You Probably Didn't Know You Could Recycle These Things—But Here's How to Do It
Recycling may not be a cure-all to pollution and landfill issues—following a zero waste lifestyle to limit use of landfill-clogging items may be the more environmentally friendly route—but for recyclable items already out there, recycling is the best way to do whatever possible to keep those items from damaging natural resources. Maintaining a recycling system, learning how to recycle difficult items, and becoming familiar with recycling symbols can do a lot to help the planet, as can figuring out how to recycle everything possible (even those things you didn’t know you could recycle).
This A to Z guide explains how to recycle batteries, light bulbs, and more items. Some basics, like paper, can typically just go in the recycling bin, while others may require a little extra recycling effort. If it can be recycled (or otherwise gotten rid of using a zero waste disposal method), you can learn how to do it here.
Aerosol cans: These can usually be recycled with other cans, as long as you pull off the plastic cap and empty the canister completely.
Antiperspirant and deodorant sticks: Many brands have a dial on the bottom that is made of a plastic polymer that’s different from the plastic used for the container, so your center might not be able to recycle the whole thing (look on the bottom to find out). Tom’s of Maine makes a deodorant stick composed solely of plastic No. 5.
Backpacks: The American Birding Association’s Birders’ Exchange accepts donated backpacks, which its scientists use while tracking neotropical birds.
Batteries: Recycling batteries keeps hazardous metals out of landfills. Many stores, like RadioShack and Office Depot, accept reusable ones. Car batteries contain lead and can’t go in landfills, because toxic metals can leach into groundwater, but almost any retailer selling them will also collect and recycle them.
Beach balls: They may be made of plastic, but there aren’t enough beach balls being thrown away to make them a profitable item to recycle. If a beach ball is still usable, donate it to a thrift store or a children’s hospital.
Books: “Hard covers are too rigid to recycle, so we ask people to remove them and recycle just the pages,” says Sarah Kite, recycling manager of the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation, in Johnston. In many areas, paperbacks can be tossed in with other paper.
Carpeting (nylon fiber): Go to the Carpet America Recovery Effort to find a carpet-reclamation facility near you, or check with your carpet’s manufacturer. Some carpet makers, like Milliken, Shaw, and Flor, have recycling programs.
Cars, Jet Skis, boats, trailers, RVs, and motorcycles: Even if these are unusable―totaled, rusted―they still have metal and other components that can be recycled. Call junkyards in your area, or go to Junk my Car, which will pick up and remove cars, trailers, motorcycles, and other heavy equipment for free.
Cell phones: According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, fewer than 20 percent of cell phones are recycled each year, and most people don’t know where to recycle them. Many cell phone companies and office supply stores offer phone recycling services; research one near you to find out if they can accept your phone.
Compact fluorescent lightbulbs: CFLs contain mercury and shouldn’t be thrown in the trash. IKEA and the Home Depot operate CFL recycling programs; you can also check with your local hardware store or recycling center to see if it offers recycling services.
Computers: You can return used computers to their manufacturers for recycling (check the EPA’s site for a list of vendors) or donate them to a charitable organization (like the National Cristina Foundation). NextStep Recycling repairs your broken computers and gives them to underfunded schools, needy families, and nonprofits.
Crayons: Send them to The National Crayon Recycling Program, which melts down crayons and reforms them into new ones. Leave the wrappers on: “When you have black, blue, and purple crayons together without wrappers, it’s hard to tell them apart,” says the program’s founder, LuAnn Foty, a.k.a. the Crazy Crayon Lady.
Crocs: The manufacturer partners with Soles2Souls to donate lightly used crocs to underprivileged families.
DVDs, CDs, and jewel cases: Check the CD Recycling Center of America for local centers or stores that can recycle these items.
Empty metal cans (cleaning products): Cut off the metal ends of cans containing powdered cleansers, such as Ajax and Bon Ami, and put them in with other household metals. (Use care when cutting them.) Recycle the tubes as you would any other cardboard.
