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What to Recycle? List of 11 Recyclable Household Items & Materials

By Heather Levin

kids recyclingDid you know that the average person in the United States generates around 4.5 pounds of waste every single day? Multiply that by around 300 million, and you can see why garbage has become a serious problem in this country. This is just one reason why recycling is so important.

Recycling not only saves valuable space in our landfills, but it also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And when we recycle, we also have to use fewer resources like water and energy to turn that item into another usable item. Recycling is good for us, the planet, and it can also save you money. If your waste management company charges you monthly based on how much garbage you throw away, you will save money by recycling.

Finding a Recycling Center

You can recycle almost all of your garbage. Some experts estimate that 90% of the items going in a landfill could be recycled, if only we had the resources in all areas, and made the effort. If you live near an urban center, there is probably a recycling program available in your area. Even without curbside pickup service, a recycling drop-off facility may be close by.

If you want to find a local recycling program in your area, visit Earth911.com. This site has a searchable database that allows you to find recycling facilities by zip code. The small town where I live in Michigan has a curbside recycling program, but they don’t accept Styrofoam. Since Styrofoam takes millions of years to decompose, I did not want to throw any in the garbage.

I did a quick search on Earth911.com and found a recycling center less than a mile away from my house. I didn’t even know it was there! All I had to do was join the non-profit center, pay the yearly membership fee of $25 for unlimited drop offs, and drop off my recycling. Now, I use the drop-off center in addition to my city’s curbside recycling program.

Before you start throwing garbage in your recycle bins, check with your local recycling service to see what they recycle. This varies from service to service, and you can usually find a list of recyclable items on the company’s website. In addition, the recycling service website likely includes details about how to separate recyclables for curbside pick-up. A list of common household items you can recycle is below.

colorful recycling bins

Recyclable Household Items and Materials

1. Junk Mail and Cards
You can recycle most of the mail that comes into your home. Make it easy by placing a small recycling bin next to the door you use to retrieve your mail. This helps you remember to recycle junk mail as you walk back inside. Recycle the empty envelopes that remain once you’ve opened your mail, including envelopes with plastic windows. Even better, make the effort to go paperless at home.

Look for oversized recycling bins located outside of some schools and churches. Many organizations put these bins outside their buildings to raise money. Parents drop off their paper recycling, and the school sells the paper to a recycling facility. The paper gets recycled, and the school or church receives some badly needed funds. Most of these recycling bins are dumpsters painted bright yellow or green. Once you know to look out for them, they’re hard to miss.

2. Books
Donate or sell any books that you no longer read. You can also recycle books that have been destroyed. Keep in mind that outdated books can still have a new life on eBay or Etsy. “Outdated” often means “vintage,” to savvy book collectors.

3. Shredded Paper
Most curbside recycling programs accept shredded paper; just make sure you put it in a paper bag, so that it can be recycled properly and doesn’t blow all over the place. Also, some recycling services do not recycle cross-cut shredded paper that is cut too small to make new paper.

If you compost, you can add shredded paper to your compost pile. I do vermicomposting at my house, which means I compost food scraps using worms. I put shredded paper into my vermicompost bins; the worms break it down in just a few short weeks, and in return I get rich, nutritious and free compost for my home garden. Vermicomposting reduces food waste, so if you toss a lot of food out each week, you might want to consider this recycling option.

cardboard recycling stacks

4. Ink Cartridges
Most printer ink cartridges contain toxic materials that should not go in the trash. Major business supply stores, including Staples and Best Buy, will take your old ink cartridges for recycling. You can also receive a discount off the purchase of a new ink cartridge when you bring your old cartridge to some office supply stores.

5. Disposable Plates and Cups
If you throw a party, make sure your guests don’t toss their disposables in the trash. Recycle these items instead. Most plastic cups and plates can go in the recycle bin, and you can compost paper plates. You can also shred them, and put them underneath your mulch, around the base of your plants and flowers. Paper plates break down after several weeks, and help retain moisture and provide nutrients for your plants.

6. CD and DVD Cases
A couple of years ago I condensed my CDs and DVDs. I burned digital copies of my CDs, and put my DVDs into fabric CD collection cases. This saved a lot of space in my house. Once I finished the project, I was left with several CD and DVD cases. The good news? I recycled all of them. I can recycle CD and DVD cases using my curbside service.

If your recycling program doesn’t accept the CD and DVD plastic cases, check Earth911.com. Type in “CD case” into the database search box, and enter your zip code to find a nearby facility that recycles CD and DVD cases. You can also recycle CDs and DVDs free of charge at Best Buy. All Best Buy stores have a recycling center near the front doors and accept electronic waste as well.

7. Cardboard
You can recycle cardboard boxes, including cereal boxes, pizza boxes, cracker boxes, and any other type of paper packaging. Not recycling these items causes a negative environmental impact.

