Recycling is much easier than it seems. For the most part, almost anything with a ♻️ symbol on it can be recycled. However, not all of it can be thrown directly into a recycling bin. Some items require that you take an extra step like washing out a container or driving to a recycling center.
In an earlier article, we discuss the 7 most common recycling mistakes, complete with the detriments of wishful recycling—the honest mistake of throwing a non-recyclable item into the recycling bin and how it can ruin your good recycling efforts. But with this article, we’ll teach you how to recycle 8 of the most common household items:
We must note that every city’s recycling rules are different. We’re sharing general knowledge about what you can recycle and the most acceptable way to dispose of it. To find out specifically what you can go in your recycling tub, talk to your city sanitation department. Most have this information easily available on their website.
Let’s start with the big one: plastics. Most often, you’re going to be recycling single-use plastics. Examples include:
- Plastic cutlery
- Plastic cups
- Water bottles
- Takeout containers
- Plastic grocery sacks
- Plastic packaging (not Styrofoam)
- Cigarette butts
Of course, you can use single-use items more than once. However, lots of these — especially the food-related items — essentially serve their use after one time. Just remember to rinse off food before you throw it in the recycling bin. If you feel there is residue, then go over it with some soapy water to ensure squeaky clean and contaminant-free plastics.
Now, you might be wondering how do I know if a plastic item is recyclable? First, it should have the recycling symbol (♻️) on it. Second, look for the number inside of it. That’s the “resin code” — a fancy term for what the plastic’s made of. That indicates how recyclable it is and whether you’re really recycling or actually contaminating an otherwise good batch of recyclables.
There are seven types of plastic resins:
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): Plastic #1 is the clear, tough material typically used for beverages. It’s one of the most recyclable and in-demand plastics. Throw it directly into your recycling bin.
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE): Plastic #2 is another highly recyclable and in-demand plastic, as it’s used in jugs, cleaning bottles, shampoo, and milk bottles. This is also a super common recyclable plastic that you can directly throw into the bin.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC): Plastic #3 is a soft plastic that’s harder to recycle due to a lack of demand though several facilities accept them. Check with your municipality to see if they accept this type.
- Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Plastic #4 is also difficult to recycle due to low demand. These are squeezable bottles used for substances like ketchup and mustard.
- Polypropylene (PP): Plastic #5 can also be difficult to recycle. This includes medicine bottles, yogurt containers, bottle caps, and other kinds of squeezable bottles. Check with your municipality to see if they accept this type.
- Polystyrene (PS): Plastic #6 includes Styrofoam and other foamed plastics like packing peanuts and clamshell containers. As we mentioned above, these can be difficult to recycle, but it’s still possible. For the most part, you CANNOT recycle these via your curbside bin. We go into more detail about Styrofoam later in the article.
- Other: Plastic #7 is a catch-all designation for all other plastics not listed above. It can be hard to recycle these, but some cities have plastic 7 recycling programs. Check with your municipality to see if they accept this type.
The key takeaway: Plastics #1 and #2 are easily recyclable — rinse ‘em out, clean them up, and toss them right in! For plastics #3 through #7, however, you must check with your city’s recycling program.
What happens if I can’t recycle them curbside?
You have a few recyclable and non-recyclable options:
- Many grocery stores, including H-E-B, Walmart, and Target provide bins for these types of plastics. The most common item dropped off is the single-use grocery sack, which you CANNOT place in your curbside bin.
- Your city might still accept them, but you’ll have to drive them to a recycling center instead of throwing them in the curbside container.
- If all else fails, just throw it away. It’s better to throw a non-recyclable plastic in the garbage than have it contaminate the good plastic.
Styrofoam, also called polystyrene foam, can be recycled — just not through curbside pickup. It’s a very difficult and costly plastic to recycle. It’s 95% air and only 5% plastic, so that huge bag of packing peanuts that protected your new vacuum during shipping is literally hot air.
Recycling is an industry after all, and it must make money. Therefore, many recyclers do not accept styrofoam because the cost does not outweigh its resale value. However, locations ranging from grocery stores to environmental and recycling centers can broker those items on the market, so talk to your city about what’s available in your area.
Dry paper — such as newspapers, mail, magazines, cereal boxes, shoe boxes, and shredded paper — is some of the most common and easily recyclable goods. Just remember to remove any staples that bind pages.
Cardboard is very similar to paper and can be recycled curbside. Just make sure to flatten down the cardboard so it doesn’t take up empty space.
Important: If the paper is wet or soiled with grease (like a greasy cardboard pizza box), we recommend you compost it instead. Any potential food byproduct is considered a contaminant, so your pizza box would be thrown away or end up spoiling the batch. Just rip off the spoiled part and recycle the still-good piece.
