Reader question: Can I recycle my old photographs?

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

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.

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

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? Gellenbeck has a few suggestions.

photo album
Our expert’s one-step tip will help you determine what kind of photographs you have in your stash and whether or not they’re recyclable. Photo: Flickr/ martinak15

What kind of photo is this?

Most modern photographs are made with a chemical-free printing process. But some of your more recent snapshots, such as school photos or those portraits you had taken at the mall, may have been produced through photographic processing.

So, is there a way to tell what kind of photo you’re dealing with? Gellenbeck says, absolutely.

“Paper recyclers actually use a chemical, but you won’t have that at home. What you can usually do is try to tear it,” Gellenbeck suggests.

If your photograph tears in layers rather than cleanly ripping apart like pages in a magazine, you have an old-school photograph in your hands. If you see a clean tear, your photo was simply printed and isn’t contaminated with photographic chemicals.

“It’s not exact, but it’s probably the best you can do as being a non-professional,” Gellenbeck told Earth911.

When recycling modern-day prints, the same challenges exist as with recycling other mixed and glossy papers. That sheen on your prints — and the appealing gloss of a brand-new magazine — actually comes from a clay-based coating.

Some recycling centers use technologies to separate these coatings during the pulping process, while others do not. Generally speaking, if you can recycle mixed paper in your area, you should also be able to recycle your prints if they pass the tear-test. Contact your local waste management provider if you’re not sure.

To avoid contaminating your local recycling stream, do not put older photos into the recycling bin and opt for reuse instead.

dark room
Due to chemical coatings, old photos and darkroom prints like these cannot be recycled. Choose reuse for these instead, and try out a few precycling methods to reduce hard-to-recycle waste later. Photo: Flickr/ Christopher Paquette

Try precycling

If you’re willing to invest in a modern inkjet, laser, or photo printer — or if you already have one at home — you can directly control the paper used for your prints and whether or not they can be recycled later.

Some brands, such as HP Everyday Glossy Photo Paper, can be recycled with other mixed paper and produce crisp, vivid images comparable to professional prints. Just be sure to confirm that your local recycling stream accepts mixed paper before tossing these papers into the blue bin.

Since most photo centers no longer use chemical film processing methods, the majority of those matte digital prints you order from big-box stores and pharmacies can also be recycled with other mixed paper. Before ordering your prints, ask a photo center representative what kind of paper is used and whether or not it can be recycled to avoid a future disposal dilemma.

Opt for reuse

If you already have a shoebox filled with old, non-recyclable photographs, try one of these reuse options before tossing them in the trash.

Donate: If your photos are not of a personal or sensitive nature, you may be able to donate them to elementary schools, daycares, or after-school programs in your area for use in craft projects. College students in art or photography programs may also be able to make use of your old snapshots.

Get crafty: If you already enjoy getting your craft on from time to time, why not use those old photos for a reuse project or two? Many of these recycled magazine crafts will work just as well with your photos, as will most paper crafts you’ll find around the Web.

Shred it up: As a last resort, try shredding your old photographs and using the remnants as packing material when shipping breakable items. You’ll reduce your use of virgin paper and expanded polystyrene packing materials while finding a second (albeit brief) life for your unwanted photos.

This article was originally published on June 5, 2013. It was updated on August 2, 2016.

By Mary Mazzoni

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.