Commonly Recycled Materials

Batteries, Plastic, Paper, Glass, Aluminum, Steel, Motor Oil, Tires, Toxics, Refrigerators, Computer Printers, False Claims, Curbside Recycling Tips

This guide attempts to cover everything an informed consumer should know about commonly recycled materials, in plain no-nonsense terms. Special attention is given to materials that are poorly understood or hard to recycle, like motor oil and rechargeable batteries. Also see our World's Shortest Comprehensive Recycling Guide.


With a little bit of care much plastic can be recycled, and collection of plastics for recycling is increasing rapidly. Plastic recycling faces one huge problem: plastic types must not be mixed for recycling, yet it is impossible to tell one type from another by sight or touch. Even a small amount of the wrong type of plastic can ruin the melt. The plastic industry has responded to this problem by developing a series of cryptic markers, commonly seen on the bottom of plastic containers. These markers do not mean the plastic can be recycled, these makers do not mean the container uses recycled plastic. Despite the confusing use of the chasing arrow symbol, these markers only identify the plastic type.

[1-PETE  2-HDPE  3-V  4-LDPE  5-PP  6-PS  7-Other] Virtually everything made of plastic should be marked with a code. Not all types can actually be recycled. Types 1 and 2 are widely accepted in container form, and type 4 is sometimes accepted in bag form. Code 7 is for mixed or layered plastic with little recycling potential. You should place in your bin only those types of plastic listed by your local recycling agency! Due to fluctuating market conditions, some colors or shapes may be useless to the recycling agency.

#6 plastic, by the way, is great for do-it-yourself shrink art (like the commercial product shrinky dinks).

Recycling #5 Open Top Containers (Yogurt, Cottage Cheese, Strawberry Baskets)

[Gimme 5 Collection Program]For decades, the #5 cups have been the bane of the good home recycler. The cups are hard to avoid buying, and mostly useless for recycling. Many curbside collection programs won't complain if these are placed in a bin, but they won't recycle them either.

Finally there is a good option for some people. Preserve Products offers pickup at select Whole Foods Locations. Simply stack your containers until you have enough to justify the trip.

Other plastic Containers (milk, soap, juice, fresh pasta, water, etc.)

All plastic containers you purchase should be marked with a large and clear recycling code (C). This code must be molded into the plastic and located on the bottom surface of the container. Ideally the entire container should be made of the same plastic to avoid confusion, but often the caps are of a different type. Caps should be separately marked, but few are (B). Note that most caps are NOT of the same type as the bottle they sit on.

Grocery sacks, produce bags, and other packaging

These are great to reuse. Not only do you save a new bag, but your old bags don't smell like chemicals (the 'plastic bag smell' is mostly plasticizer chemicals that outgas from the bags).

Plastic grocery and produce sacks are commonly, but not always, made from plastic types 2 or 4. These bags are often collected in barrels at grocery stores, and usually end up as plastic lumber. Collection is not particularly profitable.

Other Plastic Items

Any product made of a single plastic type should be marked -- after all the product may one day break or be replaced. This includes toys, plastic hangars, trash cans, shelves, baskets, rain ponchos, and many other products (B). Many products, such as compact discs, video tapes, and computer discs, are made from mixed materials which can't be recycled unless first disassembled.

Glass, Steel, Aluminum Cans and Foil

Glass, steel (or "tin") and aluminum are easy to recognize and recycle. For clarity, a recycling symbol should be present, but most people have little trouble sorting these materials. Glass bottles must not be mixed with other types of glass such as windows, light bulbs, mirrors, glass tableware, Pyrex or auto glass. Ceramics contaminate glass and are difficult to sort out. Clear glass is the most valuable. Mixed color glass is near worthless, and broken glass is hard to sort.

There have been marketing experiments with plastic and steel cans that look exactly like aluminum cans. Recycling plants have been damaged by these fakes. The distinctive shape of an aluminum beverage can must be reserved for aluminum beverage cans only (C).

