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Recycling 101: Commonly Mis-recycled Items

Mis-recycled items and where they should go instead.

Recycling is a necessary part of the circular economy, and most people realise the benefits of doing it. However, while almost all materials are recyclable – under the right conditions – due to lacking infrastructure and facilities, many cannot be. This can be confusing for people trying to do the right thing, as they may assume products and packaging are recyclable when they really aren’t.

Throwing non-recyclables into the recycling and hoping it gets recycled – a concept known as “wish cycling” – can actually have a detrimental effect, as it contaminates whole batches of recycling, which then have to be thrown in the landfill.

There are some items that many people mis-recycle frequently. Even the most seasoned recycler will give pause when they come across many of these items. So we’re going to go through some of the most commonly mis-recycled items and where they should go instead.

That said, it’s important to understand exactly what your local waste provider will and won’t accept. Recycling is hyper-localised, and there will always be exceptions. Please listen to your local provider if it differs from the information provided below.

1. Single-use coffee cups

One of the most common contaminants in a recycling bin is the single-use coffee cup. It feels and looks like paper, so it’s easy to assume it is. Unfortunately, to make it water-tight, it is lined with a thin layer of plastic, which makes it extremely difficult to recycle and is not accepted by most standard waste providers.

❌ Cannot be recycled in most places and should go in the landfill instead.

2. Single-use coffee cups lids

The most common material used for single-use coffee cup lids is #6 plastic polystyrene lids. This plastic is one of the hardest plastic types to recycle due to the lack of facilities needed to process it. It generally won’t be recycled by common waste providers, so the best place for it is in the landfill bin. Always double-check the lid, but if it’s number 6, throw it out.

❌ Cannot be recycled in most places and should go in the landfill.

3. Compostable coffee cups and lids

More and more cafes are beginning to use coffee cups that may be “compostable” as an alternative to non-recyclable cups. It may be natural then to assume they can go in the organics bin, but unfortunately, that is not always the case.

While technically compostable, many of these cups require specific industrial composting conditions in order to break down properly. Some places have such facilities, but each provider has its own requirements on which type of compostable material is accepted. This depends on how the compost is treated and what the resulting compost is used for.

❌ Unless there is a sign saying it can go in your organics bin, best to place it in your landfill bin.

Innocent Packaging March 2019 Final Selects 11

4. Other compostable packaging

In addition to coffee cups, other compostable packaging has hit the market recently. Some of these, like the coffee cup, are still lined with bioplastic and are less likely to be able to be composted. These should go in the landfill bin unless specified by your waste provider.

Other options look and feel like they’re made from paper material, but they’re actually made from plant materials or cornstarch and aren’t recyclable with your paper. These are most likely to be accepted in your organics bin, as they usually don’t have any bioplastics in them.

As pictured above, these packages from Innocent Packaging are made from Bagasse (a sugar pulp), bamboo or other organic materials that can contaminate a paper stream, but will break down in an organic stream.

❌ No compostable material should be recycled. Check the specifics of your waste provider, though, to see if they can be accepted in your organics bin instead.

5. Biodegradable packaging

Similar to compostable packaging, bioplastics have come on the market recently as an alternative to traditional plastic packaging. These are usually labelled with a #7, in the other plastics category. While it is very similar in appearance to #1 PET plastic, it's made from plant materials and therefore unable to go into your recycling bin.

However, because many bioplastics also contain chemicals, they may not be accepted in your organics bin either, even if they say “compostable.” That’s because, as mentioned above, these need very specific conditions to break down properly.

❌ #7 or biodegradable plastics can’t go in your traditional recycling bin and may also not be accepted in the organics.

6. Tissues, napkins, paper towels, & toilet paper

These products are usually made from recycled paper materials, but unfortunately, they’re not recyclable. Every time paper is recycled, the fibres become smaller and smaller, and by the time they’re used for tissue products, they’re usually too small to recycle again. Additionally, they usually end up with fluids or grease on them that make them unrecyclable. However, they may be suitable for your organics bin, if they’re unbleached.

