What Can You Recycle? Everything You Need to Know

Woman recycling cardboard in the proper green bin

This may not come as a sur­prise, but we have a huge waste prob­lem in Amer­i­ca that con­tributes to seri­ous envi­ron­men­tal issues and pol­lutes our city streets. On an indi­vid­ual lev­el, there are mul­ti­ple ways we can help. Mak­ing a larg­er effort to recy­cle is a great place to start. In New York City alone, it’s esti­mat­ed that only 44% of recy­clables are col­lect­ed, which means we can all do bet­ter. Recy­cling helps reduce waste, con­serve nat­ur­al resources, save ener­gy, and even cre­ate jobs. 

But with recy­cling comes anoth­er chal­lenge; many peo­ple don’t know how to recy­cle or where to access recy­cling resources in their areas. This guide will help demys­ti­fy recy­cling, mak­ing it easy to fig­ure out what to do with your trash. 

What Can I Recycle?

Recy­cling takes mate­ri­als that can be reprocessed to cre­ate new prod­ucts, reduc­ing waste and envi­ron­men­tal impact. You can recy­cle mixed paper, card­board, met­al, glass, bev­er­age car­tons, and rigid plastics. 

Often, cities and neigh­bor­hoods have recy­cling pro­grams you can par­tic­i­pate in, mak­ing recy­cling easy. There are also city­wide pro­grams with mul­ti­ple drop-off points for hard-to-recy­cle items (i.e., elec­tron­ics, tex­tiles, mat­tress­es, etc.). 

Recycling Arrows and Symbols

If a prod­uct is recy­clable it should have recy­cling arrows imprint­ed on the pack­ag­ing to indi­cate that. All plas­tic con­tain­ers con­tain a resin iden­ti­fi­ca­tion code (RIC) that tells you how well a prod­uct can be recy­cled. Plas­tics 1 and 2 can be recy­cled almost any­where, RICs with the num­bers 3, 6, and 7 are not typ­i­cal­ly recy­clable, and Plas­tics 4 and 5 are some­times accept­ed, so check with your local gov­ern­ment or waste man­age­ment cen­ter for the offi­cial ruling.

Recycling Guide

While the below guide pro­vides gen­er­al best prac­tices for recy­cling, make sure to check with your local gov­ern­ment for spe­cif­ic rules. Some munic­i­pal­i­ties will pro­vide you with spe­cif­ic bins for your recy­clables either in your home or at a com­mu­ni­ty drop-off point. Oth­er­wise, you can sim­ply bun­dle your recy­clables in clear, un-tint­ed bags. 

Whether you use bins or label your own bags, you should group items in the fol­low­ing categories.

Plas­tic & MetalPaper Com­post
Aerosol cans (must be com­plete­ly emp­ty),
Alu­minum foil
Bev­er­age car­tons
Cans
Glass bot­tles and jars
Hard plas­tic toys (with bat­ter­ies removed)
Juice box­es
Met­al uten­sils
Met­al caps
Plas­tic bot­tles (with caps and labels)
Plas­tic hang­ers, Plas­tic sil­ver­ware
Plas­tic and screw top wine corks
Rigid plas­tic pack­ag­ing
Wire Hang­ers
Card­board box­es (mov­ing box­es, food box­es, shoe box­es, etc.)
Cat­a­logs
Envelopes
Mag­a­zines
News­pa­pers
Paper Bags
Paper­board
Egg car­tons
Phone books
Bread, cere­al, pas­ta, and rice
Cof­fee grounds and fil­ters
Dried and cut flow­ers
Egg shells
Fruit peels, seeds, and pits
House plants
Pot­ting soil
Tea bags (with­out sta­ples) Veg­etable scraps
Nat­ur­al wine corks

Tips for Recycling

To make your recy­cling efforts effec­tive, always stick to the fol­low­ing tips. 

  • Emp­ty and light­ly rinse all con­tain­ers, bot­tles and alu­minum foil to remove food residue and pre­vent soil­ing oth­er recyclables. 
  • Sort your recy­cling by cat­e­go­ry. Plas­tics, met­als, and glass can be bun­dled togeth­er. Keep paper and card­board recy­clables separate.
  • Flat­ten card­board box­es and bun­dle togeth­er with twine. 
  • Bun­dle news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines togeth­er with twine. 
  • Remove sta­ples from paper, tea bags, etc. 
  • Sep­a­rate glass bot­tles and met­al lids.
  • Use only clear, un-tint­ed plas­tic bags.
  • Only put out recy­clables on recy­cling pick­up day.
  • Clear­ly label recy­cling recep­ta­cles if not pro­vid­ed by your build­ing or municipality. 

