What NOT to Put in the Bin

Ever wondered if that greasy paper plate could go in your recycling bin? Or would it really be a big deal if you threw in just one plastic bag? It may seem simple to determine what doesn’t go in a recycling bin based on an item’s labels or whether or not it shows a recycling symbol. Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward.

So, how do you determine which materials you should keep out of your recycling bin? Below, we’ve listed some materials that recycling programs don’t commonly accept and why.

Editor’s note: Curbside recycling programs vary from city to city. This article is intended to be a general guide only. For the most accurate information, please check with your city for a list of materials that are accepted in your bin.

Pizza Boxes and Used Paper Towels and Plates

Many people assume that pizza boxes are recyclable. Most boxes have recycling symbols on them and are traditionally made from corrugated cardboard. They are, in and of themselves, recyclable. However, what makes parts of them non-recyclable is the hot, tasty treat that comes inside — or, more specifically, the grease and cheese from pizza that soil the cardboard.


Pizza boxes that are soiled with food, or any paper product that is stained with grease or food, are not recyclable – unless you remove the tainted portions. Photo: Flickr/Listener42

Food is one of the worst contaminants in the paper recycling process. Grease and oil are not as big of a problem for plastic, metal, and glass, as those materials are recycled using a heat process.

But when paper products are recycled, they are mixed with water and turned into a slurry. Since we all know water and oil don’t mix, the issue is clear. Grease from pizza boxes causes oil to form at the top of the slurry, and paper fibers cannot separate from oils during the pulping process. Essentially, this contaminant causes the entire batch to be ruined. This is the reason that other food-related items are non-recyclable (used paper plates, used napkins, used paper towels, etc.).

Editor’s note: Although a 2020 study demonstrated that used pizza boxes are recyclable even when they have food contamination, most recycling programs are not equipped to handle them. Please confirm with your local recycler that they can process soiled pizza boxes before you put them in your recycling bin.

Read more: The Pizza Box Mystery

Shredded Paper

When you shred paper with a paper shredder, you dramatically decrease the value of the paper because you shorten the length of the paper fiber, which is the source of value of the paper, according to Eric Lombardi, the executive director of Eco-Cycle, one of the largest nonprofit recyclers in the U.S.

Oftentimes, paper mills won’t accept shredded paper because of the difficulties it creates during the sorting process. Photo: Flickr/Peat Bakke

Shredded paper has a lower value to recyclers because of its shortened fiber length. Photo: Flickr/Peat Bakke

Nice white computer paper has a long, strong fiber, and every time you recycle that paper, the fiber gets shorter. If done properly, that computer paper can be recycled six to eight times.

However, if you shred that same crisp computer paper, you’re lucky if it can even be recycled once. Commonly, paper mills won’t accept shredded paper because of the difficulties it creates during the sorting process, says Lombardi.

“It gets mixed with everyone’s paper that day, and you put it in a giant pile at the recycling facility, there’s no way somebody is going to put ‘Humpty Dumpty’ back together again,” says Lombardi.

If you have a document that is semi-confidential, rip it by hand three or four times, then throw it into the recycling bin. For documents that absolutely require shredding, locate a resource in your area that specifically handles shredded paper for recycling. Some curbside programs may even accept your shredded paper if it is bagged separately.

Read more: How to Recycle Shredded Paper

Brightly Colored Paper

Believe it or not, bright paper can stop a whole batch of paper from being recycled. The idea behind this one is simple, explains Dan Baril, recycling program manager at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “It’s like the red-sock-in-the-white-load syndrome,” he says. If you need to buy colored paper, avoid really rich colors and opt for pastels. Paper mills can usually handle the lighter tones.

Read more: The Best DIY Paper Projects

Juice Boxes and Milk Cartons

This is another good opportunity to check with your municipality for the best recycling options. Some cities accept milk and juice cartons for recycling with the paperboard stream. However, this is not true everywhere.

