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10 Items That Usually Not Recyclable

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Author: Hai Le

Updated on August 10, 2023 • Estimated read time: 9 minutes

Recycling is a vital step in reducing plastic in our environment and creating a sustainable future. However, not all plastic is recyclable. According to National Geographic, small-size plastics (roughly 3 inches or smaller) are not recyclable. Items like plastic bags, straws, and coffee cups are also not recyclable and end up being treated as trash in most recycling facilities.

There is 2 type of plastics: Thermoset and Thermoplastics. Thermosets typically cannot be recycled because they harden as you heat them, meaning that no matter how much heat you apply, they cannot be remelted into new material. On the other hand, thermoplastics are recyclable plastics because they can be remelted and turned into new products.

Some items simply aren't recyclable, including varieties of paper, glass, and plastic. Check with your local recycling program to know specifics, but in this blog post, we'll explore 10 common items that generally are not recyclable, along with suggestions on how you can dispose of or reuse them.

Here Are 10 Items That Usually Not Recyclable: 

Multiple coffee cups on orange background - Ecopify

1. Coffee Cups 

A recent survey showed a whopping 64% of Americans enjoy a cup of coffee every day. And while a cup of coffee gives us a boost of energy, it also leaves an unimaginable amount of single-use cups in our landfills.

Many companies use polypropylene to make coffee cups because the film protects the liquid from seeping into the outside layer made of paper. And because they use two different materials to make the coffee cups, they cannot be recycled unless the materials are separated.

Coffee cups made the recycling process more difficult and expensive. And because of this, many waste management facilities will end up treating the coffee cups as trash.

Summary: Many companies made it seem like your coffee cup can be recycled, but it is not. Most single-use cups are coated with plastic to prevent any liquid from leaking through your hand. This thin layer makes the recycling process more difficult and expensive.

Close up hand holding straw and woman say no for plastic drinking straw - Ecopify

2. Plastic Straws

In the United States, people use around 500 million drinking straws a day (There is a reason why plastic straws are among the top 10 items found during beach clean-up). Although these straws are technically made from recyclable plastic, they are not accepted in curbside recycling programs.

The reason why plastic straws are not accepted in curbside recycling programs is because they are too lightweight to make it through the mechanical recycling sorter.

Also, there is a contamination concern when recycling straws. Since many straws come into contact with beverages, they often leave behind residue that can contaminate recycling streams. Even a small amount of liquid or food waste can render an entire batch of recyclables unusable.

Summary: Stop the misconception that plastic straws are recyclable. The small pieces often get caught or fall between the gears of the machinery, so they usually end up being treated as waste that belongs in the landfill.

A hand holding a black plastic bag - Ecopify

3. Plastic Bags

Many people who try to have a sustainable lifestyle might develop a habit of putting paper, junk mail, and plastic grocery bags in their recycling bin. The only problem with habit is that plastic grocery bags themselves are not recyclable and should not be put in the recycling bin.

Plastic bags are one of the most problematic items for recycling facilities. Their lightweight and flexible nature easily clogs machinery, disrupting the entire recycling process.

Consequently, many recycling centers refuse to accept plastic bags in their curbside programs. So, instead of putting them in your recycling bin, consider reusing them for your next grocery shopping to effectively reduce your plastic waste.

Summary: If you want to recycle your plastic bags, your best bet is to take them back to your local grocery store to be reused. Curbside recycling programs typically don't accept plastic grocery bags because they're difficult to sort out and often jam the machines at the recycling facilities.

Used battery recycling electronic waste - Ecopify

4. Batteries 

Batteries play an important role in our modern lives. However, they are not easily recyclable due to their complexity and hazardous. So, all batteries must be taken to a household hazardous waste disposal facility.

Note: Batteries contain toxic substances that, if improperly disposed, can harm the environment and pose health risks to humans and wildlife.

Batteries come in various types, each requiring specialized recycling methods. Recyclers collect batteries at collection points and not recycle bins. Therefore, you should not put batteries in your recycling bin. Also, it is not advisable to put batteries in recycling bins for safety reasons.

Summary: Single-use batteries can not be recycled in your curbside bin. Some option where batteries can be recycled is at your community e-waste facility, or you can keep an eye out for e-waste collection events.

Fashionable pink heart shaped clothes hangers - Ecopify

5. Clothes Hangers

Clothes hangers are typically made from a variety of materials, such as plastic, metal, and wood. This mix of materials makes it difficult for recycling facilities to separate and process them efficiently.

Also, clothes hangers often have odd shapes, which can get caught on recycling equipment. Therefore, many waste management facilities don't accept clothes hangers.

An eco-friendly alternative to minimize the environmental impact of clothes hangers is to reuse or donate them to local thrift stores or clothing donation centers. This way, others can benefit from their use, and fewer hangers end up in landfills.

Summary: Most recycling facilities won't accept clothes hangers because of their material complexity, and their curved ends can be problematic when sorting. I recommend you donate them to your local thrift store so others can benefit from their use.

Three plastic toy cars at red and blue background - Ecopify

6. Children's Toy

Most children's toys are difficult to recycle, especially if they're made up of tiny plastic parts that can't be easily separated. You'll unlikely to find any recycling programs nearby that accept them.

