27 Things You Should Never Put In Your Curbside Recycling Bin

The Environment

It may be tempting when you aren’t sure whether something is recyclable, to just put it in the recycling bin anyways, in a hope (or even an assumption) that “they’ll find a way to recycle it.” This is called “wishcycling.” In order to keep our recycling system healthy, it’s just as important to leave stuff out of the recycling bin as it is important to put the good recyclable stuff in the bin.

What Is Wishcycling?

Wish recycling, or “wishcycling,” or aspirational recycling describes the ironic act of putting items in your curbside recycling bin that you hope or wish are recyclable, and subsequently tainting a whole bunch of common recyclables. In other words, good intentions gone awry.

When a batch of recyclable materials is contaminated, everything gets tossed in the landfill. Your good deed has been undone, not to mention the time and money that’s wasted for the recycling facilities.

A Few Things to Note…

Check Your Local Rules First

Our list provides general guidelines. Curbside recycling programs vary from town to town, so check first with your municipality or local waste management service for what will and won’t be accepted in curbside recycling.

Just Because Something Is Recyclable Doesn’t Mean It Will Be Recycled

Remember, just because something is recyclable doesn’t mean it will be recycled. This is particularly the case with plastic, where the recyclable rate in the US is dismal, and hovers under 10%.

Where does it all go? The vast majority of single-use plastic ends up being incinerated, lingering as waste in landfills, or as environmental pollution. Plastic is the worst culprit, but your best bet is to avoid unnecessary single use items, regardless what they’re made of, and opt for reusable and desirable alternatives.

Some Items Are Recyclable, But Not Curbside Recyclable

There are some household items that are recyclable, just not curbside recyclable. Some examples include: batteries, plastic bags, electronics, and appliances.

For recyclable, but not curbside recyclable items check your local town website or municipal hauler for disposal locations.

Top Things that Recyclers Do NOT Want to See in the Facility

Disposable Coffee Cups

Disposable coffee cups might be made of paper, but are often lined with a fine film of polyethylene, which makes the cups liquid proof but also difficult and expensive to reprocess.

You might be able to recycle the lid (check the plastic number against your local recycling guideline) but the cup would likely contaminate the rest of the recyclable load.

Compostable and BioPlastic Products

What about those compostable coffee cups and bio-plastic beverage cups you’ve been given at eco-friendly food establishments? Or the compostable tableware sold at natural or zero waste stores? Can you put these products in the recyclable bin? The simple answer: No.

Compostable plastics are not the same as regular fossil-fuel derived plastics. These products can only be disposed of in certified compost facilities and cannot be recycled.

Anything that Can “Tangle” Around Stuff

If it’s durable and stringy and you can get it in a knot, then don’t place it in your recycle bin. Those (in the recycling business) are called “tanglers” and are looked upon with a special sort of disdain.

Examples include electronic cords, headphones, garden hoses, chains, wires, and Christmas lights. Do not put them in your recycling bin. They snag equipment and workers have to shut down operations and go cut them out of machines.

Fortunately Best Buy and Staples have recycling programs that accept electronic cables and connectors.

Plastic Utensils

Confusion over whether plastic utensils are curbside recyclable is due to the fact that in general, rigid plastics can be recycled. Plastic utensils, however, are not curbside recyclable. This is because of their small size and many brands are made of composite materials making them difficult to sort.

Coffee Pods

This is similar to the confusion over whether plastic utensils are or aren’t curbside recyclable. Plastic coffee pods are made of rigid plastic so why can’t they go in the recycling bin?

Well, plastic coffee pods are actually made of composite materials, making them difficult to separate. In addition they’re filled with coffee, something recyclers don’t want, especially in their machinery. Some manufacturers of coffee pods will take back their pods, but the question is whether they’re actually recycled. The better option is to minimize the use of coffee pods by brewing a pot of coffee. Use a single-cup coffee maker if that’s all you drink.

Pizza Boxes

But wait, pizza boxes are made from paper, so what’s the problem? In short, the paper is often spoiled with oil, sauce, and cheese from the pizza.

When recycling, the machines cannot extract the oils and in paper recycling the paper is mixed with water. When that happens, contaminants like food grease or crumbs will ruin the whole batch. That’s why pizza boxes should be put in the trash bin or better yet compost your greasy pizza boxes.

Paper Plates, Towels, Or Napkins

Such paper products can’t be recycled because:

  • They are usually dirty with food, grease, or other liquids
  • Most tissue paper is made from recycled paper already and it can’t be recycled again; the paper’s fibers are too short resulting in low quality pulp in the recycling process

Shredded Paper

Paper is curbside recyclable (except in certain situations included in our list). Shredded paper usually is not, though check your local recycling lists. Most recycling facilities can’t accommodate small scraps of paper since it risks gumming up the machinery.

Wondering what to do with shredded paper? Some municipalities will accept shredded paper at drop-off locations. You can also use it as packing material or as a kitty litter liner.

Wet Cardboard and Paper

Did you leave your recycling bin out overnight (for those without covers) and it rained? Bring it back in and bag it up for the garbage. Although a little bit of moisture won’t affect the viability of paper recyclables, wet paper breaks down rapidly and the fibers become shorter making it very difficult to recycle.

