I Didn’t Know That Was Recyclable!

question mark statue

“I see the chasing arrows, but I just don’t know what to do with my (insert product here).”

It’s a common dilemma, especially for those items that don’t operate under a clear-cut recycling plan, such as plastic water bottles. Tack on a “hazardous” label and disposal laws, and you’ve got yourself a recycling conundrum.

While we can’t investigate every item in your home (because that would take years), we thought we’d give you a rundown on some common items our readers ask us about daily. As an added bonus, we’ve thrown in some oddities for your entertainment.


Oftentimes our latest paint projects leave us with half-empty cans. Instead of piling them in the garage, recycle old latex paint into brand new recycled paint. Manufacturers can mix together paint from different cans and produce a new product that is often cheaper than virgin paint. States such as California even list recycled paint retailers near you.

buckets of paint

Programs across the country are finding that consumers and contractors have large amounts of leftover paint that can be reused and/or recycled. Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

But this process is only available for latex paint, as oil-based paint is disposed of with other household hazardous waste (HHW). While you’re at the municipal HHW facility, look for a swap shop, where you can pick up used items (like paint) for free.

But what about the actual can itself? If you’ve used all the paint inside and can remove any residue with paint thinner, you can likely recycle them with other steel cans (assuming they are metal).

Reducing your painter’s footprint starts in the store. Look for low-VOC or no-VOC paints whenever possible.

“Dirty” Containers

One of the most common questions we hear is about recycling “dirty” containers. Are those beer bottles with lime wedges inside recyclable? Does that last bit of peanut butter need to be removed from the jar before recycled?

Though it is best to avoid as many organic contaminants as possible, that lime wedge or last bit of peanut butter won’t ruin the recycling batch. Getting the containers as clean as possible is always best, but wasting water in doing so isn’t helping either.

Glass, metal and plastic are all recycled in an extreme heat process, causing the incineration of small organic materials. Paper, on the other hand, is recycled in a water-based process, meaning the organic materials (mainly greases and oils) cause contamination to the recycling batch. So, soiled paper products should definitely be kept out of the recycling bin, but slightly dirty glass, plastic and metal containers are just fine.

Learn how one merchant gives recycled aluminum a new lease on life. Check out Liberty Bottle Works’ video: How One Reusable Bottle Manufacturer Thrives on Sustainability.


Any type of battery that contains metal is recyclable. According to Call2Recycle, most batteries are named for the type of metal they contain (lead-acid, nickel-cadmium, etc.). The more harmful the metal that’s present, the more likely you’ll be able to find a recycler because of state and federal laws.

Many battery retailers will also accept them for recycling. This includes both automotive and household batteries. You can also find mail-in programs that allow you to collect batteries over time and send them in all at once. You’ll want to properly prepare batteries prior to recycling, otherwise they could explode during shipping.

Once batteries are collected, any acids are drained for reuse, metals are reprocessed for recycling into new products and plastic casings are melted down and recycled into new plastics.


A quick cleanout of your arts and crafts drawer or your child’s old toy bin is likely to yield a box of crayons, which most us would toss out without a second thought. But believe it or not, there is a National Crayon Recycle Program operated by Crazy Crayons, LLC. The recycling program has diverted more than 47,000 pounds of crayons from landfills.

Each day, more than 120,000 pounds of crayons are produced in the U.S. alone. With drop-off bins nationwide and a mail-back option, the program accepts unwanted and broken crayons for recycling into new crayons. Also, most schools and community organizations will accept unbroken crayons for use in their art programs.

Wine Corks

ReCORK America has partnered up with national retailers to establish wine cork collection locations nationwide. In addition, the organization partners with restaurants, businesses, resorts, wineries and wine retailers to collect their used corks from day-to-day business operations and recycle them into new materials.

