What Not to Recycle

Aspirational recycling refers to the feeling that something should be recyclable. Many people feel all plastics and ‘disposable items’ should be able to go into a recycling bin, and a magic machine will recycle them. This is not accurate. For recycling, plastics need to be broken down into individual polymers. Some can not be recycled at standard recycling centers even after dividing materials.

While practices vary between cities and regions, aspirational recycling can result in whole loads not being recycled due to a few incorrect items. We have listed commonly mistaken things thrown into the recycling bin. Below is a list of what not to recycle and a brief explanation of why not to toss certain products into the recycling bin. 

#1 Plastic bags (the less obvious kind)

Most of us know single-use plastic bags cannot be thrown in your recycling bin. Soft plastics get caught in the gears of the sorting machines, leading to broken or damaged facilities. These, of course, can be easily reused around the house for other purposes. 

Plastic bags are not the only culprits, though. Other examples include bread wrappers, cereal, and sandwich bags.

These items must be sorted and sent to separate drop-off locations, often found at Target, Walmart, or any other large retailer. Some may not be capable of being recycled because of the printing or coextruded materials.

#2 Broken glass

Contrary to popular belief, the only glass items you can recycle are bottles and jars. Anything else, like glass from a broken mirror, cannot be recycled.

Instead, you should wrap the broken glass in old newspaper and put it in your general trash. 

#3 Batteries and electronics

Rechargeable or lead-acid batteries cannot be recycled from the home or thrown in the garbage, as they pose an environmental safety risk. 

Discard these products by taking them to a local consumer technology or auto parts store. Just call in advance to make sure they accept used batteries. 

#4 Chips & candy packets

Woman’s hand picking up yellow potato chips inside a bag of snacks.

Not all crisp and sweet packaging can be recycled, as they may contain several non-recyclable materials. This means they fall into a multi-layer flexible packaging category, and these products are non-recyclable.

They are also challenging to be meaningfully reused. The multiple layers help extend the shelf life of the food product. While they reduce food waste, they add to non-recyclable waste.

#5 Plastics 3 to 7

You may have noticed numbers inside the recycling symbol (♻️) on packaging. These refer to a plastic’s resin code. 

Numbers 1 and 2 are easily recyclable. However, anything with numbers 3-7 is more complicated.

There are several reasons for this. For example, due to lack of demand, polyvinyl chloride (PVC) has a number 3 resin code, so it is more difficult to recycle, as fewer facilities accept these materials. 

The higher the number, the more unlikely you can put the item in a curbside recycling bin. Each city has different recycling regulations, so it can be helpful to investigate your municipal recycling program. If you find, for example, where you live does not take plastics 5-7, they must be set aside and taken to a separate drop-off or disposed of in the garbage.

#6 Scrap wood and some metals

Recycling wood is complicated as finished surfaces, whether it’s varnish, wax, or wood treatment, cannot be recycled.

Untreated wood may be recyclable, but it does not belong in general recycling. Instead, it should be taken to a wood recycling specialist.

Some metal items are also not eligible for recycling. These include motor oil cans, paint cans, pots, pans, and car parts. Many other metals can be recycled at local scrap facilities, not through home recycling bins.

#7 Wrapping paper.

Some foil-lined wrapping paper, like sheets with heavy glitter or other decorations, can’t be recycled. A good indicator of recyclability is the “scrunch test.” If your paper stays scrunched in a ball, it can usually be recycled.

#8 Trash bags

Even if you use them to gather up your recyclable items, black bin liners do not belong in your recycling bin. Like polythene bags, the black pigment affects how the sorting systems operate.

Instead, empty your recycling into the appropriate bin and put the black liner back in your general waste.

#9 Disposable coffee cups

Only the cardboard sleeve and plastic lid of most disposable cups can be recycled. In the case of coffee cups, the outside may be paper, but the interior is lined with a fine polyethylene film. This lining prevents your cup from leaking, but it means the cups are not recyclable in most areas.


The desire to recycle everything possible is good and noble. We should want to help where we can and do our part. We must still pay attention to what we place in the recycling bin. Even with the best intentions, we can cause more work and trouble by trying to recycle something that should not be recycled and will end up in the trash anyway. Even worse, a few non-recyclable materials can cause an entire load of recyclable materials to end up in a landfill.

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