The main problem is identifying what type(s) of material the toys are made from. For example, electronic toys are made from a wide range of materials, including plastics, metals, electronics, and mixed components. This complex mix makes the recycling process more challenging, as separating these materials is not feasible in standard recycling facilities.

Additionally, some toys may contain hazardous substances like lead, phthalates, or batteries, making them unsuitable for recycling due to safety and environmental concerns.

Summary: Children's toys are made of a variety of materials, so the recycling process takes a lot of effort to separate them. (It is even worse to separate electronic toys). We recommend you donate those plastic toys to your local Goodwill.

Wrapping plastic stretch film on pink background - Ecopify

7. Plastic Wraps

Plastic wraps are now a popular option for packaging items and preserving food. However, it's nearly impossible to recycle them. You can find some local areas that offer plastic warp drop-offs, but please keep in mind that plastic wraps typically do not get recycled in curbside bins and can take hundreds of your to break down in the landfill.

Since only clean plastic is recyclable, if the plastic wrap is used for pre-packaged food, then the plastic wrap will be soiled, and it can contaminate the whole recycling process.

Also, plastic wraps are super thin and light, making them unsuitable for recycling. They tangle with other recyclables in machinery, causing issues in the recycling process.

Summary: Plastic wrap usually isn't accepted for recycling because the thin film is often tangled, clogged, and wrapped around the equipment, potentially damaging the machinery used in recycling centers.

Paper towel on a purple background - Ecopify

8. Paper Towels

Paper towels are not recyclable because they usually come in contact with food waste that can contaminate other recyclable materials during the recycling process. And should not be put in your recycling bin.

Again, any plastic that contains food waste or liquid can't be recycled unless they are thoroughly rinsed out. The oily residue left on the plastic makes them unrecyclable.

Unused paper towels also cannot be recycled because the fibers are too short to be made into new paper. You can reduce paper towel waste by grabbing a cloth towel to clean things around the house.

Summary: Paper towels are not accepted in curbside recycling programs because they probably have food or other residues on them that can contaminate other recyclable materials, and cannot be made into new paper.

Pizza pieces in a pizza box on wooden surface - Ecopify

9. Pizza Boxes Or Any Cardboard Food Container

While cardboard boxes are naturally recyclable, pizza boxes are an exception. The grease and food residue soaked in the cardboard contaminates the entire recycling process.

Pizza boxes or any food container made out of cardboard is recyclable. However, when food waste seeps into the cardboard, the fibers become inseparable from the oil, making recycling challenging.

In order for your materials to be recycled, they must be in decent quality. We recommend tearing off any clean cardboard portions for recycling and composting the soiled parts.

Summary: Pizza boxes can be recycled, but only if they are clean. If any cardboard boxes are contaminated with food waste, they are not recyclable, and curbside recycling programs won't accept them.

Close up view of a thumb pointing down at a plastic toothbrush

10. Plastic Toothbrush

Plastic toothbrushes are a crucial part of our daily dental care routine, but their environmental impact is often overlooked. Surprisingly, they are not recyclable due to the complex mix of materials used in their production, making recycling a challenging process.

Their combination of nylon bristles and polypropylene handles requires specialized recycling facilities. Also, because plastic toothbrushes come in contact with our mouths, they cannot be recycled. Their exposure to saliva, toothpaste, and bacteria makes them non-recyclable.

Consider switching to an eco-friendly alternative toothbrushes made from bamboo. They have biodegradable handles and recyclable bristles to help reduce your environmental impact.

Summary: The combination of nylon bristles and polypropylene handles in plastic toothbrushes makes recycling almost impossible. Moreover, their contact with saliva, toothpaste, and bacteria while brushing makes them non-recyclable due to hygiene and contamination concerns.

Quick Takeaway 

Proper waste disposal is as critical as recycling in our efforts to protect the environment. Knowing which items are not recyclable helps us make informed decisions about their disposal.

As always, check with your local recycling program to make sure what items can be placed in your curbside recycling bin. Curbside recycling programs vary from city to city. This blog is intended to be a general guide only.

Here Are 10 Items That Are Usually Not Recyclable:

  1. Coffee Cups
  2. Plastic Straws
  3. Plastic Bags
  4. Batteries
  5. Clothes Hangers
  6. Children's Toys
  7. Plastic Wraps
  8. Paper Towels 
  9. Pizza Boxes
  10. Plastic Toothbrush

Again, for the most accurate information, please check with your local recycling program, and if you have any questionable items that need to be recycled, use this search to find a local recycler.

Frequently Asked Questions Relate To This Blog:

Question #1: What are the reason an item may not be recycled?

Answer: Here are some of the reasons why an item may not be recycled: It is made from a material that is not recyclable, it is contaminated with food, and it is too small to be recycled.

Question #2: What can I do with items that not recyclable?

Answer: You can dispose, compost or find a way to reuse them if they are not recyclable. Doing these 3 actions will reduce waste and help the environment.

Question #3: How can I reduce my use of these items?

Answer: You can swap out for eco-friendly alternative or try to reuse them to reduce plastic waste and save money.

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