And while Eco-Cycle will accept milk and juice cartons, even with the plastic drinking spout left in, they do not recycle milk and juice cartons found in non-refrigerated aisles used for packaging products such as soup and soy, rice, or almond milk.

In 2008, a mere 18% of households had access to recycling programs that accepted cartons. As of 2020, 62.1% of U.S. households can recycle cartons through curbside and drop-off programs.

Read more: Recycling Mystery: Milk and Juice Cartons

Paper Coffee Cups

Currently, only a few communities in the U.S. accept paper coffee cups (also called hot cups) for recycling. The thin polyethylene plastic coating on the cups that helps prevent liquid leaking makes it difficult for most processing services to recycle the cups.

With about 58 billion paper cups used each year in the U.S., the best thing you can do is simply reduce your usage. Bring along a reusable mug or ask your barista if they offer mugs for serving if you’re staying in the store to sip your drink.

“At the end of the day, we wouldn’t have a problem with paper hot cups if everyone was going to the coffee shop with their reusable mug,” says Wendell Simonson, marketing director of Eco-Products Inc., a Boulder, Colorado-based company that sells single-use products that can generally be recycled or composted.

If your community offers composting service, look for cups made with plant-based coating, which allows the cups to be composted.

Read more: Enjoy Your Coffee With Less Waste

Plastic Bags and Film

When left to the machines to sort the recyclable materials, “the one that causes the most heartburn is plastic bags,” says Lombardi. Plastic bags wrap themselves around the equipment, and as a result, the whole plant may have to shut down — wasting time, energy, and money. Repairmen often are hired to come in with knives to cut the plastic bags out of the guts of the machinery, Lombardi explains.

But this doesn’t mean you have to toss your bags into the trash. The good news is that most grocery stores throughout the U.S. now offer plastic bag recycling. In 2007, more than 830 million pounds of plastic bags and film were recycled nationwide, up 27% from 2005. Plastic bags can be made into dozens of new and useful products as well.

Read more: How to Recycle Plastic Bags

The Wrong Plastic Resin

Plastics #1 and #2, made from polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), are the most commonly accepted plastics for recycling. However, just because a plastic is made from HDPE and PETE does not mean that it will be accepted by your community’s recycling program. Instead of focusing solely on the plastic recycling codes, pay attention to the specific details provided by your community’s program, such as “narrow-necked bottles” and “rigid plastics.”

Even with a recycling program that accepts plastics #1-7, it’s often the shape of the plastic product that determines whether or not it can be recycled in that specific program. The most important thing to remember is to check your program and make sure you only put the specific items they accept in your recycling bin.

Read more: The Ultimate Plastic Breakdown

Bottle Caps

Polypropylene (PP), or plastic #5, often makes up the plastic caps on bottles. In the past, we were told to remove the cap. Now, this is not always the case, as some plastic recyclers are able to effectively recycle bottles with caps. Recycling collection and processing technology have improved and demand for the recyclable material has increased. Bottles are ground into flake before being vigorously washed in the recycling process. If the recycler is set up for this, the cap and bottle materials are separated during the cleaning process. The PET bottle sinks while the PP cap material floats.

Not all recyclers have the capacity to process caps, which can jam their machinery. So please confirm with your local program that they accept caps before you put them in your bin.

Broken Glass

Broken glass is recyclable, but it might not be reprocessed into new glass bottles. This is because when glass breaks, it can often be a challenge to separate it by color given the tiny pieces.

This glass can be used as an additive in fiberglass, tile and flooring, pavement, or even turned back into sand to stop beach depletion. However, just because glass is crushed during recycling doesn’t mean you should do this prior to putting it in your bin. This could injure waste haulers or people sorting material at the recycling facility. For this reason, your local program might not accept broken glass in your curbside bin. Please confirm that your program accepts broken glass before you put it in the bin.

Read more: Do’s and Don’ts of Glass Recycling

What Causes Contamination

Knowing what goes in the bin is critical to ensuring the success of the recycling process. Putting the wrong materials into the recycling bin may ruin the entire batch of recyclable materials.