It is no longer necessary to remove labels for recycling. To save water, clean only enough to prevent odors. Unlike with plastics, the high temperature of glass and metal processing deals easily with contamination.

Scrap aluminum is accepted in many places. Other metals are rarely accepted.

Aseptic Packaging (Drink boxes, soy-milk containers)

The square boxes used for liquids are called "Aseptics", the most common brand of which is "Tetra Pak". Aseptics are made from complex layers of plastic, metal and paper. The aseptic industry has spent millions in public education on the issue of aseptic recycling, including distribution of classroom guides and posters like "Drink Boxes are as Good on the Outside as They are on the Inside" and "A Day in the Life of a Drink Box". The actual recycling process, unfortunately, is very expensive and awkward, and is therefore only available in a very few places. Coca-Cola maintains a list of aseptic recyclers, call 1-800-888-6488 for information. Because of the difficulties, only an insignificant fraction of aseptic packages are currently recycled.


Most types of paper can be recycled. Newspapers have been recycled profitably for decades, and recycling of other paper is growing. Virgin paper pulp prices have soared in recent years prompting construction of more plants capable of using waste paper. They key to recycling is collecting large quantities of clean, well-sorted, uncontaminated and dry paper.

[RECYCLING LOGO] 50% recycled paper,
35% post-consumer.
Soy-based inks.

It is important to know what you are buying in a paper product, for that reason virtually all paper products should be marked with the percentage and type of recycled content, as above (C). Just saying "recycled paper" is not enough. "Recycled paper" could mean anything from 100% true recycled paper to 1% re-manufactured ends of large paper rolls. "Post-consumer" means the paper that you and I return to recycling centers. From a recycling point of view, the more "post-consumer" paper the better. Soybean-based inks are gaining favor as a renewable alternative to harsh and toxic petrochemical inks.

White Office Paper

One of the highest grades of paper is white office paper. Acceptable are clean white sheets from the likes of laser printers and copy machines. Colored, contaminated, or lower grade paper is not acceptable. The wrappers the paper comes in are of lower grade, and not acceptable. Staples are OK. White office paper may be downgraded, and recycled with mixed paper.

Corrugated Cardboard

In areas that don't take cardboard from consumers, one can often drop boxes off at a supermarket or other high volume business. Contaminated cardboard, like greasy pizza boxes, is not acceptable. In some areas cardboard must be free of tape, but staples are always OK.


Newspaper is widely available and of uniform consistency, which makes it valuable. The entire newspaper including inserts acceptable, except for things like plastic, product samples and rubber bands. Newspapers may be stuffed in large brown grocery sacks, or tied with natural-fiber twine. Other brown paper bags may be mixed with newspaper.

Phone books

Some phone books are made with a special glue that breaks down in water, while other phone books use a glue that interferes with recycling. Printed in your phone book should be information on the source and type of paper used, the nature of the binding, and where locally phone books can be recycled (C). Note that many phone companies continue to use virgin rain forest to produce directories. In many communities phone books are only accepted during the time new directories are distributed.

Waxed cartons (Milk, juice)

Milk cartons are plastic laminated inside, even if they don't have a plastic spout. (C).

Mixed Paper

Mixed paper is a catch-all for types of paper not specifically mentioned above. Everything you can imagine from magazines to packaging is acceptable. The paper must still be clean, dry, and free of food, most plastic, wax, and other contamination. Staples are OK.

Remove plastic wrap, stickers, product samples, and those pointless "membership" cards, and most junk mail can be recycled as mixed paper. Due to new technology, plastic window envelopes and staples are generally OK.

Paper that can't be recycled

Paper that can't be recycled as normal "mixed paper" includes: food contaminated paper, waxed paper, waxed cardboard milk & juice containers, oil soaked paper, carbon paper, sanitary products or tissues, thermal fax paper, stickers and plastic laminated paper such as fast food wrappers, juice boxes, and pet food bags.

