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.
Paper is a recycler’s best friend; after all, it's made out of trees, right? Alas, that is not the case. Many types of paper are not recyclable — and some aren’t even compostable. Here’s a quick rundown of what you can and can’t do with this sneaky substance:
- Almost anything that comes in the mail — catalogs, phone books, magazines, newspapers and packages — can be recycled, but make sure to remove all tape or adhesives first.
- Sticky notes are fine to recycle, but consider compost for the smaller sizes.
- Plain paper bags should go right in the bin, but remember to reuse them as long as you can first!
- Shredded paper, regardless what it is made of, should be composted; anything smaller than three inches can get in the works of recycling machines and cause a shutdown.
- Paper plates should be composted, not recycled, regardless of cleanliness level. However, if you’ve used them for an art project that involved glitter, trash ‘em.
- Paper towels and napkins are compostable as long as you didn’t use them to clean anything with chemicals.
- Receipts are nature’s enemy; many are coated with BPA, which can’t be recycled, and could taint your compost.
- Bubble lined paper mailers should be thrown away, but do try to reuse them first.
- Parchment paper is only compostable if lined with wax, not plastic. Check the box to be sure of your next steps.
- Wrapping paper, greeting cards or gift bags can be recycled so long as they don't have foil or glitter on them. Be sure to remove tape, ribbons, and bows.
- Pizza boxes have long been contested. We say, if the top is not soiled or at all greasy, you can recycle it. But the part that is greasy should be composted or thrown out.
Plastic is in everything. Everything! Unfortunately, when it’s mixed with paper (see above) or made into Styrofoam, the process can render both items completely non-recyclable. And even when it’s on its own, some plastic items aren’t recyclable in curbside bins. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t easy — and creative — ways of recycling many of your plastic goods.
- Plastic bags aren’t recyclable in your curbside bins, but most Lowes and Target locations have bins right by the front door for recycling them.
- Plastic envelopes, unlined or lined with bubble wrap, and air pillows can be recycled in the same bins as plastic bags at Lowes or Target.
- The same goes for Saran wrap, plastic wrap for food, Ziploc bags and plastic wrap for products like paper towels; Target or Lowes has you covered.
- Soda stream bottles help us protect the environment — twice! They can be recycled at curbside.
- Plastic bottles are recyclable at curbside, but rinse them out and remove plastic film labels first.
- Packing peanuts might be Styrofoam, but often UPS or Fed-Ex stores will take them back to reuse.
- Yogurt cups, cream cheese containers, hummus tubs and the like aren’t always recyclable at curbside, so check your town’s recycling guidelines first. Whole Foods locations have special bins for #5 plastic, or you can find other options at Earth 911.
- Rigid Plastic, like milk crates, children’s toys, reusable plastic cups, buckets, laundry baskets, etc. can be recycled by drop-off at some local locations. Find them at Find-a-Recycler. Make sure there’s no metal attached first!
- Foil insulation bags might look like silver plastic envelopes, but they actually contain elements that are not recyclable.
- Plastic utensils are unfortunately not recyclable, for a myriad of reasons. Though some are made out of recyclable plastic, others are made out of compressed Styrofoam — and user beware: rarely do they say on their body which type of plastic they are.
- We all know straws aren’t great to throw away, but they are also not recyclable; they can get stuck in machinery, clogging the whole works up. Stick to your reusable straws.
- Salad mix bags, frozen food bags, candy bar wrappers and chip wrappers all have to go in the trash.
- Foam polystyrene, or Styrofoam, in any form is generally not recyclable. While some shipping stores take packing peanuts for reuse, for all other types you’ll have to search for specific drop off locations. You can find a map on the Industry Alliance page here.
- Tupperware containers are usually recyclable, but be sure to check the bottom for the recycling icon.
- Small plastic pieces under three inches can get caught in the machines, so most recycling locations won’t accept them. Check your local recycling guidelines to make sure.
- Clamshell packaging, like the kind used for takeaway salads or batteries, aren’t always recyclable at curbside, so check your local recycling guidelines.
- Deodorant tubes are… complicated. They’re often made from multiple types of plastic, which makes it hard for them to get properly recycled. However, Terracycle and Tom’s of Maine offer drop-off locations or shipping options.
- Like your deodorant tubes, Scotch tape dispensers are tricky to recycle. Luckily, they also work with Terracycle to recycle tape dispensers and cores.
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 onhow to recycle metal, glass and everything else!