35+ items that cannot be recycled (right now)

by Agatha Green

So, you’re standing in front of the rubbish bins.

You’re holding a pain-killer blister pack in one hand and a dried nail polish bottle in the other.

What do you do?

Explore 35+ items that cannot be recycled (right now) to check your answer.

Why is it important to know what items can and cannot be recycled?

The general rule says “if you’re in doubt, leave it out”.

It’s better to place an item into your general waste bin rather than risking contamination of the whole recycling lot.

We know that recycling is important. And we want to help protect our environment for the generations to come. But do we actually know that many items cannot be recycled? It’s true even for those products that consist of reusable materials.

A large number of misconceptions about recycling exist. They prompt us to feed processing plants with tonnes of landfill waste. Because we are eager to join the growing number of people who act to protect natural resources, we may forget we can lack some basic information. Unfortunately, a lot of rubbish will not become reusable material again.

Find out practical ways to quickly reduce waste in your home.

Do’s and don’ts of recycling

Do you know how to prepare your waste for recycling collection? These tips will help you avoid common mistakes.

  1. It takes only one non-recyclable item to contaminate the whole lot and send it to the landfill.
  2. “If you’re in doubt, leave it out” or check with the local waste disposal authorities.
  3. Local instructions may vary.
  4. Empty containers before placing them in the recycle bin.
  5. Do not place recyclable materials in plastic bags. This can disqualify the whole lot. Instead, place them loosely in the container.

Where can I find reliable information?

There are lots of things that seem suitable for recycling at first glance. Unfortunately, the way we use them or material composition disqualifies them. The rules and guidelines can vary from country to country or even from council to council. So, I recommend checking with your local waste management authorities if you’re in doubt.

Valuable resources

A good practice is to check details with residents when you’re on holiday or visiting a new place. Valuable resources are also available online.

35+ items that cannot be recycled (right now)

1. Pizza boxes

Many people think that empty pizza boxes belong in cardboard recycling containers. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Soiled pizza boxes can contaminate the whole lot and make it unsuitable for processing.

Pizza boxes consist of cardboard, that in itself, is a recyclable material. But when grease and food particles stick to the paper fibers, they become unsuitable for recycling.

It could be a good idea to tear off the greasy parts of the box, and throw them into the general waste bin, and put the clean parts in the recycling container.

2. Takeaway food containers made of cardboard

Cardboard takeaway containers cannot be recycled for the same reasons as pizza boxes. When grease and food particles stick to the paper fibers, the recycling plant won’t be able to separate them.

Have you tried bringing your own reusable containers when getting takeaway food? It sounds like a good idea, but might not be possible right now due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. Takeaway food containers made of plastic

Plastic food containers cannot be recycled unless they are clean. Any oil residue or food particles disqualify them.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. There are lots of different types of plastic, and only some of them are suitable for recycling. It depends on the local facility capabilities as well as rules and regulations. So the best way is to check with your local resources first.

4. Styrofoam of any kind

Styrofoam or expanded polystyrene of any kind is not suitable for recycling. It’s also not biodegradable. We should limit its use as much as possible or avoid it completely.

Here are examples of the most popular styrofoam items that cannot be recycled.

  • Disposable coffee cups
  • Disposable food containers
  • Packaging cushioning and inserts

Some local councils and country governments have already banned single-use products made of expanded polystyrene materials.

5. Plastic bags

Plastic bags, wraps, and plastic films are hard to recycle. And we recycle only around 91% of plastic waste globally. So, if you chose to use them, check with local authorities on how to dispose of them. Some grocery stores may offer plastic bag collection schemes and more information about their disposal.

Have you considered switching to reusable shopping bags?

6. Take away coffee cups

Hot beverage paper cups cause constant confusion. That’s because not everyone realizes they also contain other materials than paper. A special wax coating or plastic inserts keep the content inside and make them leakproof. That makes takeaway cups non-recyclable.

Consider making your own hot drinks. Also, try bringing a reusable stainless steel travel mug to your local cafeteria. Some of them offer discounts! Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the safest option seems to be preparing your own hot drinks at home.

7. Drinking straws

Most recycling facilities do not accept drinking straws, both plastic, and paper. We contaminate them with food and drinking products.

Try using stainless steel straws instead. They are reusable and recyclable at designated metal recycling plants.

8. Kitchen roll and paper towels

The cardboard inner tube of the kitchen roll is easy to recycle. Unfortunately, the kitchen roll sheets and paper towels can’t get recycled. Dirt, debris, and other substances they absorb disqualify them from the process.

Many kitchen rolls and paper towels consist now of biodegradable material that is are suitable for composting.

Instead of single-use paper towels, you can use reusable and washable fabric kitchen tea towels.

