What Cannot Be Recycled: 8 Unrecyclable Materials and Items

  • Michael Grant
  • March 30, 2019

Recycling is one of the most fundamental aspects of the international efforts to protect the environment. In North America, the practice of recycling has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past few decades.

Back in the 1970s, litter was a huge problem as garbage was thrown out or simply left outdoors with a casual disregard for the consequences. As awareness grew and people began to make a more concerted effort to reduce their impact on the planet, recycling become the norm. That said, there are some items that cannot be recycled.
What cannot be recycled? Here is a list of eight unrecyclable materials and items:

1. Aerosol Spray Cans

Aerosol spray cans cannot be recycled. Some might naturally assume that aerosol cans can be recycled. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case.

While metal recycling is one of the most common practices in recycling due to the resilience and malleability of the materials, aerosol cans aren’t accepted by recycling depots. The contents of aerosol cans are often hazardous – usually poisonous or flammable. These contaminants effectively render recycling the materials impossible. The majority of municipal waste handling systems would consider aerosol hazardous waste and have special disposal.

2. Household Glass

Household glass cannot be recycled. While it might seem counterintuitive, most household glass can’t be recycled. It is definitely possible to re-use manufactured glass as a raw material for the production of new glass, but it isn’t really a viable option.

Things like broken windows and light bulbs would prove far too inefficient to recycle, creating more waste and consuming more energy than if fresh materials were used. Some household glass items can be recycled but can’t just be thrown in with bottles and jars. For example, fluorescent lightbulbs can be recycled though they contain mercury which requires specialized handling.

3. Colored Paper

Colored paper cannot be recycled. Some types of colored paper can’t be integrated into the existing paper recycling systems. Very strong or brightly dyed papers contain enough dye that it could ruin large batches of paper. When paper is recycled, it is shredded and then mixed with various chemicals in order to produce a pulp.

This is in the same manner as new paper production, except it’s using old paper instead of wood chips. Inside this goopy mixture, the dye spreads evenly among all the materials present. This is not a problem for most paper but things like craft paper will turn the entire batch their own color.

4. Shredded Paper

Shredded paper cannot be recycled. People who shred their paper before recycling it might think they’re helping, taking some of the load of the processing that must be done to the paper to produce new product.

However, the shredding of paper actually makes it ineligible for use as a recycling feedstock. A recycling depot will sort paper products based on the type of paper, so that the right ingredients go into the new batch of paper. Shredding the paper makes it infinitively difficult to determine the type of paper. Luckily, shredded paper can find a home in compost heaps, at home or municipally.

5. Paper Towels

Another item thats better suited for the compost heap than the recycling depot is used paper towels and napkins. The process of recycling paper involves some harsh chemicals that one might think would handle any and all contaminants coming in.

This is actually a lot more complex. Industrial processes are usually designed to accommodate a certain expected input, and unexpected contaminants can have radical and severe consequences. The wide variety of residue that ends up on paper towels and napkins make it relatively unsuitable for this recycling.

6. Take-Out Containers

Cardboard and boxboard are some of the most widely recycled items in North America. Similar to the situation with paper towels, the main concern here is the contaminants. Grease is the biggest offender in this case.

Grease doesn’t dissolve in water and the pulp that cardboard products are reduced to is largely water-based. This results in large bubbles and slicks of grease forming within pulp processing equipment. This can gunk up and ruin pumps and pipes, possibly shutting down the whole facility. Again, this type of product really belongs in the compost heap.

7. Plastic Bottle Caps

Most are familiar with the policy of bottle recycling depots asking you to remove the caps from bottles before bringing them in. Some might assume that this is just because the caps are a different type of plastic and must be recycled elsewhere – this isn’t the case.

The bottle caps are made of a specific type of plastic, polypropylene, which can’t be recycled. Plastics are usually marked by a number within a recycling symbol to denote the plastic type, polypropylene is plastic number 5. There isn’t much to do but throw them in trash.

8. Styrofoam

As one of the most notoriously unrecyclable materials, Styrofoam is not recyclable for several reasons. Another case of the plastic used not being recyclable, Styrofoam is made of expanded polystyrene pellets. Polystyrene can’t be recycled.

The material is used in a wide variety of items, including as some filler material in boxes, coffee cups, food containers, and coolers. It’s an excellent insulator that is often used in permanent applications, but unfortunately it finds the most use as disposable packaging. This causes it to be one of the biggest sources of garbage.

Previous «
Next »

Hello, my name is Michael and I'm a cancer survivor. I'm also a home entrepreneur and stay-at-home grandfather. In the past thirty years, I've dabbled in the the financial sector, the technology industry, as well as a little business consulting. I guess you can call me a jack of all trades!