Also important: If the paper has a bit of plastic on it, or if it’s a paper cup lined with plastic, it cannot be recycled. It must be thrown away. Padded envelopes, on the other hand, can be recycled — just remove the plastic from the inside and throw it away (or see if you can recycle it). For envelopes with plastic windows, just remove the plastic, and throw the paper in the bin.
Historically, you couldn’t throw batteries in the trash. Thanks to recent developments, almost all alkaline batteries — including AA, AAA, D and C — can be thrown away in the garbage. DON’T recycle them. The exception is California, where all batteries must be recycled or taken to a hazardous waste disposal facility.
Any rechargeable battery or lead-acid battery (AKA your car battery) CANNOT be thrown in the garbage. They are considered hazardous waste and must be RECYCLED. Lithium-ion batteries are some of the most common rechargeable batteries. You must take these to the recycling center, an auto part store, or a consumer technology store, such as Batteries Plus Bulbs or Best Buy.
As for lead-acid batteries, it is actually illegal in some states to trash them. For safe disposal, take them to your local home improvement store, a consumer technology store, or auto parts store. Just call before you do to make sure they accept these batteries.
From gently worn garments to tattered old t-shirts that have transformed into work rags, there are several ways you can resell, recycle, donate, or repurpose old clothing.
How to “recycle” a piece of clothing depends on the quality:
- Resell garments still in good condition that you just don’t love anymore to thrift stores. Clothing resale is a great method for cleaning up while also making a good buck or two. Remember it next time you go through your closet like Marie Kondo, and you have bunches of good clothing to give away.
- Donate fairly worn clothing that cannot be resold to donation centers like Goodwill or the Salvation Army.
- Repurpose old clothes that might not fit or look a little drab into a completely new garment. Old jeans can easily be snipped into some snazzy new shorts for summer, old t-shirts can become work rags, and your favorite worn T’s can become a blanket.
- Recycle all other clothes that have basically shriveled, torn, ripped, or just completely fallen apart. Several retailers like H&M and American Eagle accept all types of clothing to be recycled in-store. You might also see big drop-off bins randomly throughout your town, often as large trailers operated by philanthropic organizations.
Just don’t put them in the recycling bin.
Many electronics contain expensive materials and rare metals. In fact, many smartphones contain trace amounts of gold. While there isn’t much in one phone, but if 1,000 cell phones are trashed, the gold begins to add up.
Thankfully, many states legally require manufacturers of certain electronics to take back their brand’s electronic waste and recycle it, with Texas being one of them. Companies gather millions of used product materials back, and consumers can rest easy knowing that they’re reducing their waste and carbon footprint.
If you don’t know how to contact the phone manufacturer, just take it to your local Best Buy. They recycle almost all of your used electronics for free.
There are several ways you can donate old books:
- Donate your books to your local library or a reputable book foundation. The Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation, for example, is a great organization that provides links to organizations collecting used books for children and teens.
- Sell them at a used bookstore like Half Price Books. Not only will they go to a good home, but you’ll get paid for it, too.
- Recycle them curbside. Most paperback books can be recycled curbside, especially if they’re missing pages or are too worn to sell or donate. While hardback books are more difficult to recycle, there are tons of resources online to help you repurpose an old hardcover. Our favorite example is carving out a secret compartment to hide treats!
Many cities are stopping their glass recycling programs. Thankfully, glass jars and empty wine bottles are pretty handsome on a shelf or refilled with food products. You can use them again and again without worry of staining the glass or contaminating the food.
If glass recycling is available in your area, there might be some restrictions:
- Some places accept glass in the bin, while others require you to drop it off at a recycling center or another location like Target.
- Some cities also may dictate which colors of glass you can recycle curbside. Clear glass and green glass may need to be separated, depending on your municipality.
- You most likely will only be able to dispose of glass bottles and jars. Glass drinkware like wine glasses and other beverage receptacles cannot be recycled and must be trashed. This includes window pane glass and other fine glasses.
Our Final Tip: When in Doubt, Throw It Out
As you can see, a lot of recycling depends on your city. Some cities welcome the single-stream recycling model — a system in which all recycled goods go into a single bin that’s sorted at a facility. However, this form of recycling runs an increased risk of wishful recycling, which will ultimately turn that good pile of recyclables into straight-up trash that will go to a landfill.
Thus, our final tip is: When in Doubt, Throw It Out. If you’re not sure an item is recyclable, you should first check on your city’s official website. Otherwise, just throw it out. This might seem contrary to what we’re typically told about recycling, but it’s actually better for the environment to throw out something you aren’t sure of than to throw in something that will ruin a whole batch of recyclables. You’ll be doing the environment a huge favor!