9. Tissues and napkins

Tissue paper often consists of already recycled paper. That makes its fibers too short and not suitable for another recycling round. Various substances and debris the tissues absorb disqualifies them from the process.

If they do not contain any plastic compounds, tissues can be suitable for composting.

Consider using fabric napkins, for example, cotton or linen.

10. Tissue boxes with plastic insert

Paper tissue boxes usually contain a plastic insert. The insert helps to dispense tissues. You need to separate the two for the cardboard box to become recyclable. The insert should go to the general waste bin.

11. Chips (crisp) packets

There is a misconception about potato chips (crisps) packaging. People consider it recyclable because it has a similar appearance to aluminum foil. Unfortunately, it consists of aluminum laminated with polypropylene, which is currently non-recyclable. This material is also known as metalized polypropylene or low-density polyethylene film.

You can test your package to see where it should go to. If you crumple it, and it stays that way, it passes the test. And if it unfolds – it fails. Crumpled tin foil retains the new shape, while the aluminum and plastic mix doesn’t. So, if your packaging failed the test, you should put it into general waste.

12. Pet, baby food, and drink pouches

Most plastic food and pouches are not suitable for recycling. The same rule applies to drink packets. Like crisp (chips) packaging, pouches consist of many components, including aluminum laminated with plastic.

13. Medical bottles

Plastic or glass medication bottles can have more than one plastic or glass type component. Usually, they have a mix. That determines its reprocessing capabilities. Also, there’s often a medicine residue left in them.

Check with your local recycling facilities for information about safe medical packaging disposal. Unfortunately, many of them do not accept medical bottles.

Do not throw medical bottles into the bin if there is any medication left in them! Chemicals can be toxic to the environment. So, the safest way to dispose of them is to deliver them to the nearest pharmacy.

14. Medical blisters packs

The cardboard box housing a blister is recyclable. The empty blister packs are usually not. This is due to contamination and material composition. The blister can be a mix of, for example, plastic and aluminum or plastic and paper.

In most places, empty blister packs belong to general waste. Some councils organize a separate collection for this type of item. To make sure you’re doing the right thing, check with your local recycling authorities.

Do not throw blister packs into the bin if there any pills left in them! Chemicals can be toxic to the environment. So, the safest way to dispose of them is to deliver them to the nearest pharmacy.

15. Hand soap pumps

Empty and rinsed hand soap bottles together with the body moisturizer bottles, are recyclable. But dispenser tops are not. Pumps usually consist of various plastic types, and sometimes contain a metal spring. That makes them non-recyclable.

16. Shampoo bottles and food containers that have not been rinsed

Rinse empty shampoo bottles and food containers before recycling. Otherwise, the product residue or food debris will disqualify them from the process.

17. Nail varnish (polish) bottles

The glass bottle could get recycled, but the content is hazardous to the environment. That makes the whole lot unsuitable for reprocessing. Many councils ask to dispose of the nail varnish in the hazardous waste container or specific collection point.

18. Plastic toothbrush

A plastic toothbrush goes to general waste. Some councils and recycling centers have a special process for such items. Check with your local authorities for more information.

The replaceable head of the electric toothbrush is not suitable for recycling either. Besides contamination, it has components produced from various materials, like plastic or metal.

19. Toothpaste tube

A toothpaste tube, like a toothbrush, contains various plastic materials joined together. It also has the product residue. This makes it very difficult to recycle and usually not possible through the standard home waste collection scheme. Check with your local authorities for a special recycling program for such items.

20. Pots and pans

Most pots and pans consist of metal, which in itself, is recyclable. Unfortunately, most facilities will not accept it because of other components. These components are various types of metal, coating, and finish.

Luckily, there are a few ways to dispose of these items. If your old pots and pans are in good condition, try to give them away or donate. If broken, contact the local recycling facility and ask for the nearest plant accepting such items. Otherwise, put them into your general waste bin.

21. Cutlery

Single-use plastic and wooden cutlery go to general waste. It’s because of the material, food contamination, and debris. Wooden cutlery, though, is often suitable for composting.

Metal cutlery, which is usually made of stainless steel, or other metals, cannot go to the home recycling container. But it should get accepted if delivered separately to the recycling center.

22. Glass cookware

Typical glass ovenware can withstand high temperatures. A specific treatment during the manufacturing process makes it durable, temperature-proof, and non-recyclable.

Place broken or chipped glass kitchenware in your general waste bin. If your ovenware is still usable, but you don’t need it anymore – give it away or donate.

23. Ceramics

Ceramic items are not generally recyclable. And the reason for it is the lack of specialized facilities. Used coffee mugs, plates, bowls, or figurines could weaken the batch of a reprocessed end product. Some facilities which accept brick and concrete may sometimes accept ceramics. Contact your local authorities for more information.

