What Can't Be Recycled
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What Can't Be Recycled? 18 Things You Can't Recycle and Why

We’ve become big on recycling in many places worldwide as people seek to reduce the amount of waste they send to landfills. We choose to recycle, or in other words, recover and reprocess our waste for another use instead and protect the planet. But what can't be recycled?

We can not overemphasize the advantages of recycling. It helps to conserve scarce resources such as trees, coal, and mineral ore. It also reduces pressure on landfills and contributes to a decrease in pollution. Typically, we can recycle glass bottles, plastics, aluminum, paper, and iron.

For the new recycling enthusiast, you may not imagine that anything is unrecyclable. However, a number of everyday items make it onto the list of things that can’t be recycled.  The major reason for this is that recyclers can’t make new materials out of them. Sometimes, the item is too difficult to recycle and not worth the required resources and energy. 

To ensure that you recycle the right way, it is important to know what can’t be recycled and how to handle such waste disposal. 

Here is a list of things that we cannot recycle simply by placing them in your curbside recycling bin. You’ll find many everyday household items. Some listed items may have a special recycling facility or centers, and collection from home can vary depending on your local council or municipality. Therefore, it’s always wise to check locally with the organization that delivers your local recycling services where you live. 

Related: 20 Recycling Tips for Effective Recycling at Home

18 Things that Require Special Handling/Can’t Be Recycled


Batteries can't be recycled except through specialist facilities
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

76% of batteries, especially lead batteries, are recyclable but require special handling because of their corrosiveness and toxicity. When we don’t recycle batteries expertly, they can release toxins into the environment and endanger our health. Recycling facilities avoid batteries due to their corrosiveness. Never throw old batteries in the curbside recycling bin; they will end up in landfills. 

Ceramics and kitchenware

One important quality of kitchenware is the ability to withstand high temperatures. This quality is what makes ceramics, bakeware, and oven-safe glass dishes unrecyclable.

These items have a higher melting point than conventional glass. The energy required to melt down kitchenware is exceptionally high, which means processors will typically reject these products.

Medical waste

Most medical waste is considered biohazardous and not reusable or recyclable. The safest practice is to send syringes, scalpels, and other medical waste straight to specialized recycling centers, should they exist near you. And where such a service provider is not available, properly dispose of them.

Food waste

Leftovers should never go into the recycle bin. They are not recyclable and contaminate other recyclables in the bin. To prevent food waste contamination in recycling, you should remove food bits from items before putting them in the recycling bin.

We can put food waste to good use as compost. If you don't need the compost, you can sell it to gardeners for some extra cash.

Related: Urban Composting and Compost Bins for Apartments and City Living

Greasy cardboard

Paper plates or food containers soaked with oil or contaminated with food like cheese don’t make the recycling cut. This is because the food particles can contaminate other items in the bin or even damage recycling equipment. Oil and grease make it impossible to recycle paper, as they don’t mix with the water required to turn paper into a slurry. 

Unless you are prepared to take your time to remove every part of the cardboard soiled with food, it is best to put the greasy paper in the compost bin. In most places, very few companies can recycle greased-up pizza boxes. Consult your local recycling agency to know if you have such special recycling centers in your area.

Waxed cardboard

They wax cardboard juice boxes, soup cartons, frozen food boxes, and milk cartons to prevent the paper box from soaking up the liquid. However, the wax or plastic coating does not break down like paper, making recycling very difficult. Recycling facilities for waxed cartons are not always available. Only 62.1% of households in the US have access to such facilities. 

Eco-cycle, which accepts milk and juice cartons, will not take cartons to package soup, rice, almond, and soy milk. For a more sustainable alternative, you can also check out if you have access to milk deliveries in glass bottles local to you.

Shredded paper

Shredding paper decreases the fiber length and reduces its value to recycling companies. Paper mills find sorting shredded paper difficult, so they often refuse it. If you must recycle shredded paper, you will need to locate a recycling center in your area that specializes in that aspect of paper recycling.

Related: Uses for Shredded Paper.

Brightly colored paper

Adding paper with rich, bright dyes to the slurry guarantees that the end product will have an odd color. Knowing that most consumers prefer pristine white paper or at least a slightly off-white shade makes brightly colored papers a no-no for paper recycling mills. 

Used paper towels and plates

Composting is the easiest way to deal with single-use paper products like paper napkins, plates, cups, tissues, and towels. Recycling them is challenging because they usually contain a lot of food residue. A little bit of food-soiled paper can make the entire content of the bin unrecyclable.

Also, it is impractical to try recycling wet paper. Water will cause the paper to break down rapidly, making it hard for recyclers to measure and process. Also, wet paper can easily become discolored, stain other contents of the bin, or grow moldy.

