Recycling is complicated – it is an imperfect solution to a global problem.
I feel obligated to reduce my consumption of single-use plastic and to recycle as much as possible. However, food and beverage companies don’t make that easy. They produce products which are single-use (hence more wasteful) and often choose virgin plastic rather than recycled plastic or compostable materials because it’s cheaper. This erodes the value of recycled materials and leads to ‘recyclable items’ going to landfills because economics preclude their reuse.
People recognise the amount of waste they’re surrounded by and feel so guilty, they resort to “wishful recycling” or pursue “zero waste” lifestyles. Recycling could be a wonderful solution, however, it has been mismanaged due to a lack of financial incentives from food and beverage companies. In 2018, China stopped importing plastic and paper recyclables and many SE Asian countries are following suit. There are municipalities in the US, which are forced to dump containers full of recyclables into the landfill for want of a customer.
Despite knowing this, I don’t feel comfortable sending all my waste to a landfill and I’ve continued to recycle, reuse and compost. As I’ve become more interested in the waste we create, I’ve realised how complicated recycling is in the US. Just in Santa Monica, different types of plastic are accepted in one part of the city to the other because different suppliers collect the recycling. I’ve also learned that a number of things I assumed could be recycled (paper, plastic or metal-based) can’t be.
Today, I’m sharing some of those sneaky items, which seem like they would be recyclable but aren’t due to a lack of supply and demand. Putting non-recyclables in the recycling bin muddles the quality of the ‘proper’ recyclable items by contaminating them and further depletes their value.
Technically receipts are recyclable as they’re made from paper. However, the paper used for most receipts is ‘thermal paper’ covered in BPA (Bisphenol A) so that when heat is applied, the information on the paper is revealed and ‘printed’. If the receipts were recycled, they would release BPA and contaminate the other paper to be recycled. Because of this, receipts are generally not accepted in blue bins. If you can, go digital!
2. Drinking glasses
Not all glass is made equally. The glass windows are made from is different from the glass used for packaging (windows are much stronger). Similarly, the glassware we drink from is a different quality to glass bottles. Coke bottles have a different melting point because they’re made to withstand different temperatures. Our current recycling systems can’t handle glassware or windows.
3. Shredded paper, paper towels, paper plates, tissues, napkins, cotton face pads, and paper straws
Shredded paper, paper towels, paper plates, tissues, napkins, cotton face pads, and paper straws are all paper-based products. None of these can be recycled for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the majority of them will have come into contact with food wastes, grease, and possibly bodily fluids. They can’t be “cleaned” during the recycling process and shouldn’t be bundled with ”clean” paper waste like magazines and copy paper. Even unused napkins, cotton face pads, and plates can’t be recycled because they’ve probably already been recycled, and their fibers are too short to go through the process again. If you have a home compost system, you could chuck these in there.
4. Aerosol cans
Whether they contain non-hazardous liquid-like whipped cream or hazardous liquid like spray paint, aerosol cans generally shouldn’t be recycled. This is mainly due to the pressurized air inside of the cans.
However, some cities may have the capability to recycle completely empty cans, so check with your local program. Chances are, your community will either allow aerosol cans to be recycled with other metal cans, or they’ll require them to go into a separate disposal for household hazardous waste. See, I told you this was confusing!
Styrofoam is one of the most commonly-known non-recyclable materials. It’s made of polystyrene, a material that isn’t biodegradable. There may be some facilities near you that accept it, but again, this varies by area. The types of plastic that we can recycle vary across different parts of Santa Monica.
6. Bubble wrap & Hangers
Although many plastics can be recycled, the plastic bubble wrap is made from can’t be recycled. The thin film can tangle in recycling machines. Technically, pure metal hangers could be recycled but it’s recommended not to put them in your recycling bin. New York City accepts them but the curved ends are problematic because they often tangle the recycling. Plastic hangers aren’t always pure plastic, so neither are they recycled. Your local thrift store might have a use for them though!
7. Coffee cups
To-go coffee cups can’t be recycled because they’re deemed mixed media. Have you noticed how, although the cup looks like cardboard, the cup doesn’t break or leak? That’s because the cup is made like a sandwich. The inner layer is cardboard; this is followed by a plastic layer which is then covered in cardboard. Recycling facilities can’t take these materials apart. If you have a disposable cup and you’re standing at the recycling bin, the corrugated heat protection sleeve can be recycled and the plastic lid usually can too.
8. Small bits of metal, like the pull ring on a soda can
Really small pieces of metal, like a soda can ring pull or a piece of clean tin foil, are technically recyclable. However, their so small, recycling machinery finds it difficult to detect them. Their size can also cause a clog in the recycling machinery. Clean tin foil can be recycled in some places, but it has to be squished into a tight (relatively large) ball so it can’t slip down any machinery cracks.
9. Post-it notes
Post-it notes can’t be recycled because of the glue that makes the “post-it” part of the note. This is another one of those mixed media monsters. If you really want to recycle your post notes, I’d suggest tearing the sticking part off.
Other mixed media items
Toothpaste tubes (plastic and metal), crisp packets (foil and plastic), wrapping paper (paper and foil or plastic) and Pringle pots (foil and paper). You get the idea. A lot of food packagings like candy wrappers, granola bar packets, and chocolate bars are not recyclable because of the multi-layer flexible packaging used. Most of these items can be sent to Terracycle but that process requires a dedicated blog post.
Most recycling facilities vary by country, state, and city. However, I believe all the items I’ve listed can’t be recycled in the UK or the US. If I find any other ubiquitous additions I’ll update this post. If you know of any items I’ve missed out or hear of a positive change in the recycling world, please let me know!
Will it always be this complicated?
Hopefully not. Eventually, companies will (a) switch to compostable or recyclable containers or (b) develop technologies that enable them to recycle and reuse some of the items I mention in this post.