A reader of my How It’s Made articles (find them here!) recently requested that I write an article about recycling. She, and many others she knows, find themselves wondering, “Can I recycle this? What can I recycle and what can’t I recycle?” With National Recycling Day coming up, (November 15, 2020) I thought the timing was perfect to share what is and isn’t recyclable.

Q: What Can I Recycle? What Can’t I Recycle?

A: In general, plastic, glass, metal, and paper products can be recycled. However, and this is important – there are many sub-categories of plastic, glass, metal and paper products that can’t be recycled. Additionally, what you can recycle depends upon the state you reside in. Click here to find a list of items that are accepted or unaccepted in your state. Read on for general rules of thumb, though!


There are seven different types of plastic and not all of them are recyclable. If you take a look at the bottom of your nearest plastic bottle, you’ll find a triangle of arrows. The number inside the triangle is assigned to the type of plastic (or resin) your bottle is produced from. As an example, Minnesota only accepts items that have a 1, 2, or 5 inside the triangle. With a quick Google search, you can find the resins that your state recycles.

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You can find the commonly questioned items below:

What Isn’t Recyclable
  • Plastic Bags, Bubble Wrap, Plastic Wrap, Plastic Food Wrap
    • Although not recyclable in your general recycling facility, you can bring these items to an approved store drop-off location. Plug your zip code in here to find one near you!
  • Hangers
  • Toys or Beach Balls
  • Plastic Utensils
  • Six-Pack Rings
  • Personal Hygiene Containers (i.e. toothpaste tubes, antiperspirant containers)
  • Ziploc® Bags
  • Plastic Buckets

With glass, there is a general rule of thumb to follow. Only glass that stored food or beverages can be recycled. Windows, vases, light bulbs, and drinking glasses are not recyclable because of the way in which they’re made and their melting points.


You can recycle aluminum cans (soda or beer cans) and soup cans (with labels on). Aluminum foil is not recyclable. Aerosol cans can be recycled in certain communities if they don’t or haven’t contained hazardous materials or chemicals. Check with your city or state to find out if they accept aerosol cans.

Lastly, scrap metal (metal furniture, bikes, car components, metal tubing/pipe, etc.) isn’t recyclable unless you take it to a specific metal recycling facility.


Then there are paper products. It’s everywhere. Newspaper, food containers, paper towels, napkins, mail, cardboard, magazines, and so much more. When it comes to paper, follow these best practices:

What Is Recyclable
  • Soda/beer boxes, butter boxes
  • Clean cardboard
  • Paper grocery bags
  • Newspapers and magazines
  • Printer or office paper, including shredded paper
  • General mail including those with the plastic address windows, staples, or paper clips
What Isn’t Recyclable
  • Anything dirty in nature (i.e. greasy pizza boxes, to go containers, paper plates or paper towels)
    • This is only recyclable if you take it to an organics recycling facility, which is not your typical facility.
  • Egg Cartons, Paper Towel or Toilet Paper Rolls
    • The material for these has already been recycled and the fiber is too short to recycle again.
  • Coated Food Boxes/Tetra Pak Containers
    • Juice cartons, milk cartons, and frozen food cartons are coated to protect food that is raw or unwrapped. In the past, the coating would contaminate the recycling equipment. However, significant advances have been made for these materials. Check with your city or state to determine if they utilize equipment capable of recycling coated food boxes.
  • Padded Envelopes
    • Padded envelopes are are not recyclable unless made from 100% paper. You can’t recycle an envelope padded with what looks like bubble wrap or plastic unless you separate the two materials.

In next month’s article, we will take an in-depth look at what happens in a recycling facility from incoming material to final product and all the processes in between.

Before then, take a look at the links below:

See you next month!

Kim MooneyTechnical Manager & Coach