Recycled wine corks can be made into flooring, building insulation, footwear, automotive gaskets, bulletin boards, packaging materials, soil conditioner and sports equipment – even beautiful patio sets. Natural corks, made from the bark of a cork tree, are ideal for recycling as they are renewable, natural, sustainable and energy-efficient. Synthetic corks made from petroleum-based products are not accepted for recycling through the program.

According to ReCORK America, there are 13 billion natural cork wine stoppers sold in the world market each year, most of which end up in the landfill. It takes approximately 300,000 wine corks to yield a ton of cork for recycling into new product.


Yep, human hair! Not only can human hair be composted, but it can actually be recycled into dense mats for soaking up oil. Public charity, Matter of Trust, began the Hair For Oil Spills Program in 2000 after Phil McCrory, a hair stylist from Alabama, watched news coverage of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill and noticed the oil saturated fur on the Alaskan otters.

After testing the amount of oil he could collect with hair clippings from his salon, McCrory invented the hairmat to help soak up oil from an estimated 706 million gallons of oil that enter our oceans each year.

There are more than 370,000 hair salons in the U.S., and each collects about 1 pound of hair per day. That represents a tremendous amount of landfill matter from something we probably never even thought about!

With help from Matter of Trust, thousands of volunteers are deployed after oil spills to clean up beaches using the hairmats. The charity even sponsors an Oily Hairmat Remediation study, detoxifying the oil mats through a thermophilic compost and vermiculture process.

Holiday Lights

‘Tis the season for holiday lights galore. And as Clark Griswold so famously discovered in Christmas Vacation, when one bulb goes out, the whole strand seems to go out as well. But is it time to throw that strand of holiday lights in the trash?

One of the fastest growing holiday recycling programs involves strand lights, with municipal programs and national retailers like Home Depot signing on to offer consumer recycling.

Making the switch from regular incandescent strand lights to LED lights? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, that is a wise decision, as ten incandescent strands running all night produces 300 pounds of CO2 versus 30 pounds with LED lights. Statistics show it would cost about $6-10 per season to light your tree with three strands of incandescents versus only 13-17 cents with LEDs. The EPA even has a light bulb calculator.

Convinced you’ll make the switch? HolidayLEDs.com will recycle your incandescent lights for you. Mail them in and the company recycles the lights and the box they were shipped in, and they will send you a coupon for 15 percent off LED light purchases through its site. You can save even more and use those new LED lights on a timer!


Alright, so you have a trophy to prove you were the competitive eating champion in 1988 and the karaoke champion in 1990, but those glory days are long gone. The trophies now collect dust in a box in the garage. And unless another talented competitive eater with the same name is about to take the title, your trophy may have little reuse value.

Total Awards & Promotions, Inc. has created a trophy recycling program to benefit charities. Through a mail-in program, the company’s Madison, Wisc. headquarters recycles your defunct awards or re-engraves and donates them to nonprofit organizations. One of many trophy recycling programs offered nationwide, the company also manufacturers its own awards made of recycled glass and newsprint.


As technology evolves, we’re left with souvenirs in the form of CDs/DVDs, cassette and video tapes and floppy disks. This author admits to having an entire box of 80s cassette tapes in her garage! While you would think this stuff would be considered electronic waste, the fact that it doesn’t contain metals or a power cord disqualifies it from that category. But that doesn’t mean these products aren’t recyclable.

Best Buy collects CDs and DVDs for recycling at in-store kiosks. Another option is the GreenDisk mail-in program, which recycles media into new CDs and disks. GreenDisk also collects cases for recycling, so you won’t be left with a bunch of plastic lying around.

Feature image courtesy of Leo Reynolds

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  1. As a Pennsylvania-based tech recycler I can tell you that educating the public is the biggest hurdle. There were items in this list that I had no idea were recyclable (surfboards!) either. I truly feel that this is the area where local municipalities need to be the liaisons for their residents. Counties, townships and boroughs need to help educate them, as well as organize and inform them of the drop-off dates for community events and locations of such recyclers in their own areas. We’re all in this together!