Empty metal cans (food products): Many towns recycle food cans. Rinse out cans, but don’t worry about removing the labels. “Leaving them on doesn’t do any harm,” says Marti Matsch, the communications director of Eco-Cycle, one of the nation’s oldest and largest recyclers, in Boulder, Colorado. “When the metal is melted,” she says, “the paper burns up. If you want to recycle the label with other paper, that’s great, but it’s not necessary.”
Eyeglasses: Plastic frames can’t be recycled, but metal ones can. Just drop them into the scrap-metal bin. However, given the millions of people who need glasses but can’t afford them, your frames, broken or not, will go to better use if you donate them to New Eyes (sunglasses and plastic frames in good condition can also be donated).
Fake plastic credit cards: They’re not recyclable, so you can’t just toss them along with their paper junk-mail solicitations. Remove them first and throw them in the trash.
Fire extinguishers: There are two types of extinguishers. For a dry-chemical extinguisher, safely relieve the remaining pressure, remove the head from the container, and place it with your bulk-metal items (check with your local recycler first). Alternatively, call fire-equipment companies and request that they dispose of your extinguisher. Carbon dioxide extinguishers are refillable after each use.
Food processors. Some communities accept small household appliances for recycling―if not in curbside collection, then in drop-off locations. (New York City will even pick up appliances left on the sidewalk.) “If an appliance is more than 50 percent metal, it is recyclable,” says Kathy Dawkins, director of public information for New York City’s Department of Sanitation. Most appliances are about 75 percent steel, according to the Steel Recycling Institute. So unless you know something is mostly plastic, it will probably qualify.
Formal wear: Finally, a use for that mauve prom or bridesmaid dress: Give it to a girl who can’t afford one through Cinderella’s Closet.
Glue strips and inserts in magazines: Lotion samples and nonpaper promotional items affixed to glue strips in magazines should be removed because they can jam up recycling equipment (scented perfume strips, on the other hand, are fine). “One of the biggest challenges we get is pages of promotional stickers and stamps,” says Matsch, “which can adhere to the machinery and tear yards of new paper fiber.”
Hangers (plastic): These are not widely accepted at recycling centers, because there aren’t enough of them coming through to make it worthwhile. However, some cities, such as Los Angeles, are equipped to recycle them. You might consider donating them to a thrift store.
Hangers (wire): Some dry cleaners and Laundromats will reuse them. Otherwise, they can be recycled with other household metals, but be sure to remove any attached paper or cardboard first.
Holiday cards: After they’ve lined your mantel for two months, you could throw them into the recycling bin, or you could give them a whole new life. St. Jude’s Ranch for Children, a nonprofit home for abused and neglected youths, runs a holiday-card recycling program. Note that they cannot accept cards from Hallmark, American Greetings, or Disney.
iPods, iPhones, and other Apple devices: Eligible devices can be traded in for in-store credit to put toward a new Apple device or an Apple gift card to be used at any time. If the device isn't eligible for credit, Apple will recycle it for free.
Jam jars: Wherever there is container-glass recycling (meaning glass jars and bottles), jam jars are eligible. It helps if you remove any remaining jam, but no need to get obsessive―they don’t have to be squeaky clean. Before putting them in the bin, remove their metal lids and recycle those with other metals.
Keys and nail clippers: For many recycling centers, any metal that isn’t a can is considered scrap metal and can be recycled. “There’s not a whole lot of scrap metal we wouldn’t take,” says Kite. “It’s a huge market now.”
Leather accessories: If your leather goods are more than gently worn, take them to be fixed. If they’re beyond repair, they have to be thrown in the trash―there’s no recycling option. (A product labeled “recycled leather” is often made from scraps left over from the manufacturing process, which is technically considered recycling.) Donate shoes in decent condition to Soles4Souls, a nonprofit that collects used footwear and distributes it to needy communities.
