6 Surprising Things You Can’t Recycle

Recycling can be confusing. A whopping 91 percent of Canadians have had access to recycling since the early 2000s, but in 2019, it was reported that we only recycle 9 percent of our plastics. But considering you can easily eat up a whole afternoon trying to figure out if your entire Chinese takeout container from last night can go in the recycling bin, or if you have to salvage it for parts first, this kind of makes sense. 

We often think that paper is paper and plastic is plastic, right? So, anything that contains those materials should be eligible for recycling—unfortunately, that’s not the case. Understanding what goes in your blue bin is important because adding in the wrong item can mean a whole lot of recyclable materials end up in the dump instead of in new products. 

To help you figure out what should go into which bin, we’ve broken down six popular items that often end up in the recycling bin when they shouldn’t. Here’s what they are, why they can’t be recycled and what you can do with them instead:

6 surprising items you can’t recycle

Disposable coffee cups

Canadians drink an estimated 4.2 billion cups of takeout coffee per year, but it might surprise you to learn that those disposable cups can’t goin your blue recycling bin. 

While most of the disposable cup is made of cardboard (which is recyclable), a leak-proof plastic liner, usually made of polyethylene, is used inside the cup to keep the liquid in. The inclusion of this layer means that the cups cannot be recycled because it’s hard and time-consuming to separate the plastic from cardboard.

Some jurisdictions in Canada provide residents alternative ways to recycle these specific cups, but many have ruled that the cost of sorting and separating materials than marketing them to recyclers is too high. However, you can take the cardboard sleeve off of a disposable coffee cup and recycle it. Likewise, many jurisdictions allow you to recycle a cleaned lid so long as it’s not black.

Dirty food containers, plates and utensils

You are correct in assuming that your paperboard and cardboard food containers can be recycled, but not if they’re dirty. Greasy pizza boxes and dirty paper plates should be thrown in your green bin, not blue. 

Including dirty containers with food matter left on them can contaminate other items that are otherwise quality recycling materials and could cause the whole load to be sent to the dump. If you have a pizza box, you can tear off the clean top and throw it into your recycling bin, but anything with food on it needs to go in the green bin.

Plastic utensils also cannot be recycled in some municipalities. They can be too small for the sorting machines and they’re often made of a variety of plastics that are too hard to tell apart when it comes to separating. This is the same problem we see with straws, which should also not end up in your blue bin. It’s best to double check with your region’s recycling centre before throwing these items in your blue bin.

Paper towels, tissues and napkins

You cannot recycle paper towels, tissues and napkins for the same reason that you can’t recycle dirty food containers—they’re considered to be contaminated. Recycling plants do clean the materials that they receive, but there’s no way to remove grease. 

The other thing to consider is that most of these products are already made from recycled material, and every time they go through the process the paper fibres get shorter. By the time they end up on your bookshelf in a tissue box, the fibres are often too short to be recycled again.

Reducing your use of these items should probably be the ultimate goal—you can use washable towels and handkerchiefs to perform the same tasks. But, until you get there, you might be able to add tissue to your compostable pile, so long as it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals—but double-check with your municipality to see if COVID has changed how they want these products disposed.

Wire hangers

Metal hangers seem like a no-brainer when it comes to recycling, so you might be surprised to find out that most recycling facilities will not accept them. It’s not because the hangers aren’t recyclable but because most facilities aren’t set up to handle the material and shape of the product.

Unfortunately, that means that most Canadian municipalities request they be thrown in your black bin. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t more responsible ways you can get rid of them. Instead of throwing them out, touch base with a local dry cleaner to see if they could find a use for your leftover hangers, or contact a nearby scrap metal yard.

But make sure to keep one or two around because they come in handy when it’s time to unclog a drain!

Parchment paper

Just because parchment paper contains the word “paper” doesn’t mean that it can be recycled. To ensure that the food placed on parchment paper doesn’t stick, it’s lined with a layer of silicone (or wax in the case of wax paper) which renders it non-recyclable. However, you can recycle the box after you remove the metal strip.

But while parchment paper can’t be recycled, some municipalities allow it to be added to your compost pile, so long as it isn’t coloured, glossy, waxy, printed with metal paper or contaminated with grease, fish, meat or dairy. Check with yours to see if that’s where it belongs.  

If you’re an avid baker and want to reduce your use of parchment paper, you can upgrade to a reusable silicone mat. At the end of its life, silicone can be recycled—though you’ll have to track down a facility that can handle it.

Ceramic and oven-safe serving dishes

While there are definitely glass products that are recyclable, non-container glass and ceramics are not accepted by many local facilities. Just a small amount of heat-treated glass can contaminate an entire batch of otherwise recyclable container glass, making it unsafe for reuse in new products. 

Depending on the state of these products, your best bet is to hand them over to a thrift store, but if the items are chipped ask them ahead of time or you might waste a trip. Ceramic material is technically recyclable, as it can be crushed and used for materials like drainage pipes or driveways. But you might have to do some digging in your municipality to see who might be willing to take them. 

If you do end up resorting to throwing these items in the garbage, make sure they are properly packaged before you do so; otherwise, someone could get hurt down the line handling them, especially if there are broken pieces. While you’ll want to double-check with your municipality on how exactly to handle this, in some cases, you can place broken pieces in a puncture-resistant sealed container or wrap them in two layers of paper and place them in a garbage bag that indicates sharp materials are inside.

Don’t throw non-recyclables in the blue bin!

You might think that you can throw it in your blue bin, but you should always double-check. Throwing a product that can’t be recycled in the Bluebox can contaminate the whole pile, rendering it all non-recyclable. This means that all of the material you’ve carefully curated could simply end up in a heap at your local dump. Not only is it bad for the environment, but it’s a waste of your time.

Figuring out what you can and can’t recycle can be challenging, which is why it’s a good idea to check with your municipality if you’re in doubt. You can get more tips and tricks for handling your garbage better by downloading the GarbageDay App!

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