Paper with any sort of contamination or plastic layers can't be recycled. Plastic laminated paper is bad for recycling plants; such paper should be clearly marked (A).

Old refrigerators, Heat Pumps & Air Conditioners

Most older refrigeration equipment contains freon, a chemical know as a Chlorinated Fluorocarbon or "CFC" for short. Each molecule of a CFC can destroy over 100,000 molecules of the earth's protective ozone coating, leading to increased risk of sunburn, cataracts and skin cancer for the entire population of the planet (human AND animal).

If you are throwing away an old refrigerator, heat pump or air conditioner please be sure the CFC's are drained out and recycled first. Use only a hauler who will perform this important service -- call and ask before you let them take your old equipment away. Before having your car's air conditioner serviced, ask what the shop does with the freon. Never allow a leaking refrigeration system to be recharged.

A number of international treaties, federal and state laws govern the use of CFC's. Handlers of refrigeration equipment can get information on laws and recycling equipment from AHRI.

Single Use Batteries (Alkaline, Heavy Duty)

Once recommended for the trash, increasingly these batteries are collected. Not that they are actually recycled: often they are simply put in a more expensive landfill. The State of California mandates recycling of such batteries.

With the invention of "low self discharge" or "precharged" NiMH batteries, single use batteries are all but obsolete. A leading "low discharge" brand is the Sanyo Eneloop, costing less than 3 times that of a typical single use battery. Investing in a "smart" charger is a must for the best battery life. Shop for models with microprocessor control (not a timer), and the ability to charge each battery individually (not two or four at a time). A good comparison and shopping site is

Rechargeable Batteries (other than car batteries)

Rechargeable batteries are commonly used in portable telephones, computers, power tools, shavers, electric toothbrushes, radios, video tape recorders and other consumer products. There are a variety of different battery types, some of which contain quite toxic materials.

[RBRC Battery Recycling Logo]The Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (Call to Recycle) is an industry funded group promoting battery recycling. Manufacturers pay a fee to use the logo shown to the right, and to support the costs of the eventual collection of the batteries they sell.

For a nearby drop-off location:

Nickel Cadmium (Ni-Cd), Nickel Metal Hydride (Ni-MH), Lithium Ion (Li-ion), and Small Sealed Lead (Pb) batteries can all be recycled. Several states now prohibit consumers from dumping rechargeable batteries into the normal trash. Nickel-Cadmium rechargeable batteries ("NiCads") contain cadmium, a metal that causes blood and reproductive damage, among other problems. Most of the Cadmium in our waste stream comes from batteries. These batteries pose little hazard in use (the Cadmium is in a stable form), but are a danger in landfills.

Worn-out batteries are often easily replaced. While many batteries are custom shapes (just you so have to buy a special battery) the chemistry inside is identical. A clever repairperson can replace just about any rechargeable battery.

Motor Oil, Tires and Car Batteries

All three of these products are big environmental problems, but all three are easily recycled.

Used motor oil contains heavy metals and other toxic substances, and is considered hazardous waste. Each year do-it-yourself oil changers improperly dump more oil than the tanker Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaska's Prince William Sound. One quart of oil can kill fish in thousands of gallons of water. Motor oil containers should mention the danger of used oil to humans and the environment (C).

-=NOTE!=- Motor oil must never be dumped in storm drains; storm drains flow *untreated* into rivers, lakes or oceans. Your quart of oil *does* make a difference - don't dump it.

Recycling used motor oil is easy. Typically you used oil into a plastic milk jug and clearly mark it "used motor oil". The following should help you find a location to take the oil. Please drop off oil during regular business hours only:

Antifreeze contaminates motor oil - do not mix the two. If your car has blown a gasket and you are draining the oil, mark it clearly as potentially contaminated and treat it as non-recyclable household waste (see below). Never mix anything with used motor oil. Never place used oil in a container that has contained other chemicals.

You normally must pay a fee to dispose of a tire (usually $1-$5), but it is worth it. Improperly disposed tires tend to rise to the top of landfills, breed mosquitoes, transit disease when traded globally, and burn when stacked in large piles.