What Can’t I Recycle?

To the sur­prise of many, not every­thing that falls under the tra­di­tion­al recy­cling cat­e­gories can be recy­cled. To help make the recy­cling process suc­cess­ful avoid putting the fol­low­ing items in your reg­u­lar recycling. 

  • Bro­ken glass
  • Cas­settes, VHS tapes, CDs, DVDs, disks, and vinyl records
  • Cell phones
  • Cloth­ing (bring cloth­ing to a dona­tion center!)
  • Drink­ing glass­es and glassware
  • Eye­glass­es
  • Flex­i­ble plas­tic packaging
  • Food wrap­pers
  • Gar­den hoses
  • Gift wrap (any wrap­ping paper with shiny or lam­i­nat­ed coat­ing can­not be recycled)
  • Glass tables and windows
  • Greasy food
  • Hard­cov­er books
  • Items that eas­i­ly tan­gle (ex. Plas­tic rope, hoses, etc.)
  • Light bulbs
  • Lighters
  • Lug­gage
  • Mir­rors
  • Paper towels/ napkins
  • Paper with wax or plas­tic coating
  • Pens and markers
  • Plas­tic bags and all kinds of plas­tic film (how­ev­er, these can be recy­cled at the store)
  • Plas­tic show­er curtains
  • Plas­tic six-pack rings
  • Plas­tic straws
  • PVC pipes
  • Receipts (Most receipts are now print­ed on ther­mal paper which can­not be recy­cled, how­ev­er tra­di­tion­al paper receipts can be recy­cled. If you scratch the paper and see a line appear, then it can­not be recycled.)
  • Sin­gle-serv­ing squeez­able pouches
  • Show­er curtains
  • Soiled parts piz­za boxes
  • Sports balls
  • Styrofoam/plastic foam items
  • Tis­sues
  • Tubes (tooth­paste, cos­met­ics, etc.)
  • Umbrel­las
  • Wine corks (nat­ur­al wine corks can’t be recy­cled, but they can be composted!)

Putting the above items in recy­cling can pre­vent your entire recy­cling efforts from going to waste since they won’t get processed. Despite com­mon mis­con­cep­tions, there is no sort­ing process for recy­cling. Non-recy­cled items in a recy­cling bin could mean the whole lot gets tossed. To avoid adding more waste, try plan­ning ahead by only shop­ping for items that have less pack­ag­ing or recy­clable packaging.

Hard-to-Recycle Items

Even if you can’t put an item in a recy­cling bin, your waste may still be recy­clable. Here are some pro­grams for the hard-to-recy­cle items you may need to discard.

Electronics

Putting elec­tron­ics in land­fills can lead to var­i­ous met­als leech­ing into the soil and ground­wa­ter. The best (and legal) way to get rid of elec­tron­ics is to drop off your old lap­top, com­put­er, VCR, or TV at a col­lec­tion cen­ter. In New York, you can drop off these items at a SAFE Dis­pos­al Event or spe­cial drop-off site

Batteries

When bat­ter­ies sit in land­fills, their lithi­um-ion and lead-acid leaks, wreak­ing envi­ron­men­tal hav­oc. This is why in many cities it’s ille­gal to dis­pose of bat­ter­ies in the reg­u­lar trash. Cities typ­i­cal­ly have two dif­fer­ent bat­tery recy­cling programs. 

  • Recharge­able Bat­tery Recy­cling: Recharge­able bat­ter­ies from your lap­tops, cell phones, dig­i­tal cam­eras, etc., should be dropped off at spe­cial waste dis­pos­al sites. You can also drop them off at stores that sell recharge­able bat­ter­ies or prod­ucts that con­tain them (i.e., hard­ware, office sup­ply, elec­tron­ics, and drugstores). 
  • Auto­mo­tive Bat­tery Recy­cling: Auto­mo­tive bat­ter­ies (lead-acid bat­ter­ies) can be dropped off any­where new lead-acid bat­ter­ies are sold. These stores must accept bat­ter­ies that are 6V or more. 

