We recently got new recycling bins at the Lifehacker office, and suddenly realized no one knew all the rules about recycling. Can you recycle plastic bags? Do you have to scrub out your containers? What about paper towels?
Every major curbside recycling program takes clean paper and cardboard, metal cans, and plastic jugs and bottles. Beyond that, things get complicated. But some general rules apply.
First, check your local requirements. Recycle by City has simple visual breakdowns for L.A., Chicago, Houston, Austin, Philadelphia, Flagstaff, Santa Monica, and West Hollywood. Otherwise, find your city’s sanitation department site. NYC and Phoenix have simple do/don’t guides.
- Bubble-padded envelopes
- Wax paper
- Dirty napkins, tissues, toilet paper, or paper towels
- Glass that’s not a bottle or jar
- Photo paper: Usually not recyclable, but it depends on the brand.
- Containers with a lot of food or liquid in them: Empty and rinse them, but don’t stress over it; they’re cleaned at the facility.
- Pizza boxes: Unless they’re heavily soaked in oil and solid waste, these are fine. Just throw out the wax liner, and put the tiny plastic table in the plastics bin. When in doubt, rip off the greasy part and throw it out.
- Paper with clear windows or staples
Recycle Somewhere Else:
- Plastic bags: They get caught in the recycling machines, and workers have to shut them off and pull out the bags. Most cities only allow “rigid plastics.” Instead, find a recycling center, store, or neighborhood program that accepts them. (There are exceptions! L.A. allows clean bags and other soft plastics.)
- Clothing and textiles: Look up drop-off options.
- Motor oil: Your city might require you to put it on the curb separately from all other trash.
- Batteries and electronics: Take them to a donation center or a store like Best Buy. If you throw out your batteries, at least tape down the terminals to reduce the risk of fire.
- Appliances: Best Buy accepts many of these too.
Check Your Local Rules:
Including rules from the five biggest U.S. cities as examples.
- Glass: Houston only takes glass at drop-off centers.
- Plastics: NYC and L.A. allow all rigid plastics; Chicago only allows bottles. Houston has more complicated rules.
- Metals: LA takes household metal; Chicago and Houston don’t. NYC, L.A., and Chicago take aluminum foil; Houston and Phoenix don’t address it online.
- Paper: No dark paper in Houston.
- Paper cups, If they’re clean and empty, are allowed in NYC, but not L.A., Houston, or Chicago.
- Hardcover books: Fine in L.A., but not NYC, Chicago, or Houston. Phoenix doesn’t even take paperbacks.
- Styrofoam: LA takes it; Chicago, Houston, and NYC don’t.
- Shredded paper: In Chicago and Houston, you’ll need to find a drop-off center.
- Milk cartons: In NYC, these go with other containers, not paper.
- Trash bags: NYC takes container recycling in trash bags; Chicago doesn’t.
- Separation: L.A., Houston, Phoenix, and Chicago take all residential recycling in one bin. NYC separates paper from other recyclables.
- Commercial recycling: This is often handled differently than residential recycling, so it might come with its own rules. Ask your office manager or building manager.