Recycling Mystery: Photographs

photo album

Reader Question: Can I recycle my old photographs?

You asked, we answered. Read on to get to the bottom of this recycling mystery.

awkward family photo

Can photographs be recycled? Earth911 sat down with a waste stream expert to find out the answer. Photo: Flickr Brenna

On the surface, recycling photographs seems pretty straightforward. After all, photos are made from paper, right? Shouldn’t I be able to recycle them along with other glossy papers like coupons and magazine pages?

As it turns out, recycling photographs is a bit more complex than you may think. Due to chemical coatings used in the photo developing process, most older photographs cannot be processed for recycling. Depending on where you live, those modern digital prints may or may not be safe for the blue bin. Keep reading to learn more about photographs, photo prints and their recyclability.

Why can’t photographs always be recycled?

Photographic processing, or the means of developing light-sensitive film into photographs, is a chemically-intensive operation that involves a whole host of ingredients, from acetic acid to gelatin. As you may imagine, some of these photographic chemicals remain in the paper of the resulting photographs – posing challenges to recyclers.

“It’s actually a chemical coating that’s on the paper,” explains Terry Gellenbeck, solid waste administrative analyst for the Public Works Department in Phoenix. “So, when you make new paper those chemicals can really mess up the process.”

Fortunately, thanks to the advent of digital photography, many of these recycling problems are largely a thing of the past. Since digital cameras use a special sensor to capture and digitize light, photo data can be stored and printed without chemical processing – meaning the use of photographic chemicals is not necessary to produce your prints.

For this reason, digital prints are not unlike magazine pages – since images are transferred to glossy paper using a printer and do not require chemical-heavy dark room treatments. Those one-hour photo prints you ordered from a big-box store or pharmacy likely fall into this category.

“It’s more of a printing process,” Gellenbeck says of most modern-day snapshots. “It’s not really a ‘photographic’ process.”

By contrast, images produced through photographic processing are actually more akin to thermal fax paper or receipts, Gellenbeck says, because the chemicals used are highly reactive to heat and can degrade the quality of a recycled paper batch.

So, how can you tell what kind of photograph you have in your hands and whether or not it can be recycled? Click through to the next page for Gellenbeck’s handy one-step tip. If your photos cannot be recycled, we’ll also provide reuse ideas to keep them from heading to the landfill.

Mary Mazzoni

Based in the Phoenix metro area, Mary is a lifelong vegetarian and enjoys outdoor activities like hiking, biking and relaxing in the park. When she’s not outside, she’s probably watching baseball. She is a former assistant editor for Earth911.