Your old car battery might be worth money. Even if not, any car parts shop will take it.

Computer Printers

Most printer cartridges are easily recycled, refilled or re-built. But printer vendors sell the printer cheap, and make their real money selling supplies. They don't want you be environmental.

The "right" environmental solution is to sell new cartridges with a postage paid mailer for returning the old one. Some forward-thinking companies, such as Hewlett-Packard, have been known to do this, especially for laser printers (A). Sometimes you can find free envelopes for donating cartridges to a refiller, but don't bother with refill kits. They may save money, but they are messy, and you use as much plastic as a new cartridge.

To make a difference, buy recycled paper for your printer (because of the fine grain, it can look better than regular sliced trees). Grab piles of "blank on one side" paper from work, and use the other side. And always buy recycled. See The Yahoo! Recycled Printer Supplies Listing.

Encourage your company to buy a printer with duplexing (two sided printing), and to hire a company to take away waste paper regularly. WARNING: You may have a recycle bin at your company. Stay a little late one night and ask the cleaning people where it goes. You may be in for a shock.


[Worms!] It may seem strange to see the word compost on a recycling page, but compost is just recycled plant matter. Food and yard scraps placed in a special bin are converted into valuable garden soil in a matter of weeks. Compost bins are available at garden stores & nurseries. Composting can easily reduce by half the volume of material a household sends to a landfill. If you don't care about accelerating the processing, just keep adding material at the top. Just try to keep a balance of dry "brown" materials and fresh "green" material. For more technical information, try visiting the On-line Composting Center.

Lots of things you'd otherwise throw away can be composted, including wine bottle corks, cooking oils, certain types of foam packing peanuts, used paper towels, dryer lint, etc. If it is natural, you can probably compost it without trouble!

Household toxics

Individuals tend to be very sloppy when it comes to handling toxic materials in the home. Individuals often handle toxic chemicals in ways businesses would be fined for. The heaviest application of agricultural chemicals in the USA comes not from agribusiness, but rather from home gardeners. Indoor air pollution from household products is often found to exceed allowable federal outdoor quality rules.

Items such as poisons, paints, oil, solvents, automotive fluids, cleaners, herbicides and many others must not be dumped into the regular garbage. Water seeps through landfills and toxics end up in the water table. In areas that burn garbage, your toxics may end up in the air you breathe. The best thing to do is use what you buy, buy only what you need.

If you have accumulated toxics, check with your garbage company or local recycling agency -- almost all areas have household toxics drop-off days or locations.

-=NOTE!=- Chemicals must must never be dumped in storm drains; such drains typically flow *untreated* into rivers, lakes or oceans.

Think Outside the Bottle

In the 1970's nobody drank water out of single use bottles. Today single use bottles predominate: water deliverd in plastic by trucks. Yet pipe delivered water faces much strong safety standards, and is far less environmentally intense. See Think Outside the Bottle and Bottled and Sold. What can you do? Purchase a stainless steel water bottle for your personal use. Encourage shops and business districts to make taps available for refilling personal bottles.

Propane Canisters


False claims

How can one be sure that stated environmental claims are actually true? Manufacturers have been known to make misleading, trivial, irrelevant and false statements on packaging. Statements like "recycled" or "earth friendly" are so vague as to have no practical meaning. The more specific a claim, the easier it is verify.

[SCIENTIFIC CERTIFICATION SYSTEMS] [GREEN SEAL] [Certified Wood] Several prominent independent certification laboratories exist to verify environmental claims. Only products meeting the standards of the organization may display the logos shown here. For more information click on the logos. For the federal government perspective, try the FTC Environmental Guidelines.

Other things you can do

Valid HTML 4.0! From the Consumer Recycling Guide, Contents Copyright 1996-2006 Obviously Enterprises. Keywords: consumer recycling guide, curbside recycling guide, household recycling, environmental activism.