Makeup: Makeup can expire and is none too pretty for the earth when you throw it in the trash (chemicals abound in most makeup). Some manufacturers are making progress on this front; check with the company behind your go-to products to see what recycling or trade-in options they offer.
Mattresses and box springs: Mattresses are made of recyclable materials, such as wire, paper, and cloth, but not all cities accept them for recycling. (Go to Earth911 to find out if yours does.)
Metal flatware: If it’s time to retire your old forks, knives, and spoons, you can usually recycle them with other scrap metal.
Milk cartons with plastic spouts and caps: Take off and throw away the cap (don’t worry about the spout―it will be filtered out during the recycling process). As for the carton, check your local recycling rules to see whether you should toss it with plastics and metals or with paper.
Mirrors: These aren’t recyclable through most municipal recyclers, because the chemicals on the glass can’t be mixed with glass bottles and jars. You can donate them to secondhand stores, of course. Or if the mirror is broken, put it in a paper bag for the safety of your trash collectors. To find out what your municipality recycles, visit Recycling Centers.
Nikes and other sneakers: Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe program accepts old sneakers and athletic shoes (of any brand) and recycles them. You can drop them off at most Nike stores (just call first to confirm). If your sneakers are still in reasonable shape, donate them to needy athletes in the United States and around the world through One World Running. Mail them to: One World Running, c/o Boulder Storage, 6439 Arapahoe Rd. Boulder, CO 80303
Notebooks (spiral): It may seem weird to toss a metal-bound notebook into the paper recycling, but worry not―the machinery will pull out smaller nonpaper items. One caveat: If the cover is plastic, rip that off, says Matsch. “It’s a larger contaminant.”
- Envelopes with plastic windows: Recycle them with regular office paper. The filters will sieve out the plastic, and they’ll even take out the glue strip on the envelope flaps.
- FedEx: Paper FedEx envelopes can be recycled, and there’s no need to pull off the plastic sleeve.
- Goldenrod: Those ubiquitous mustard-colored envelopes are not recyclable, because goldenrod paper (as well as dark or fluorescent paper) is saturated with hard-to-remove dyes. “It’s what we call ‘designing for the dump,’ not the environment,” says Matsch.
- Jiffy Paks: Many Jiffy envelopes―even the paper-padded ones filled with that material resembling dryer lint―are recyclable with other mixed papers, like cereal boxes. The exception: Goldenrod-colored envelopes must be tossed.
- Padded envelopes with Bubble Wrap: These can’t be recycled. The best thing you can do is reuse them.
Packing materials: Styrofoam peanuts cannot be recycled in most areas, but many packaging stores (like UPS) accept them. Some towns recycle Styrofoam packing blocks; if yours doesn’t, visit epspackaging.org to find a drop-off location.
Paint: Some cities have paint-recycling programs, in which your old paint is taken to a company that turns it into new paint. Go to Earth911 to see if a program exists in your area.
Pendaflex folders: Place these filing-cabinet workhorses in the paper bin, but first cut off the metal rods and recycle them as scrap metal.
Pizza boxes: If cheese and grease are stuck to the box, rip out the affected areas and recycle the rest as corrugated cardboard. Food residue can ruin a whole batch of paper if it is left to sit in the recycling facility and begins to decompose.
Plastic bottle caps: Some recycling centers accept them with other plastics. Contact yours to find out if caps can stay on the bottle, if they need to be recycled separately, or if they can be tossed.
Plastic wrap (used): Most communities don’t accept this for recycling because the cost of decontaminating it isn’t worth the effort.
Post-its: The sticky stuff gets filtered out, so these office standbys can usually be recycled with paper.
Printer-ink cartridges: Seventy percent are thrown into landfills, where it will take 450 years for them to decompose. “Cartridges are like gas tanks,” says Jim Cannan, cartridge-collection manager at Recycleplace.com. “They don’t break. They just run out of ink. Making new ones is like changing motors every time you run out of gas.” Take them to your local office supply store, which likely accepts empty or used ones for recycling or reuse.