  2. As one who is always on the lookout for venues to help my clients, friends, and family keep things out of landfill, I appreciate this wonderful list. Who knew there was a place for crayons to go to go when they have literally outworn their welcome? I just wrote a blog post about two women here in San Francisco who reuse small plastic toys, game parts, and board games in their work and are open to receiving donations as a form of recycling. All the info is here: http://liberatedspaces.wordpress.com/2009/12/28/save-the-tiny-toys-and-plastic-thingies/

  3. Wow. Thank you, thank you, thank you for the wonderful information. I hate throwing things out but I also hate clutter. You’ve helped me find homes for some of my waste.

  4. Re cork: With my sharp chef’s knife, I slice corks into whatever width I need and use them as lifts under plant pots sitting in saucers, thus keeping the roots out of the water that has drained into the saucer after watering. I glue four slices of cork onto the corners of ceramic tile (left over from a new bathroom floor) and use them as trivets. How about under the legs of that old table that rocks, cutting to fit as needed. When I broke the glass top of my oil cruet, I whittled a cork (not sliced) to fit the opening, tapered to fit well. I love cork because it is natural, beautiful, sound-deadening, amenable to many shapes and unharmed by water.

  5. Thanks for the great recycling information. To add to that: BatteriesPlus stores also accept batteries of all types for recycling; Alternative Community Training , based in Columbia, Missouri provides personalized support to individuals with disabilities by accepting donations of videocassettes and floppy disks, erasing and repackaging them for sale

  6. Thanks for the great info! I didn’t realize that so many things could be saved from the landfill. Good luck in spreading the word. There are so many people that would care to take the time to properly dispose of things if they knew where to take/send them. I’m glad to know now and will pass the info along. Thanks again!

  7. Great post. I recycle everything I can and love to find new things to add to my list. This column and responses gave me three new ideas. Also Staples in NH takes all batteries. Maybe others do, too. We need more columns like this.

  8. i am from sri lanka and interest on repair ,reuse and recycling computers
    if any body cna heplp me to start this easy way,please let me know
    It is possible m to collect used computers from Govt/Private offices very easily fre of charge


  9. I agree…great suggestive info here. I just wish that more people were exposed to this type of information in such a way that it would become paramount in their everyday lives. Nothing irritates me more than to see a trash can overflowing with recyclable items as a half-empty recycle bin keeps it company curbside. Directing and sorting of recyclables is an act that takes little to no time, yet so many people willingly refuse to bother with what they view as some type of burden. If only there was some way to implement an everpresent awareness in all of us to be concious of what we decide to discard…if only!

  10. Thanks for the great info. One tip on recycling crayon pieces is to melt them down and make them into new crayons. You can even do this using the sun – break crayons into very small pieces and put pieces into small candy or soap molds. Put them in the sun, and give them a little while to melt. Bring them inside to solidify, and you’ve got new crayons in cool shapes – you can even make them multi-colored! Kids love this project, and it’s very green and can save money over buying new crayons.

  11. I agree with Noel in that municipalities should inform the residents about the recycling opportunities. But what I would really like to see is the businesses stepping up to the plate! A crayon recycling box should be placed anywhere crayons are sold. My biggest pet-peeve is that Starbucks doesn’t recycle their coffee containers. Tons of cups go to the landfill every single day! It seems simple to me that they have three different bins at their stores for lids, cups and other. And i think the public should demand that this service is provided.
    As far as exposing the regular consumer to this kind of info, what better way than seeing the recycling containers for crayons, batteries, trophies, etc. in grocery stores, gas stations, movie theaters. EVERYWHERE. The sad truth is that you can’t even find recycling containers -anywhere in Houston- for the simplest and best known recycling item: water bottles.

  12. Thank you for the great information! I enjoy hearing new Ideas to reuse or recycle Items…..I have had a business for about 10 years and I try my best to creat new Items with vintage used items…..I love what I do, I try to reuse as much as I can! It definately makes me feel good about creating something that someone can enjoy for years to come……I also think that it is a wonderful gift to pass on to my boys…..Recycling, reusing and Art……I have recently started a recycling program at their school and I would love to hear any information you may have that would relate to students K-6th grade……Our future is to educate our children……Thank you very much…..

