Cellphone with recycling symbol on screen laying atop a fabric mesh bag.

How to Recycle

General recycling guidelines

Recycling 101

Knowing the ins and outs of how to recycle can be a bit confusing, especially as what is accepted can vary between cities and recycling companies. Always check with your local recycler for specific information on what items they take. The basic recycling guidelines on this page are universal.

The most important recycling rule

Do not bag items, keep them loose. Bagged recyclables cannot be sorted and your efforts will end up in the landfill.

Additional recycling tips

  • Containers should be as empty as possible. A good rule of thumb is that the contents shouldn’t weigh more than the container itself.
  • Items should be relatively clean. You don’t need to wash or even rinse them. However, if it contains anything that drips or that will smear on another product (namely paper), it should be cleaned enough so that it doesn’t contaminate everything else in the bin.
    • Water-saving tip: Put cans or containers in the sink and let water from washing your hands, etc. passively rinse the item. You could also put stuff in the dishwasher to make a full load.
  • Each item should be composed of a single material. Objects made from mixed/multiple materials cannot be recycled in your curbside bin. Examples:
    • Spray bottle pumps – there’s a metal coil inside the plastic
    • Snack and candy wrappers – many plastic wrappers are lined with foil
    • Toothpaste tubes and garden hoses as they contain both metal and plastic.
  • Size matters. A general rule is for items to be bigger than a credit card; anything smaller will likely slip through sorting machinery or baling. Try putting bottle caps inside of cans, sticking post-it notes to regular size piece of paper, and balling up and saving aluminum foil until it is about the size of a baseball. Conversely, don’t put anything excessively large or bulky into your can, such as pieces of scrap metal or furniture.
  • Don’t “wishcycle”. In other words, don’t add objects to your recycling and hope for the best. If you aren’t sure if something is recyclable, find out before putting it in your bin and risking contamination. If you know it can’t be recycled, look for other available options before throwing the item in the garbage.

Erroneous items frequently seen in curbside recycling cans

What can you recycle?

Again, check with your local recyclers and resources for specific guidelines on what materials are accepted and how they need to be sorted. In general, these are the items you should be able to place in your curbside bin.

Aluminum & Tin

  • Aluminum and tin cans
    • No need to crush; a recycling operator told me it’s better not to because when cans are crushed together in the facility, the bale sticks together better.
  • Aluminum foil
    • Wrap, yogurt tops, inside cigarette boxes, disposable bakeware (if free of food)
    • Accumulate foil ball to about baseball-size as to not get lost in machinery; can also add small scraps (like Hershey’s kiss wrappers) inside an aluminum can
  • Empty aerosol cans
  • Empty tins, such as mint or popcorn tins
  • *Clean paint cans
    • Some companies will accept cans with dried paint residue, check first; otherwise need to be deposited with hazardous waste.

Metal not acceptable in curbside recycling


  • Newspaper and newspaper inserts
  • Paper shopping bags
  • Paper mailers/envelopes
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Cardboard or paperboard packaging
  • Lightly soiled pizza boxes
  • Cardboard tubes
  • Books & magazines
  • White and colored paper
  • Art projects (without excessive amounts of glue or glitter)
  • Wrapping paper, tissue paper, paper gift bags (As long as they are not metallic or coated with glitter or lots of decorations)


  • Aseptic cartons aka tetrapaks. Aseptic cartons are the waxy cartons that contain liquids. Shelf-stable cartons can sit in your pantry, these are things like juice boxes, soups, gravy, nut milks, and wine. Refrigerated, aka gable-top, cartons are found in the refrigerated section of the grocery store and contain foods such as milk, cream, juice, and egg substitutes. Some areas accept both refrigerated and shelf-stable, others take only one kind. Click to find out if your community can recycle them, but it is best to check with your local recycler.

Paper products not acceptable for recycling

  • Tissue products (paper towels, napkins, and toilet paper)
  • Receipts. The thermal paper they are printed on cannot be recycled. (If you scratch the paper and it leaves a grey line, it is thermal paper.)
  • Items soaked with grease, fats, oil, or chemicals, including cleaning products.
  • Hardback books.
  • Coffee cups or any other waxy cup.
  • Shredded paper isn’t accepted by some recyclers, since it turns into confetti. Some may take it if stored in a cardboard box.


Acceptable plastic for recycling

  • Empty bottles, tubs, jugs, and jars. Keep lids on.