Quiche pans and other cookware: These can be put with scrap metal, and “a plastic handle isn’t a problem,” says Tom Outerbridge, manager of municipal recycling at Sims Metal Management, in New York City.
Recreational equipment: Don’t send tennis rackets to your local recycling center. “People may think we’re going to give them to Goodwill,” says Sadonna Cody, director of government affairs for the Northbay Corporation and Redwood Empire Disposal, in Santa Rosa, California, “but they’ll just be trashed.” Trade sports gear in at Play It Again Sports.
Rugs (cotton or wool): If your town’s recycling center accepts rugs, great. If not, you’re out of luck, because you can’t ship rugs directly to a fabric recycler; they need to be sent in bulk. Your best bet is to donate them to the thrift store of a charity, like the Salvation Army.
Shopping bags (paper): Even those with metal grommets and ribbon handles can usually be recycled with other paper.
Shopping bags (plastic): If your town doesn’t recycle plastic, you may be able to drop them off at your local grocery store. Safeway, for example, accepts grocery and dry-cleaning bags.
Shower curtains and liners: Most facilities do not recycle these because they’re made of PVC. (If PVC gets in with other plastics, it can compromise the chemical makeup of the recycled material.)
Smoke detectors: Some towns accept those that have beeped their last beep. If yours doesn’t, try the manufacturer.
Soap dispensers (pump): Most plastic ones are recyclable; toss them in with the other plastics.
Stereos, VCRs, TVs, and other electronics: Visit Earth911 for a list of recyclers, retail stores, and manufacturers near you that accept electronics.
Takeout-food containers: Most are not recyclable. Paper ones (like Chinese-food containers) aren’t accepted because remnants can contaminate the paper bale at the mill. Plastic versions (like those at the salad bar) are a no-go too.
Tinfoil: It’s aluminum, not tin. So rinse it off, wad it up, and toss it in with the beer and soda cans.
Tires: You can often leave old tires with the dealer when you buy new ones (just check that they’ll be recycled). Worn-out tires can be reused as highway paving, doormats, hoses, shoe soles, and more.
Tissue boxes with plastic dispensers: The plastic portion will be filtered out during the recycling process, so you can usually recycle tissue boxes with cardboard.
Toothbrushes: They’re not recyclable; toss them, and consider electric alternatives with replaceable heads, so the brush will last longer.
Toothpaste tubes: Even with all that sticky paste inside, you can recycle aluminum tubes (put them with the aluminum cans), but not plastic ones.
Umbrellas: If it’s a broken metal one, drop the metal skeleton in with scrap metal (remove the fabric and the handle first). Plastic ones aren’t accepted.
Used clothing: Some towns recycle clothing into seat stuffing, upholstery, or insulation. Also consider donating clothing to animal boarders and shelters, where it can be turned into pet bedding.
Utensils (plastic): Local recycling programs will determine if plastic utensils are recyclable. Contact yours to see if you can toss them in the recycling bin; if not, they’ll have to be tossed.
Wine corks: Put standard corks in a compost bin. “They’re natural,” says Matsch, “so they’re biodegradable.” Plastic corks can’t be composted or recycled.
Wipes and sponges: These can’t be recycled, but sea sponges and natural sponges made from vegetable cellulose are biodegradable and can be tossed into a compost heap.
Writing implements: You can’t recycle pens, pencils, and markers, but you can donate usable ones to schools that are short on these supplies.
Yogurt cups: Many towns don’t recycle these because they’re made of a plastic that can’t be processed with other plastics. Check with yours to see if yogurt cups are accepted.
Zippered plastic bags: Venues that recycle plastic bags will also accept these items, as long as they are clean, dry, and the zip part has been snipped off (it’s a different type of plastic).