Recycling is an excellent way to conserve resources, reuse materials and decrease the amount of raw materials being mined, logged or produced from scratch. It’s one of the environmental movement’s most successful enterprises in terms of raising awareness, soliciting public cooperation, and making it part of daily life with recycling depots and curbside recycling pickups.

It’s also why we at Earth911 exist.

In its early days, Earth911 was a simple recycling search engine designed to help you find the appropriate place to recycle virtually anything. By typing in the material you wanted to recycle along with your city or town, you’d be able to see a full list of recycling locations that would accept the product. And while our easy-to-use recycling search continues to help eager recyclers everywhere, today we’re going to go one step further and discuss what happens when you can’t recycle something.

Let’s say you use the recycling search for something you’re not quite sure about — beverage caps without a recycling code, for instance, or those strange plastic mesh produce bags that hold oranges or sweet potatoes. You discover that there aren’t any facilities nearby that recycle the item in question — now what?

Trust us, you still have options! Read on for three fab alternatives to tossing things you can’t recycle into the trash.

Explore Alternatives

Just because your municipality doesn’t accept an item for recycling doesn’t always mean that it isn’t possible to recycle it at all. Oftentimes, there are standalone collection areas within your city designed to accept specific kinds of waste. Car seats, for example, are a huge chunk of usually unrecyclable plastic, but some cities have set up collection locations (often at a baby store, for example) where the seats are gathered to be recycled.

Similarly, many big-box electronics stores have bins to collect batteries, light bulbs and some electronics for recycling. TerraCycle, a company with the bold goal of recycling the unrecyclable, offers recycling programs for chocolate bar wrappers, coffee pods, cigarette butts and more.

In short, your first step should be to do some digging and make totally sure that your item can’t be recycled before moving on to your second option.


Next, make the most of your Internet connection by doing a quick Google search for “how to repurpose (your unrecyclable item).” Turns out that the World Wide Web is good for way more than kitten videos — it’s the perfect platform for creative folks to display their brilliance (and for you to benefit from their DIY genius).

By searching out ways to repurpose unrecyclable objects, you’ll be able to look at things in a new light, and you’ll get to flex your creative muscles, too. With just a few crafty tricks and maybe a YouTube tutorial or two, you’ll be well on your way to turning trash into innovative creations. Just check out these people who are repurposing plastic spoons, shattered dishes and even those plastic mesh produce bags into beautiful and useful household items.

It turns out that one person’s trash truly is another’s treasure!


If the idea of making something new from your unrecyclable item is impossible or simply unappealing (hey, we aren’t all the DIY type; no judgment here!), why not donate it to someone who will? Many schools and community centers welcome donations of odd, unrecyclable items like pipe cleaners, plastic beverage caps, elastics and more.

Some communities, like Palm Beach, Fla., have turned collecting these odds and ends into a mission of sorts in the form of organizations like The Resource Depot. Serving as both a warehouse and a collection center, The Resource Depot is a place for people to drop off unwanted materials, where they are sorted, categorized and then offered to the public for a low flat-rate fee. Perhaps your city has one, too!

The key to all of this, each and every one of our environmental efforts, is to act along the continuum of refuse, reduce, reuse, recycle. There isn’t always one right answer; instead, there exists a series of questions you get to ask yourself. Do I need this? Can I buy it secondhand? Can I borrow it? Can it be recycled? Can it be reused? Can it be donated to someone in need?

Let’s keep consistently exploring alternative waste streams and reducing the amount of garbage sent to languish in landfills. I mean, people are out there making decorative mirrors out of old plastic spoons! We got this.

Feature photo courtesy of

By Madeleine Somerville

Madeleine Somerville is the author of All You Need Is Less: An Eco-Friendly Guide to Guilt-Free Green Living and Stress-Free Simplicity. She is a writer, wannabe hippie and lover of soft cheeses. She lives in Edmonton, Canada, with her daughter. You can also find Madeleine at her blog, Sweet Madeleine.