If your unwanted ceramic items are still in a good shape and form, you can give them away or donate. You can also find ways of repurposing them, for example, a mug into a flower pot. Otherwise, place broken ceramic into the general waste bin.

24. Wine glasses

Drinking glasses, including wine glasses, are recyclable. But they do not qualify for the standard glass recycling scheme. They contain chemicals that can contaminate other types of glass during the process. So, we shouldn’t place them in the standard glass bin.

We can either place broken drinking glasses in the general waste bin or contact local authorities for information.

25. Window glass

Window glass is different from standard food packaging, like jars, and bottles. It’s chemical composition and melting point differs. Also, there are many various types of window glass. These can be, for example, tinted, safety, or tempered glass. Besides, it is usually attached to a wooden plastic or metal frame. So, all these factors make it difficult and expensive to reprocess. Some facilities can make use of it. Unfortunately, our standard recycling scheme won’t accept window glass.

26. Mirrors

I’ve heard that broken mirrors bring seven years of bad luck. While this is only a funny old saying, the sad reality is that we cannot recycle them. The reflective coating on the back of the special type of glass makes it almost impossible to reprocess. That said, dispose of it with care and safety in mind.

27. Old-style (incandescent) light bulbs

Old-style light bulbs also known as incandescent, can’t be recycled. They contain metal parts and different kinds of glass with higher than usual melting temperature. That is the reason why they have to go to general waste and cannot mix with bottles and jars. Throwing them into the metal or glass container could ruin the whole lot.

28. Plastic toys

We cannot recycle plastic toys, games, and many of the sport’s articles like ping pong balls. If they’re broken, they have to go to general waste. If they are still in good shape and condition, we can give them away or donate.

29. Plastic bulk items

What are the large and bulky plastic items that cannot be recycled? Here are a few examples.

  • Furniture
  • Playground sets
  • Laundry baskets
  • Watering cans
  • Buckets

There are some facilities which specialize in repurposing such items. Also, some councils organize special collection days for large items of a certain type. Ask your local authorities for more information.

Remember not to break bulky plastic items into smaller pieces as that may cause problems later during the process.

30. Photo paper

Photographic paper is not recyclable. Even though there’s a paper in the naming. It has a thin layer of chemical coating, which protects it from absorbing water, and at the same time disqualifies from the recycling process.

31. Gift wrapping paper

Wrapping paper causes a lot of confusion. We tend to associate any type of paper with paper and cardboard that is recyclable. So, if the wrapping paper is shiny, contains any plastic, foil, glitter or other elements – its not recyclable. The same rule applies to paper gift bags and boxes.

Only the more traditional packing paper can get reprocessed.

Remember to remove any sticky tape from it!

32. Bubble wrap

Many recycling facilities do not accept the bubble wrap. And it’s definitely not suitable for your plastic recycling container.

What to do with it then?

Some recycling centers take it in a separate collection scheme. Also, some shops accept it through their plastic bag and wrapping collection scheme. Research your local authorities, shops, and pharmacies for more information.

33. Sticky tape of any kind

The sticky tape of any kind is not recyclable.

Put it into your general waste container. What’s more important – the majority of facilities do not accept anything with the sticky tape on it. This type of plastic is unsuitable for reprocessing. It may also contaminate and disqualify other materials from the process.

It’s very important to remove the sticky tape from paper and cardboard before placing them in containers.

34. Receipts from shops, restaurants and gas stations

Thermal paper is one of the main ingredients of receipts and shopping bills. It contains toxic BPA (bisphenol A). The BPA is a chemical added to many products, including food packaging. Exposure to BPA has possible health effects.

How do I know if the receipt contains BPA? If the receipt is smooth and shiny it is most likely a thermal paper with BPA and it’s not suitable for recycling.

Try asking for an electronic version of the receipt instead.

35. Wood

Wood is not recyclable, but it’s suitable for composting. Ask your local authorities for a special wood collection program. They might accept certain types and sizes of wood.

Here are some examples of items that usually go to the general waste bin. Unless of course they qualify for the special collection.

  • Plates and bowls
  • Crates and boxes
  • Grill or barbecue sticks
  • Toothpicks
  • Ice pop sticks
  • Protective pieces of packaging
  • Bamboo cutlery

If you’re in doubt, leave it out

So, you’re standing in front of the rubbish bins.

You’re holding a pain-killer blister pack in one hand and a dried nail polish bottle in the other.

What do you do?

Throwing both items into the general waste bin.

Well done! These are the items that cannot be recycled (right now).

Do you ever get confused with items that cannot be recycled? Share your thoughts in the comment below.

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