We all want to reduce our carbon footprint and become better stewards of the earth. But for something that seems as simple and straightforward as recycling, there can be a lot of complications. And when you make a guess at something being recyclable, and it isn't, that can actually be worse for recycling programs than if you had just thrown it out with the garbage. So, in honor of Earth Day, we sat down and straightened out just what can be recycled — and how! — so we can all avoid future mistakes and better support our local recycling efforts.
Glass is one of the easiest things to recycle and, with the exception of lightbulbs, household glass and broken glass, almost everything can be recycled at curbside.
- The glass used in most bottles and food storage containers is easily recyclable at curbside. Don’t forget to rinse it and remove the lid.
- Broken glass is unfortunately not recyclable, as it can clog recycling machinery and even result in injury to sanitation workers. Before throwing it away, make sure to wrap it up in a thick plastic bag so you don’t hurt your garbage person.
- While mirrors, drinking glasses, window glass, or baking dishes seem like they could be recycled with regular glass, household glass is often treated with chemicals to make it sturdier. We recommend you donate items, or, if they’re too worn, throw them away.
- CFL bulbs and other fluorescent bulbs contain trace amounts of mercury. While it’s a small enough amount that they can be used safely in your home, they shouldn’t go to a landfill, where they can contaminate ground water. To recycle safely, take them to a Home Depot or Lowes.
- Incandescent lights, LED’s and halogens do not contain any hazardous materials, so it’s safe to throw them in the trash. But they are also recyclable in some cases, so check your local center first. If they don't accept them, EcoLights or Lampmaster Recycling offers recycling for a fee.
Metal and Foil
Like glass, the metals and foils you use the most are also the easiest to recycle. Food tins, disposable baking items, aluminum foil, paint cans, and even aerosol cans are recyclable if prepared properly.
- Your typical tin and aluminum cans (think soup, tuna, and veggies) can by thrown in your curbside recycling after you rinse them out.
- Disposable bakeware like muffin tins, lasagna trays, and bread pans can also be put in curbside recycling.
- Aluminum foil and foil lids (like you find on yogurt or cream cheese) can be recycled as long as they are free of grease, food, and chemical coatings.
- Clean — and we mean clean — paint cans and lids can also be recycled.
- Empty aerosol cans, like those used for hairspray and cleaning products, are tricky to recycle. As of April 2020, there don’t appear to be any mail-in initiatives, but Clean Harbors Environmental Services in Braintree, MA accepts them for a fee. These can also be disposed of if your town has a household hazardous waste collection day.
- Any pieces of metal under three inches — like nails, screws, washers, and soda can tabs — can be hazardous to recycling machines, and should be thrown away to avoid damage.
- Candy and cookie wrappers that look metallic often aren’t, because the foil has been fused with plastic. A good test? If you ball up the wrapping and it doesn’t keep the crumpled shape, you should throw it out.
- Capri Sun packs and smoothie squeeze pouches are also fused with plastic, and must be thrown away. There is one exception that we found: Serenity Kids has partnered with Terracycle to offera recycling initiative, here.
- Syringes, epi-pens and razor blades can’t truly be recycled or thrown away, because of the danger they pose to the general public. They should be disposed of in a medical sharps container, which can be found at your local pharmacy, hospital, or police station.
- Potato chip bags are recyclable through a mail-in initiative from Hain & Terracycle. You can find it here.
- Unfortunately, most foil coffee bags are fused with plastic, and cannot be recycled. That said, some coffee brands feature packaging that's partially recyclable; read the label first, and make sure to peel out the internal plastic liner if there is one.
- Safety razors are a little tricky. Locally-based Gillette offers the opportunity for communities to set up a recycling station for any brand of safety razor, but not an individual mail-in option. Try to jump start an initiative in your town.
- Pots and pans, bike frames, metal tools, metal furniture, metal kitchen tools, metal utensils and metal shelves are similarly complicated. If any of these are lightly used, think first of taking them to a Goodwill or Salvation Army for someone else to benefit. But if your cookware or bike is not fit for donation, it’s time to find a scrap metal recycler. A few things are key: are they sealed with Teflon or plastic? Are they ferrous or non-ferrous (hint: ferrous pots are magnetic)? Find this out first, and then start calling scrap metal recyclers near you.