Where possible/practicable, swap out these for reusable options like cloths instead of paper towels. Also, ensure the ones you do buy are unbleached so that you can put them in the organics bin.

❌These products aren’t suitable for recycling, but can often be composted if made from unbleached materials.

7. Non-recyclable plastics

As we discussed in one of our previous Recycling 101 articles, not all plastics are recyclable in your standard recycling bin, even if they have the chasing arrow symbol on them.

Generally speaking, #1 and #2 plastics are most readily accepted in recycling facilities, #5 is often recycled, and the rest are rarely recycled in kerbside and office recycling schemes. However, please check with your waste provider.

It’s rough learning that a lot of the plastics we see aren’t recycled, but knowing the more recyclable plastics helps us to make better purchasing decisions and avoid the non-recyclable ones.

🟠 1, 2, & 5 are most commonly recycled; the rest often go to landfill.

8. Un-numbered plastics

Un-numbered plastics are another common contaminant. Plastic without the chasing arrow symbol or number on it is also not recyclable. Often, the lack of recycling numbers means that the materials are a mix of plastics, and if they can’t be identified, they can’t risk going into the recycling stream.

One exception to this rule is soft plastics. Soft plastics are often identified by being able to be scrunched and not popping back into shape. Often these won't have a symbol or number on them due to how thin they are. However, soft plastics recycling schemes have become more common recently and will accept most varieties of soft plastics even if they’re unlabelled. Soft plastic recycling might be accepted by your waste provider, but usually accepted separately, such as in a bin at the grocery store.

❌ Plastics without recycling numbers aren’t commonly recycled and should go in the landfill.

9. Printer paper wrapping

Printer paper wrapping often ends up in the paper bin, but it more often than not has a layer of plastic or wax to keep it strong enough to hold the ream of paper.

However, times are changing, and some suppliers are working on this issue, such as this new carbon-neutral option that OfficeMax has recently released. They’ve added specific instructions that are to be recycled so that they can end up in the right place.

❌ Unless clearly marked, they go to landfill

10. Tetra Paks/liquid paperboard packaging

Tetra Paks – like milk or stock cartons – are recyclable; however, they require a particular machine to pull the materials apart that isn’t widely available. In New Zealand, for example, the Auckland Council is the only council to collect Tetra Paks in kerbside recycling and send them to Sydney for recycling, but not the rest of NZ currently. However, alternatives such as the NZ-based SAVEboard can accept materials like Tetra Paks to turn into building materials, but these must be collected separately.

🟠 Check your local requirements before throwing in recycling, or find alternative recycling methods.

11. Miscellaneous plastics

Toys, buckets, pipes, and anything else you might find around your house are best trying to find a second life through donations or giving them away over social platforms. Since “reuse” is higher on the waste hierarchy, this is a win-win for these products. That’s because, compared to plastic packaging, these materials are unlikely to be accepted in standard recycling streams.

However, some organisations have started to collect and recycle these materials, so a quick internet search might find a new life for these things.

❌ Not suitable for standard recycling programs generally, search in your area for specialised recyclers.

12. Glasses, crockery, and mirrors

Glass bottles and jars are some of the most widely recycled materials worldwide, so many assume that extends to all types of glass. Glass homeware, crockery, Pyrex, and mirrors can often end up in a recycling stream, but they are not recyclable with your standard glass recycling.

That’s because they tend to be made differently than other glass products, such as with heat-resistant treatments suitable for cooking. They, therefore, melt at different temperatures and could contaminate other glass recycling.

If you have some of these products that you no longer need, but are still usable, look to donate these to your local opportunity/charity shop.

❌ Not suitable for your standard glass recycling.

13. Receipts

This is a deceiving one as they look like and feel like paper – clearly recyclable, right? However, most thermal receipts, like the kind you get at any supermarket, include Bisphenol A (BPA), which not only makes them not recyclable, but is actually harmful to people in high enough doses.

If possible, choose an electronic receipt, or refuse them altogether. However, if you do end up with one, it has to go in the landfill.

❌ Say no thanks to receipts, and if you do get one put it in the landfill

Did we miss any? Let us know!

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