Household items you can recycle – and those you can’t

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By Terri Williams October 18th, 2019
For business

Find out what you can and can't recycle.

If you’re like most Americans, you probably find yourself purchasing a lot of household items. However, this can lead to a lot of left-over objects that you no longer want or need.

So, what should you do with them? Your first response may be to simply throw them away, but many of these household items can be recycled or reused. Choose Energy spoke with 2 recycling experts to discover how to recycle several common items and which objects cannot be recycled.

Items you can recycle


Erica Reiner is the owner/principal of Eco Method Interiors, an eco-friendly interior design and consulting firm. She recommends reducing, reusing, and repurposing materials instead of throwing them away.  “In my great state of California, and quite possibly in your state too, wherever you are, there are awesome reclamation services,” Reiner says. “For instance, you can recycle old carpeting at carpet stores or centers that gets remade into new carpet and carpet backing.”


Reiner says there are also paint recycling centers where old (hazardous waste) paint, can be mixed into new colors and resold. According to Earth911, using just one gallon of recycled paint, instead of new paint, keeps 115 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the air and saves 100 kilowatt-hours of energy.


You can also recycle and reclaim wood. “There are lumber yards taking all sorts of reclaimed wood, and plenty of furniture makers putting their creative flair and breathing new life into old timber,” Reiner says.

Tiles, sinks, light fixtures

If you have tiles, old sinks, and outdated light fixtures, don’t throw them away. “Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore is an excellent place to drop working items that extend their life cycle,” Reiner says.  “These things take a little bit more time to work out the logistics for, than trashing them in a dumpster, but have a huge impact.”


“Your first instinct may be to throw away burned-out lightbulbs, but these often take a long time to break down and can leak harmful chemicals during the erosion process,” explains Josh Cohen, founder and CEO of Junkluggers. Cohen’s company not only removes unwanted items, but sorts through it to repurpose as much as possible through local charities and take unsalvageable items to recycling facilities. He recommends recycling lightbulbs by finding a drop-off center at a local retailer or recycling center.


Many Americans simply throw away old cell phones, but this practice can negatively impact the environment. “Cell phones are made out of various synthetic materials,” Cohen explains. “If you throw them out, they can take at least 1,000 years to biodegrade, so instead of tossing them in the trash, you can recycle phones through a nonprofit or local retailer.”


When school is no longer in session, children tend to bring home broken or worn down crayons. “Instead of tossing the crayons, you can recycle them with the company Crazy Crayons,” Cohen advises. Crazy Crayons has a National Crayon Recycle Program, and to date, has prevented more than 120,000 pounds of unwanted crayons from ending up in a landfill. “Crazy Crayons boils down old crayons to create a brand-new 100% recycled product.”

Ink cartridges

Ink cartridges contain chemical components that can be harmful to the earth if disposed of improperly,” Cohen says.  He recommends recycling used cartridges through your local office supply store, and says you can sometimes mail them back to the manufacturer for free. “You can even refill certain kinds of cartridges with your own refill kit.”

Items you can’t recycle

While there are quite a few household items that you can recycle, there are some that you can’t. Here are a few that might surprise you:

Take-out food containers

Even though your food may arrive in a cardboard container, it cannot be recycled, according to Cohen. “Leftover grease or food can possibly contaminate other recycled materials, so tear off and recycle only the clean parts of your food container and compost the rest.”

Grocery bags

Those plastic grocery bags are not biodegradable. “They can take hundreds of years to decompose, and plastic bags are also a major source of marine debris,” Cohen says.  As an alternative, he recommends that you bring your own reusable bags with you when you shop.

Colored paper

While white paper is recyclable, Cohen says the dyes used in colored paper can easily run into other recycled paper when it’s processed together, and many paper mills won’t accept paper once it’s contaminated. “Consider buying easy-to-recycle pastel paper instead, and let your kids use up your current supply of construction paper to create collages or paper masks,” he says.

Plastic bottle caps

“While plastic bottles, detergent bottles and other containers can be recycled, be sure to remove the hard-plastic twist-off caps.”  They may look harmless, but Cohen says they’re usually made from plastics that cannot be recycled. “Look on Pinterest for some very unique DIY ideas for creating art from bottle caps, such as a bottle cap mosaic,” Cohen says.

Terri Williams is a freelance journalist with bylines at The Economist, USA Today, Yahoo, the Houston Chronicle, and U.S. News & World Report. Connect with her on Twitter or LinkedIn.


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