- Do you ascribe to the “no wire hangers” rule? If so, you have some options for recycling here, too. Wire hangers can be reused at your local dry-cleaner or recycled at a scrap yard.
- Soda Stream canisters help us save on more than just seltzer. Bring them into a nearby Bed Bath & Beyond so they can get refilled, and get a dollar off your next canister.
What's left after paper, plastic, glass and metal? Everything else! This section contains every single thing that we looked at around our homes and thought, "how do I recycle that?"
- Liquid food cartons — also known as what your soup, milk, juice, and sometimes wine come in — are not always recyclable. So far, the only ones that have joined the Carton Council recycling initiative are Tetra Pak, Elopak, SIG, Combibloc and Evergreen Packaging, so be sure to look for those logos when shopping. But even if you buy these brands, recycling gets tricky. While some cities and towns pick up curbside, most don’t. You can find out if your town recycles them, or what youralternatives are at Earth 911.
- Both Brita and PUR have free recycling programs with Terracycle; you can find Brita here, and PUR here.
Food is, for the most part, compostable. Here are a few options for composting in Mass., most of which take all kinds of food scraps and come right to your door:
- In Greater Boston and Providence, we’re lucky enough to have access to Bootstrap Compost.
- Offbeet Compost does the same for Merrimack Valley (and is women owned!).
- City Compostserves all of New England.
- The cities of Acton, Worcester and Cambridge all offer municipal composting programs as well.
- We've already talked about recycling plastic tape dispensers. But what about the tape? While plastic tape (Duct, Scotch) goes right in the trash, Amazon’s brown paper tape is recyclable (yay!).
- Particle board is often used in inexpensive furniture — but, unfortunately, in order to create this cheap material, the process heavily treats the wood and as such, it cannot be recycled.
- Terracotta pots are not recycled and have to be thrown away. But this is your chance to get creative — try mosaics, using broken pieces in place of drainage stones, or creating garden sculptures.
- Good-condition clothing can be donated to second-hand shops, or even sold through consignment shops. Not sure if something is in good enough shape for second hand stores? Look for Bay State Textiles bins (map here) — they'll donate quality clothing to second-hand stores, and recycle stained or torn materials into new products.
- Electronics and appliances can all be recycled at Best Buy or Staples. Free to the general public (though not businesses or organizations), they both offer programs that recycle your goods for free. Check out the Staples list here. Check out the Best Buy list here.
- Furniture and exercise equipment can be sold online, or donated if it's in decent shape. But if your old bookcase is rickety, it might be time to recycle it. Some towns offer special pickup days for bigger items like these, but if yours isn’t one of them, look around for a scrap yard.
- Building materials that are in good condition — windows, lumber, cabinets, bricks or flooring — can be donated to Habitat for Humanity. If something isn’t reusable, to the scrap yard it goes.
- Bicycle tires and tubes are prime items for reuse. The recycling process for these is not great for the environment, so if you can come up with a creative way to reuse them (or you want to try one of the ideas here) go for it! But if you absolutely must recycle, try your local bike shop or REI.
- There are quite a few parts in your car that can be recycled. Many autobody shops will recycle oil and oil filters, batteries, tires and windshields for you, just be sure to ask in advance so you're not sent packing. Water pumps can be returned to auto parts stores to reduce the charge for new products. Engines, starters, and alternators can all be rebuilt by mechanics, and you can ask the shop that you’ve taken your car to if they’d be able to help you with that. Plastics and metals should go to the scrap yard.
If you live in one of Massachusetts' major cities, you can find a handy printout for additional trash and recycling guidelines, as well as pickup times in your neighborhood, below:
For all other towns, take a look at the Massachusetts' Department of Environmental Protection Online Recycling Guide.
Want to learn more? Check out our article on how to recycle paper and plastic!