gets to napkins and paper towels they’re too short. 

parchment paper Any paper that is stained with food or cooking oils is not recyclable, so parchment paper is usually out. However, you can reuse parchment paper several times and then ultimately compost it!

photographs Photos are not recyclable.

pizza boxes You cannot recycle paper that has been soiled by food, liquids, or grease. Typically the bottoms of pizza boxes are too greasy to be recycled. So, you’ll want to separate the lid and the bottom of your pizza box. The greasy bottom part of the pizza box can be composted, and the top of the pizza box can be recycled, if it’s grease-free! 

plastics Make sure to rinse any food or grease from your plastic, so it doesn’t contaminate the paper in the bins. It doesn’t have to be perfectly clean, but a quick rinse will go a long way.

It’s important to note that the symbol for plastic is inside a small recycle sign. This does NOT mean that the plastic is recyclable. Plastic has one of the lowest recycle rates. Only 9 percent of plastic ever created has been recovered, which is why it’s best to reduce our dependence on plastic and opt for reusable items! It’s generally considered that the lower the number of the plastic, the higher the quality and the more likely it is to be accepted for recycling.

  • plastic #1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET) is most commonly used for cake trays, soft drinks, and water bottles. Plastic #1 is accepted in most curbside bins.
  • plastic #2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is most commonly used for cleaning bottles, shampoo and milk jugs. It is normally accepted in curbside bins.
  • plastic #3: PVC (vinyl) is used for cooking oil bottles, shower curtains, clear food packaging, and mouthwash bottles. Plastic #3 isn’t normally accepted in curbside bins, but check with your waste management company.
  • plastic #4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is used for bread bags, grocery bags, and plastic film. It is not recyclable in most curbside bins. If it is accepted in your curbside bin, then you need to put all of your plastic film inside of a plastic bag until it is roughly the size of a basketball and knot it at the top. If it’s not accepted in your curbside bin, then you can take your clean, dry plastic film to the front of the grocery store where they usually accept plastic #4 in addition to plastic grocery bags.
  • plastic #5: Polypropylene (PP) is used for cheese containers, syrup bottles, yogurt containers and is recyclable in most curbside bins.
  • plastic #6: Polystyrene (PS) is most commonly found as Styrofoam. It’s used in takeaway cup lids, packing peanuts, Styrofoam blocks, cups, and takeaway containers. There are a few programs that take clean Styrofoam and turn it into molding, but those recycling options are few and far between. Styrofoam isn’t very valuable, and it’s not recyclable in most locations.
  • plastic #7: Plastic #7 is composed of mixed plastics. It’s often not recyclable.

printer paper It is recyclable in your curbside bin.

produce bags Produce bags are either plastic #2 or #4, meaning they can be recycled at the front of the grocery store, but they can also be reused many times!

receipts Receipts are coated with BPA and are not recyclable or compostable. If receipts are placed in the recycle bin they can contaminate the entire bale which means paper towels, paper napkins, and everything else made with 100 percent recycled content may end up contained with BPA. Let’s prevent this by throwing our receipts away! 

shredded paper While crumpled and slightly altered paper is recyclable, shredded paper is not. The paper fibers have been shortened too much, and the small shreds can jam machinery and contaminate bales of other materials. Some waste management companies have special programs for recycled paper. They each have different rules for pick up so be sure to follow their requirements.

Shredded paper is great packing material, especially for fragile items. Beyond that, it’s fabulous for compost— especially worm bins! 

steel cans Ninety percent of all cans found in the supermarket are made from steel, which is recyclable. Items such as canned tomatoes, chickpeas, or coconut milk are contained in steel cans. You don’t have to remove the paper label from your steel can before recycling; when the cans are recycled, they are subjected to very, very high temperatures that burn off the labels. You need to rinse the cans before putting them in the recycle bin; if you leave food particles in the can, it can contaminate the bale.

You can test whether or not your can is made of steel by using a magnet. Steel is magnetic; aluminum is not.  

steel can lids Steel can lids are recyclable, but if you don’t have a smooth edge can opener, you shouldn’t throw them in the bin. Most recycling plants still use workers to help sort material. Before you put anything in the bin,  ask yourself, would I feel safe grabbing this? If the answer is no, don’t put it in the bin. You can take it to a transfer station for separate recycling or you can shove the lid down inside of the steel can and crimp the opening ensuring that the lid won’t escape.

Good Advice:

If you aren’t sure, check with Terracycle. TerraCycle recycles many products that would otherwise be headed to the landfill. If you have something tricky to recycle, like makeup packaging, contacts, or Brita filters, you can send them into TerraCycle to take back. 


Reproduced by permission of The Countryman Press. All rights reserved.

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