The material in a recycling bin is taken to a material recovery facility (MRF), where the material is separated and processed for selling to companies that buy recycled materials for making products. The higher the quality of the recycled material, the more the companies will want to buy it, and the higher the material’s value is.

However, when you put materials into the recycling bin that shouldn’t be there, you may (at the very least) lower the value of the material or slow down the recycling process. Here’s what can happen when you put the wrong things in the recycling bin:

  • Machines that handle the sorting of the materials can become damaged, which means that precious time, energy, and money will be needed to repair the machines.
  • If no equipment is available to do the job, more material in the bin that shouldn’t be there makes the job far more difficult and inefficient for workers sorting the material by hand.
  • Also, it may inhibit the materials in the bin that should be there from turning into the highest quality materials possible, or it could even send everything in the bin straight to the landfill. It may be cliché, but the expression “one bad apple could spoil the bunch” pretty much sums up the situation.

for recycling solutions.

Editor’s note: This story was updated in September 2020.

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  1. I would be interested to hear what sort of effect miss-sorting of paper waste has on the actual recycling process. Is it not possible than it some cases the carbon footprint of the collections overshadows the recycling effort when the loads have to be disposed of with normal household waste? What sort of percentage of loads does this affect?

    Robert Daniel
    Paper Cups

  2. Most important – check with your city or hauler about what they accept. For instance in our program shredded paper in a closed paper bag is fine.

  3. I am still trying to understand “recycling”. Although I do follow the city guidelines as to what to put in the recycling bin, I still have hundreds of questions. Every day I come across something new that I am not sure whether can be recycled. I have been using tall plastic trash bags to collect my recyclables and then throw the bag into the bin. After reading this article, I am thinking whether i have been doing it all wrong and whether I should have dumped my recyclables directly into the bin. Please clarify.

  4. Stryofoam generally isn’t recyclable in curbside recycling programs either. The recycle symbol on some stryrofoam pieces can be deceiving for many people. Mailing and shipping stores like UPS sometimes take styrofoam packing materials for reuse, but we should all try to avoid using it in the first place.

  5. The bottle cap issue was one I had trouble understanding until I spoke with our local recycler. I was originally led to believe the entire bottle was thrown out if the cap was left on. He explained that not only is that a falsehood they actually have no problem with water and soft drink caps since the process is to shred the entire unit with the density difference of the two plastics allowing seperation during a washing step where the heavier plastic is seperated quite easily. Leaving the plastic cap loose helps as well since the compaction during handling/shipping is more effective

  6. We received a large magnet printed with all of the recycling #’s and do’s-and’don’ts listed on it. Most of the items mentioned above are on the YES list, which leaves me wondering which of these items, if any, are actually being recycled. Reading your article, it seems the city would have to have an extremely sophisticated system to be able to handle all of what we were told we could recycle. Any thoughts?

  7. Some of the papers that are not “recyclable’ are, however, compostable. Shredded paper can make excellent “mulch” in your vegetable garden (make sure the ink is non-toxic first). I have used cardboard as an underlayment to other mulch to prevent weeds. Again, make sure the inks are non-toxic first.

    My biggest question is whether small plastic bottles (vitamins, etc) even though the right type–are they still recycled? I got the impression when touring a local recycling sorting plant that only the larger (milk, soda) bottles made it into the final bale of plastic to be shipped to the recycler.
    Thanks for all your good information.

  8. Why does it have to be so difficult? No wonder so many people do not recycle let alone recycle properly. I would love a large magnet with do’s and don’ts! And all yeses is even better!

  9. Marisa,
    This is a really tricky subject, and you did a good job capturing the key points. I’m sure it wasn’t easy – I wrestle with issues in the recycling industry everday! Good job.

  10. I’m very interested in the idea of turning glass back into sand. Our community has depleted sand dunes, while most of our glass is going to the landfill. Any specifics would be appreciated.