  13. I am so glad I found this site. I was a glass, plastic #1 and #2, and cardboard recycler for the longest time. But now I have become an avid recycler, they even call me the bag lady at work since I take home anything that can be recycled. My best recycling find in Jacksonville, FL is a place that recycles #5 plastic. Now that was a day to celebrate! Please keep up the good information and I’m sure as most of you do, I pass it along to my not-so-on-board, non-recycling friends how easy it is to recycle and how much good it does.

    My newest project is to get recycling friendly curb-side receptacles in Jacksonville – wish me luck.

  14. Cans are a source of confusion to me. Some say aluminum, some feel like aluminum but don’t say, some say steel and some feel like steel but don’t indicate that on the can. How am I to distinguish when sorting for recycling????

  15. Oh my god i have thrown out HUNDREDS of batterie’s and crayons!!!!! Thanks so much for this list!

  16. You may be off the mark here on your battery advice. I am a recycling coordinator in upstate New York, and manage a (county-wide) household waste collection. After a number of years of collecting household batteries, we were told (by the HHW firm) that they are not classified as hazardous and they dispose of all household (alkaline) batteries as garbage – so we might as well throw them into our own landfill (since that’s all they do, but charge the customer very high price to take away as hazardous waste). Only rechargeable batteries and wet-cell batteries are truly recycled and have a market for components (ie: wet-cell or vehicle batteries) or remanufactured (rechargeables). However, “button batteries” are considered hazardous waste due to mercury etc. and are disposed of as HHW.

    Although we changed the policy at our facility, the public continues to drop off a large amount of batteries (because they want to do the right thing). In order to keep a positive program going, it has become easier for us to accept all batteries with a big old thank you – then we sort through them and throw all alkaline batteries away ourselves. I can’t speak for everywhere, but if you are being told household batteries (AA, AAA, C & D) are being recycled (with the exception of rechargeables), you may be getting “greenwashed”.

  17. I was very frustrated with the “tons” of trophies that my children had won in school. They weren’t for sports, so no one wanted them to recycle and I couldn’t afford to ship them to Wisc. On a whim I called the Boy Scouts and asked if they’d like them. They were thrilled! Also, my local Staples has a box specifically for plastic bags.

  18. Pingback: It’s the little things | Financialocity

  19. I am from India and interest on recycling the plastic waste. In India plastic waste is in huge amount . can any one give me idea to recycle the plastic waste like (carry bag,packages ,oil packages etc) .

  20. That is such a great article. I wish everyone would join the cause! If they would just switch off the lights or use cold water in the washer, the earth would be almost as good as new. Thanks!

  21. I can NOT BELIEVE I didn’t know all of these things were recyclable! We are in the “green” industry, and as much time as we spend researching this subject, I would have thought I had a pretty good handle on this. WOW!

    I have to say, though, that I’m glad to see more and more of us taking an interest in this. The officials in our respective governments may be too self-centered to do what’s right, but hey, who needs ’em! With information like this, we can do this ourselves. One house at a time. One business at a time!

    Kudos to you for putting up this information! BOOKMARKED!

  22. Do consider the niche art community! “Found and/or Raw Art” is interesting and fun. My artist son specializes in ceramic tile work–whole tiles or broken ones. Also, he artistically created a bathroom floor made entirely of metal bottle caps. He barters with local pubs who save the bottle caps for him. Amazing what can be created from no longer wanted, everyday stuff. The phrase One man’s junk is another man’s treasure…. Oh so true!

  23. recycling is dumb and pointless. There is no point to even save the earth because the earth is going to be destroyed anyway.=^)

  24. does anybody know what happened to resurf recycling or if they even exist anymore, cause theres no woy to contact them, I cant find their site, and they are not listed in phone directory.

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