Check which plastics your local recycler accepts. Just because an item has a recycle symbol on the bottom does not mean it is recyclable. The symbol is actually a resin identification code that’s purpose is to indicate the type of plastic used to manufacture the item. Technically all plastics can be recycled, but it is dependent on factors like cost, supply and demand of these commodities, and the capability of facilities to process these more difficult to recycle types of plastics. The supply depends on us: since only about 9% of plastic is recycled in the U.S., certain types of plastic are difficult for recyclers to find.

I think it is safe to say that plastics with resin codes #1 (PET/PETE) and #2 (HDPE) are universally accepted and recycled, followed by #5 (PP).

In my area, plastics #1-7 are all accepted, but #1, #2, #4, and #5 are the only ones actually getting recycled. The rest are sold to a cement plant who burns these plastics as a fuel source for their kiln. This is actually a very common practice throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. To learn more, read this Reuters article about the environmental impacts of plastic incineration.

Some brand’s packaging can be recycled through programs like Terracycle and Nordstrom’s Beautycycle.

Unacceptable plastic items for recycling

  • Bulky items, like furniture
  • Styrofoam
    • Styrofoam is a notoriously tough material to recycle; I haven’t located anywhere that will recycle them. Some places may recycle block styrofoam, such as Marko Foam in Utah. Many sources say that UPS stores will take your packing peanuts, but the locations I have contacted told me they do not, and one told me UPS has banned packing peanuts altogether. So styrofoam belongs in the trash; do your best to avoid it as much as possible.
  • Plastic film (shopping bags, breads bags, ziploc, plastic wrap, etc.)
    • Check How2Recycle for drop-off recycling locations. To learn more about plastic film and more resources, click here.


Make sure you know whether your recycler collects glass separately or combined with your mixed recycling—most have a separate glass collection.

  • Acceptable items include empty glass bottles and jars of all colors from items like beverages, condiments, jarred foods, oil & vinegar, spices, sauces, vases, drinking glasses & cups, and beauty products. Broken glass is ok.
  • Remove corks, caps, and lids and recycle separately as able. You do not need to remove labels.

Not acceptable:

  • Light bulbs, Pyrex, windshields, windows, ceramics or pottery, aquariums, or mirrors.

How do I recycle other items?

Check local resources available to you in your area. Stores like Staples, Best Buy, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and IKEA accept a variety of harder-to-recycle items for recycling. Find more resources for specific items throughout this site.

For large items, such as appliances, try a waste hauler like Junk King. They reuse, repurpose, or recycle 60% of what they haul away.

Terracycle is mentioned frequently in these pages. They have numerous recycling programs for specific items and brands, some free and others for a fee. The waste boxes are pretty expensive, so one option is to split the cost for a community box that friends, family, neighbors, or coworkers can add to. The best overall option is their All-in-one zero waste box that you can add just about anything that can’t go in your curbside recycling. You can opt to become a public drop-off for various Terracycle programs, or find spots near you.

Recycling organization tips

It can be hard to find space to collect items that can’t go in your curbside recycling. These are the systems that currently work for me. Share any ideas you have in the comments.

Keep a container under the bathroom sink for empty beauty and personal product containers. Too jam packed under there? Chances are you likely need to cut down on some purchases as well as get rid of (and recycle) old products.

Black plastic stackable storage bins.

I got these Skywin Plastic Stackable Storage Bins to gather items that need specialty recycling until I’m ready to make a drop off or ship them to Terracycle. They’re great in a garage or closet.

Use wall hooks to hang bags of recyclables, such as a bag collecting plastic film. I have these sturdy iDesign bronze wall hooks that would work.

Bronze wall-mounted hooks.
Hooks with brooms.

I also have this Home-it Mop and Broom Holder mounted inside a closet and use a couple hooks to hang collection bags from. You could also use 3M Command hooks.

For the hardcore recyclers, I think the ultimate recycling organization looks something like this. I dream of having this set up.

Any business or organization can sign up to become a public drop-off point for Terracycle.

Shelves organizing containers for recycling.

I love recycling; it’s so important. BUT, it is a complicated and expensive endeavor, and it is in no way the answer to our climate crisis. Please do all you can to avoid the need for recycling in the first place by Refusing single-use plastics whenever possible, Reducing waste by making mindful purchases, and Reusing items by upcycling, selling, or donating.

Scroll to Top