Related: 13 Best Reusable Paper Towels For Tree-Free Spills & Cleans

Household glass

Lightbulbs, mirrors, window glass, and wine glasses are not curbside recyclable. They usually make these kinds of glasses to have a higher melting point than regular glass. Broken glass also often constitutes household hazardous waste due to its shape edges.

However, fluorescent light bulbs have special recycling programs, and you will need to find out if any of these programs exist in your area. However, you’ll find most of these fragile items impractical to recycle and easily damaged beyond most kinds of reuse.

You can recycle mason jars, but there is no system to recycle window glass and other kinds of household glass presently. You may find crafts to do with broken mirrors and windows or damaged light bulbs. 

Plastic bags and wraps

Considered lightweight, plastic shopping bags and wrappings are not suitable for curbside recycling. Bubble wrap, plastic wrapping, mesh produce bags, and plastic bags can easily get tangled in the recycling machinery and cause damage throughout the recycling process.

Some local grocery stores may have special collection bins to recycle plastic grocery bags; if not, there are many creative ways to reuse plastic bags and wraps at home.

Most flexible plastic packaging, like potato chip bags, food pouches, crinkly bags, and candy wrappers, is not recyclable. This is because they make them with layers of different materials, making them difficult to recycle. 

Hazardous chemicals

You can not recycle hazardous materials that contain poisonous, flammable, corrosive, and toxic substances. These include motor oil, oil paint, pesticides, fuel, or poisons. It is advisable to take extra caution when disposing of packaging or containers of such substances. 

No matter how little, Aerosol cans with products in them are unrecyclable. To make your aerosol cans recyclable, you need to empty the contents.

Plastic toys 

Plastic Toys cant recycle
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

The problem with recycling plastic toys arises from the tiny parts they contain. These minuscule pieces can clog the recycling equipment and cause severe damage.

Clothes hangers

Wire hangers are challenging to recycle. They could cause damage to recycling machinery. Most recycling centers do not have the machinery or capacity to recycle them. The shape of plastic hangers also makes them difficult to recycle. It is better to keep hangers out of your curbside recycle bin. They end up in the landfill otherwise.

However, in places like New York City, you can recycle your old plastic hanger in the curbside bin.


You can’t recycle clean or dirty diapers. Dirty diapers can contaminate other items in the bin and be unpleasant for the people who recycle waste to sort. 


Recycling electronics require special equipment and processes because they contain highly specialized materials. You should never put them in your recycling bin as they can cause fires.

Ropey items

Electric cords, headphones, chains, wires, Christmas lights, and garden hoses are notorious for tangling with machine parts and other recyclable materials. Therefore, most recycling centers tend to steer clear of them.


Clothing articles usually have special recycling programs, and you may not be able to recycle them just by throwing them in the curbside recycle basket. Some sustainable fashion brands provide recycling services, but If you do not have access to such, you should consider donating to thrift stores. 

Plastics that cannot be recycled

Many people make great efforts to recycle plastics, but some types of plastic waste cannot be recycled. Plastic products usually have a number between 1 and 7 on them; we call these numbers resin identification codes.

It is easy to recycle #1, polyethylene terephthalate (PET), the plastic commonly used in plastic bottles and plastic food jars. Also, #2, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), from which shopping bags, grocery bags, and shampoo bottles are made, is also recyclable plastic. Manufacturers make products like reusable containers, medicine, and syrup bottles from #5 polypropylene (PP).

# 3 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Shower curtains and liners, pipes, clamshell containers, blister packs, and medical shrink wraps are PVC products. They often mix this plastic with phthalates to make it flexible. Combining PVC with other materials makes it difficult to separate and recycle, so they do not often recycle it.

#4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

Manufacturers make bin liners, packaging, squeezy bottles, and toys LDPE. We also use it as a coating for milk boxes and coffee cups. Most LDPE products contaminate easily and are difficult to recycle. However, you can check if your local grocery store has a program to recycle this kind of plastic waste  

# 6 Polystyrene (PS)

Some items made from polystyrene are styrofoam plates, packing peanuts, coffee cups, plastic straws, and foam egg cartons. They rarely recycle polystyrene at recycling facilities.

Styrofoam items are not very durable, but you can reuse them. Some shipping companies or small businesses may accept clean packing peanuts.

# 7 Other

They assign plastic goods that do not fall into any of the other 6 categories, the number 7. These include nylon, polycarbonate, bio-plastics, and other mixed plastics. Plastics in this category are not easily recyclable.


Not everything is recyclable everywhere, even though we wish they were. For many of us, the recycling bin is the only access we have to recycling services, so it is essential to know what can and cannot be recycled.

Despite this list, check with your local recycling program, as what can and can't be recycled can vary according to the type of machinery and facilities available near you. Please find ways to dispose of or reuse non-recyclable items safely. 

By Jennifer Okafor, BSc.

Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.

Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.

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