10 Surprising Things You Can't Recycle on the Curb

By Maureen Wise in Thinking Sustainably

Recycling has evolved dramatically over the decades, and many products that once fell to their fate in landfills can now find a new home through recycling. However, there are still some things you can't recycle curbside. On top of that, there are many items that were once recyclable just a few years ago that can't be recycled anymore.

These facts create plenty of confusion on what happens with our recycling. Here's what you need to know about the recycling process and what to do with those common household items you can't place in the blue bin.

How to Find Your Regional Recycling Rules

After your recycling is collected from your curb, it's transferred to a material recovery facility or MRF (pronounced "merf"). This is where it gets sorted into one of a few categories (paper, metal, glass, and plastics) and bailed. Most states have a few MRFs, and they all operate a bit differently. Some still use people to do a presort, while others have no humans involved in the recovery system. Most use a number of conveyor belts, magnets, and sorters, and some even use optical sensors.

Pay attention to the educational materials distributed by your waste hauler, solid waste district, or the MRF itself to find out what exactly you can and can't recycle in your area. When in doubt, find out! I encourage you to search YouTube to see if your MRF has its own video. If not, you can watch this video from Bulk Handling Systems for a good overview on how some MRFs work. I've been fortunate enough to visit my own MRF in Ohio, so be on the lookout for tours of yours, too! Keep in mind that anything smaller than two inches in depth is generally too small to be recycled as it will not make it through the machinery, as the Association of Plastic Recyclers explains.

Bailes of paper and cardboard

10 Surprising Things You Can't Recycle

1. Shredded Paper

Standard paper is very recyclable, but shredded paper can get tangled and caught up in the machinery at the MRF. That said, there are many single-stream paper recycling options that will accept your shreds. I know my community offers a community shred day to get rid of sensitive documents. Additionally, there are many dumpsters in our local schools, churches, and other nonprofits that collect paper (including shredded paper) as part of an ongoing fundraiser. Shredded paper is also a wonderful "brown" to add to your compost.

2. Clothing Tags

When you buy a new piece of clothing, it's pretty much always going to come with a price tag on it—and sometimes even a second paper tag to denote the brand. These tags are too small to make it through your MRF, just like the shredded paper. Luckily, you can include these with your shredded paper or compost!

3. Frozen Food Boxes

Corrugated cardboard and paperboard (such as a cereal box) are both easy to recycle and belong in your curbside recycling bin. However, frozen food boxes have a special coating that cannot get recycled. You can try to cut up these boxes and compost them. I've yet to find the remains of those I've been experimenting with in my compost bin, so they're likely part of my soil now! You can also upcycle them into cute organization boxes.

4. Receipts

As we've talked about, most paper can be recycled, but small pieces of paper aren't so great. Most receipts are really small, so they should either be composted or recycled only with paper. However, thermal paper cannot be recycled or composted, as the Pacific Northwest Pollution Prevention Resource Center explains. This is the glossy paper that gets printed without ink. It tears a bit differently from normal paper and is shinier. Unfortunately, these pieces of paper belong in the trash. On the bright side, many stores these days offer to email receipts instead of printing them, which can help to reduce your collection.

Crumpled receipt

5. Foil Pieces

Foil that is very small, such as that on the top of a yogurt container, is too little to make it through the MRF. I suggest balling up your foil together. Also, if it's very soiled or burned, it is not recyclable.

6. Kitchen Glassware

Glass that is meant to be heated or frozen, such as baking dishes or food containers, unfortunately cannot be recycled. Glass is a tricky thing to reuse, but you might try reusing it in an art piece or a household craft.

7. Berry Clamshell Containers

Strawberries and raspberries are a favorite of everyone in my house, and we all have a hard time throwing away the containers because we're so used to recycling them. Unfortunately, berry clamshells are very low-grade plastic and are not easy to recycle in the United States. This is the same for any produce clamshell or to-go containers from restaurants. However, you may be able to find berries sold in charming cardboard boxes from local farmers!

The plastic waste stream is changing fast in the United States. China once accepted most plastics for recycling, but it no longer does today, as NPR explains. Now, US recycling markets are ramping up so that we can handle plastic domestically. Be sure to check with your local recycling authority about what can be recycled in your community as guidelines evolve.

Blueberries in clamshell

8. Toothpaste Tubes

The tubes that disperse toothpaste usually have both plastic and aluminum components, which CNN notes can't be separated at a MRF. However, there's hope on the horizon! In 2020, Tom's of Maine will be rolling out the first curbside-recyclable toothpaste tubes.

9. Stainless Steel Scrubbers

The mesh texture of these scrubbers can get caught in the MRF machinery. However, you may be able to include them with scrap metal that you deliver to a scrap yard. Just give your local scrap yard a call to confirm.

10. Light Bulbs

Light bulbs have a number of components that are not meant to be recycled at a MRF. LEDs and CFLs, for example, should be dropped off at a local retailer for recycling and are not collected on the curb. Spent incandescent bulbs belong in a landfill.

What are some solutions you've used to save nonrecyclables? Show us how you repurpose your nonrecyclable items by tagging @toms_of_maine on Instagram!

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Why It's Good

Recycling is an important habit to get right to ensure you only recycle what can be properly sorted and repurposed. After doing your homework about how to recycle where you live, share your knowledge with neighbors and friends!