  11. I think this article makes recycling too complicated, and these types of warnings (“One bad apple will spoil the whole batch…”) discourage people from recycling for fear that they will do more harm than good (or in some cases, it even gives people an excuse not to recycle). As someone who has worked in the recycling industry, I can tell you that, in most cases, it is simply a matter of volume. A few pizza boxes here and there are not going to be a problem. An entire college dorm’s worth of pizza boxes might be a different story! Plastic bottle caps will float to the top and get skimmed off during the recycling process. There is no need to take the labels off food bottles, jars, or cans. Yes, it is always best to follow the recycling program’s guidelines; some are more restrictive about what they take than others.
    There are a few exceptions–some things that REALLY shouldn’t go in the recycling bin unless specifically mentioned as allowable. Plastic bags really do clog up the equipment and can cause a lot of wasted time and even equipment damage. They should not be included with regular plastics.
    And glass recycling can be tricky. NEVER put anything but glass food/beverage containers in the glass bin. Ceramics, window glass, light bulbs–small amounts of these really can ruin an entire batch. Also, don’t mix colors unless specifically told to do so. Clear glass is much more valuable than brown or green, and even a very small amount of colored glass will cause that batch to be valued as colored. Green is the least valuable, so if you have mixed glass or odd colors (yellow or blue), put them in the green bin.

  12. Pingback: Recycle Everything You Can

  13. Great reminder article! I know recycling rules frustrate people, but do the best you can. Try puting your positive green energy behind something you can control, like energy use or supporting local farmers. Stay positive, every little bit helps!

  14. Wow. I had no idea the proces for recycling was so extensive. I thought it was simply put on a conveyor belt then people would pick through the recyclables, etc.
    Because of two things:
    1) What really distinguishes our civilization from others; what our “mark” will be is…landfills. We won’t be known for our statues or temples, like past societies. Rather, we will be known to future generations (if there are many/any beyond our societal structure) as those which left us-the future generation- garbage.
    2) Everything that is mass produced destroys the landbase and planet (www.storyofstuff.com); the waste generated to create the product is larger/worse than simply tossing the product out.

    Therefore everything I had to dispose of (aside from food); all the materials I, myself, couldn’t reuse, I would place into the recycling (after cleaning it thoroughly and to the best of my ability).
    My philosophy was- why condemn it to a landfill? Give it to the recyclers to at least give the material potential of being recycled. Even if it does not get ecycled, the recyclers have more knowledge and/or responsibility as to how to “trash” it properly. I figure: give it to them, they would know what to do with it or at least dispose of it in a more ethical and contentious way then simply giving it to the landfill. I also thought: maybe if they get enough of something that they dont’/can’t currently recycle, by getting enough of that material they may take that as an initiative or sign to develope a reclycing method for the material. (How cool would it be to have given that styrofoam cup to them. What if that cup was the one that triggered them to say, “Hey, there is a demand for us to recycle these, maybe we should try to devise a way to.” It’s a fun thought to think that maybe my current problems to the recycling system will actually be beneficial in the long run…)
    Apparently I may have just done more harm than good….scarey. Well back to my mind, to transform it once again by removing my false idea/misconceptions for truth/reality of the situation- I have hindered/troubled the goal I strive for (helping “Mom” [Earth] and living sustainably with her), etc.

    Thanks for reading,

  15. It’s my medications and sharps I don’t know how to dispose of! My meds are changed often (many left over that drs. & others don’t want) & sharps placed in
    sharps containers still have to be disposed of – but where?

  16. Anisha – yes, put the items directly into the bin. I know it can smell in the house. If rinsing isn’t enough, and our dishwasher isn’t full, we put peanut butter/jam jars, greasy fast food plastic containers, etc. in there with our dishes.
    We have a large bin on wheels outside (with a top) that we dump our small kitchen one into every 5 or so days.

  17. those cheap reusable bags every store has now wit their logo on them are an environmental nightmare
    they are not accepted for recycling ,get holes quickly, torn seams, and are tossed in te landfill.
    how many are going to the landfill as garbage/

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