Diapers

More people put their dirty baby diapers in the recycling bin than you’d believe. This is a terrible idea and wreaks havoc at recycling facilities. If you worked at a recycling facility, would you want dirty diapers coming into your building, smooshing up against your precious cardboard boxes? Put those diapers in the trash. Clean baby diapers are not recyclable either; they’re made of multiple woven materials.

Aerosol Cans

Sure, they’re metal. But since spray cans contain propellants and chemicals, most municipal systems treat them as hazardous material.

Broken Glass and Windows

Window panes, mirrors, light bulbs and broken glass should not be put in the curbside bin because they are hazardous to facility workers.

Window panes, drinking glasses, and mirrors are treated with chemicals that change their melting point so that they can’t be melted down with your recyclable glass bottles. Specialized recovery facilities may accept some of these items if you drop them off.

Hardcover Books

The composite material in hardcover books is too difficult and costly to separate into its component parts. If you want to recycle your hardcover books, remove the covers and binding material before placing them in the bin. Another alternative is to donate books to a local library, school, or community organization.

Wire Clothing Hangers

Since wire clothing hangers contain such a low percentage of metal and are perfectly shaped to wreak havoc on the machines at the recycling facility, they shouldn’t be put in your curbside bin. If you can’t bear to throw them out, many clothing centers and dry cleaners will accept old hangers to reuse.

Ceramic Items

Used dishes, pottery items, or other ceramics aren’t recyclable and shouldn’t be thrown in the curbside recycling bin. Try donating ceramic items that are in good condition to national charities like Goodwill. If your ceramics aren’t in usable condition go ahead and throw them in the trash.

Styrofoam

Styrofoam is also known as polystyrene. It contains petroleum and doesn’t technically support the process of recycling. Along with this, as styrofoam is usually used in packaging, it is lightweight and has bulkiness. It is not accepted at most recycling centers.

E-Waste

Electronic items, such as old televisions, computer accessories, microwaves, and stereo systems contain hazardous materials (such as mercury, lead, and cadmium) and heavy metals. That’s why they shouldn’t be disposed of in normal recycling bins. In many states it’s illegal to dispose of these electronics in your regular recycling bin. They need specialized recycling facilities. Check with your local facility; many have e-waste drop-offs that occur a few times per year.

Hazardous Waste

Hazardous waste means items like pesticides, fertilizers, paints, thinners, primers, etc. These items have an explosive nature and need to be handled with utmost care. That’s why they shouldn’t be mixed with normal recycling items and should be disposed of in hazardous waste centers.

Medical Waste

Medical needles, plastic syringes, and prescription containers are classified as bio hazardous. They can’t be recycled for safety reasons, so you should dispose of such items in a hazardous waste box.

You can find collecting places at doctor’s offices, pharmacies, hospitals, and sometimes collection boxes inside government buildings.

Receipts

Receipts are printed on thermal paper, which usually contains BPA, and it resists decomposition. That makes receipts not recyclable or compostable.

If receipts end up in recyclable facilities they can contaminate the whole batch of recyclable paper. They belong in the trash.

On the bright side, many stores these days offer email receipts instead of printing them, which can help reduce your collection.

Bubble Wrap

Although many plastics can be recycled, the particular kind of plastic that bubble wrap is made from cannot be recycled, because the film can tangle in recycling machines.

You can recycle bubble wrap with your other plastic bags in collection bins at grocery stores or other special locations.

Wood

You can’t recycle wood that has been treated with any kind of finishing. The chemicals found in wood treatments make it unsafe to burn for heat or energy. Untreated wood may be recyclable, depending on your city. You can also look for a compositing program that accepts wood items.

Batteries

Although many batteries can now be recycled, they are not curbside recyclables. If you try to recycle them this way they will get landfilled, and also potentially put others in danger. The corrosive nature of their ingredients makes batteries a hazardous item for recycling centers. This includes rechargeable and non-rechargeable batteries, Lithium-ion batteries, phone batteries, and computer batteries

Many retailers including Best Buy, Staples, and Office Depot offer battery recycling programs for free.

Tires

Many states require separate disposal of tires (and collect a fee at the point of sale for that purpose).

Clothing & Textiles

Some clothing and textiles are recyclable, but they can’t be thrown in the bin; they need a specialized textile recycler. If your clothes, linens, or curtains are still in good condition there are a number of ways that you might be able to keep them out of the landfill by selling, donating, or freecycling them.

Food Waste

Leftovers should never go into the recycle bin. They are not recyclable and contaminate other recyclables in the bin. To prevent food waste contamination in recycling, you should remove food bits from items before putting them in the recycling bin.

Stickers

You can’t recycle stickers because of the adhesive that is used in them. The main issue is the effect the adhesive can have on recycling machines; it can get caught in the recycling process.

Conclusion

Recycling is a business, and usually what you can or cannot recycle greatly varies depending on where you live. Some municipalities may offer different recycling facilities that recycle some of the things from this list. Unfortunately, the rules aren’t always clear and they depend on your local recycling services.

That’s why it is recommended to:

  • Throw things in the trash when you aren’t sure, you can recycle it.
  • Avoid single use items that are hard to recycle.
  • Focus on long-lasting, plastic-free recyclable products made sustainably