If you get rid of bat­ter­ies with­out recy­cling them, you must dis­pose of them as haz­ardous waste.

Textiles

It’s esti­mat­ed that over 16 mil­lion tons of tex­tiles are thrown out every year. To reduce this waste, look for spe­cial pro­grams for recycling/donating tex­tiles. For exam­ple, New York City has a pro­gram for recy­cling tex­tiles called ReFash­ion. You’ll find bins for this pro­gram through­out the city in apart­ment build­ings, office build­ings, busi­ness­es, and schools. In these bins, you can drop off cloth­ing, shoes, purs­es, win­ter wear, belts, tow­els, cur­tains, bed­ding, linens, clean rags, and torn cloth­ing. If you’d rather donate your tex­tiles look into the donateNYC pro­gram and its partners. 

Mattresses and Box Springs

Sur­pris­ing­ly, mat­tress­es and box springs can be recy­cled through spe­cial pro­grams. Why? Because more than ¾ of a mat­tress can be recy­cled or reused. Check if your city has a spe­cial pro­gram for recy­cling mat­tress­es. If it does­n’t, sim­ply put your mat­tress or box spring in a plas­tic bag (not red or orange) and put it out for col­lec­tion with your reg­u­lar trash. 

Organic Materials

In some cities, you’ll find brown bins where you can drop off food scraps and oth­er organ­ic mate­r­i­al for com­post­ing. For exam­ple, New York City has also launched smart com­post­ing bins in Asto­ria and Low­er Man­hat­tan to make com­post­ing more con­ve­nient. You can find your near­est com­post­ing drop-off point on the NYC San­i­ta­tion Web­site. Anoth­er way to dis­pose of organ­ic mate­ri­als is to com­post them yourself.

What Should I Do with the Things I Can’t Recycle? 

Items you can’t recy­cle are often des­tined for the land­fill. How­ev­er, if an item is in good con­di­tion, you may be able to sell or donate it. This is espe­cial­ly true for larg­er items like fur­ni­ture that often out­lives our use or need. Many non-prof­its, such as Habi­tat for Humanity’s ReStore or The Sal­va­tion Army, will accept fur­ni­ture dona­tions. You can also sell your fur­ni­ture online using a site like AptDeco.

AptDeco’s white glove ser­vice makes sell­ing used fur­ni­ture online super sim­ple. All you have to do is list your item. Once it sells, their team will do all the work to dis­as­sem­ble your fur­ni­ture and move it to its new home for you. Not only do you make mon­ey sell­ing your fur­ni­ture, but you also get to do your part to keep our land­fills from overflowing.

If your items are not in good enough con­di­tion to sell or donate, sim­ply dis­card them with your reg­u­lar trash. Just be sure to check with your trash removal com­pa­ny to ensure they can pick up large items or sched­ule an appoint­ment for pick-up. 

Get Paid to Recycle

In some states, you can get mon­ey back for deposit­ing bot­tles and cans. New York State has the Return­able Con­tain­er Act that man­dates a deposit of $0.05 on bot­tles or cans (under a gal­lon) from car­bon­at­ed soft drinks, water, soda water, beer, malt bev­er­ages, and wine cool­ers. When you return your emp­ty bot­tles or cans, you get your deposit back from spe­cif­ic stores as long as there is a prop­er NY refund label and it’s in good con­di­tion. Just keep in mind there is a lim­it on how many you can return at a time. 

Educating Others

Recy­cling is easy and does­n’t involve much time or has­sle if you know how to do it prop­er­ly. Most of the time peo­ple don’t recy­cle because they aren’t knowl­edge­able about how or don’t know where to find recy­cling resources. An easy way to fix this is by get­ting involved in spread­ing aware­ness for recy­cling. Cre­ate an envi­ron­men­tal group at your office to inform your col­leagues about best prac­tices, or join your local com­mu­ni­ty green ini­tia­tive to help spread the word. Even edu­cat­ing your fam­i­ly and friends or shar­ing arti­cles like this one makes a difference.

Note: While many of these pro­grams are geared towards NYC, many met­ros and munic­i­pal­i­ties have sim­i­lar pro­grams, so be sure to check with your local pro­grams about what can or can­not be recycled. 

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