8. Household Batteries
The toxic materials in batteries greatly contribute to pollution, especially when they break down in our landfills. Recycling household batteries is easy. Many libraries and post offices collect household batteries for recycling.

batteries recycle

9. CFL Bulbs
Did you know that compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs contain a tiny bit of mercury? Because of this, you cannot dispose of CFL bulbs in your curbside recycling or in the trash. You can, however, drop off CFL bulbs for safe disposal at any Home Depot or IKEA. You can also safely dispose of these types of items at a hazardous waste facility. Your recycling service’s website should include details about where to find local hazardous waste facilities.

10. Old TVs
Most American households have three TVs. Most of the time, as these TVs age, they get replaced, and the old TV ends up in the garbage. TVs contain harmful chemicals and ingredients. In fact, Mother Nature Network reports that old analog TVs could contain up to eight pounds of lead and other heavy metals.

Best Buy recycles appliances, including TVs. If you have a TV smaller than 32 inches, this service is free when the TV is dropped off at a Best Buy store. For larger TVs and other appliances, Best Buy charges a flat fee of $100 to pick up one or two appliances. Before dropping off your TV, contact the Best Buy store to receive specific instructions about recycling your television. You can also search Earth911.com to find facilities in your area that recycle televisions.

Avoid shady recyclers. These people park semi trucks on busy streets, and post “Recycle Your Electronics Here” signs. They sell your electronics to recycling companies, who ship the electronics to third world countries for dismantling and disposal. This is not a responsible way to recycle your electronics. For more information on how to safely recycle your electronics, see our article on Electronic Waste Recycling and Disposal.

11. Power Cords
Do you have a drawer full of old chargers and power cords? Most people do, because we regularly upgrade our cameras and cell phones. Like any electronic device, these items should never be thrown away. Search Earth911.com to find recycling centers in your area that accept computer components and power cords.

Final Word

Recycling doesn’t have to be a challenging chore. In fact, I’ve turned it into a game. I try to see how much I can whittle away from my family’s garbage each week. By recycling and composting much of my family’s waste, I only have one plastic bag of garbage to dispose of each week.

If you find it difficult to recycle, turn recycling into a game. Pit yourself against your neighbors, to see who can throw out the least amount of trash. Seeing recycle bins full to the brim with recyclables is a wonderful sight.

Are you actively recycling your trash? What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve been faced with?

(photo credit: Shutterstock)

Heather Levin
Heather Levin is a freelance writer based in Detroit, MI. She's passionately committed to living green, saving money, and helping others do the same in their life.

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  • Olivia

    In our area only certain things are accepted. Only plastics with “1″ or “2″ or HDPE”, any cardboard or paper without a shiny finish, clear glass, rinsed out aluminum or mixed metal cans. No envelopes with glassine windows, no cardboard with grease on it (IE pizza boxes), nothing with staples (catalogs), no other numbered plastics. All cardboard needs to be squashed and folded to fit within certain dimensions. It can be tied with twine or put into a plastic bag for pick up, but it can’t be loose.

    When we first moved here we didn’t know the ropes and got a written warning. The info we get now says we could be fined if we don’t recycle or if we recycle “improperly”. I’m constantly pulling the “wrong” numbered plastics out of the recycling bin. Makes you feel like “big brother is watching….”.

    • Casey Slide

      Oh, wow. That is why it is so important to find out what you can recycle in your area. That is so crazy that they can fine you for not recycling or recycling improperly.

  • Stephanie

    I actually didn’t know you couldn’t recycle plastic bags until my sister told me. We use them to scoop the kitty litter box (cuts down on the smell when you put it in the trash), but most of the ones I saw said “reuse or recycle”. Weird.

    I put all of my CD cases on Freecycle. It’s amazing what people will take.

    As for the pizza boxes, you have to be careful. If they have a lining that keeps the grease off the cardboard, that’s great. Otherwise, I guess it can be a serious issue when they go to recycle them? We, at least, have Waste Management, so we don’t have to sort the recycling anymore.

    • Casey Slide

      Yes, you do have to be careful about grease and food particles when you are recycling. I used to always try to recycle plastic bags until someone anonymously put a note in my mailbox telling me that I couldn’t. Oops. Lesson learned!

    • Helen

      Lots of public libraries are SO glad to get donated CD cases.

      • Casey Slide

        Oh cool. I didn’t know that. I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks!

  • http://change-is-possible.net Heather

    Our municipality prohibits recycling shredded paper – it jams up the machines, I guess.

    So I only shred the parts of the page that need to be shredded (sensitive numbers, name, address, etc.) and recycle the rest.

    Use reusable shopping bags and you won’t have to wonder what to do with all the plastic!

  • Casey

    Oh yes, using reusable shopping bags is ideal. I do use plastic bags though to clean up after my dogs!

  • http://www.reality-green.info Pastor Dennis

    Nice comments, but you haven’t gone far enough. There is still too much confusion about what to recycle and what not to! Every city within the United States wants to do the right thing by having their citizens recycle, but they don’t have the money to educate everyone on proper recycle maintenance! Blessings to everyone this holiday season!!!

    • Casey Slide

      True, true. I live in an amazing county that put out a video on their website that explains what we are able to recycle. However, not every service does that nor does every one have Internet access. You make an excellent point.

  • Crystal

    Im mostly confused about the best way to compact all this stuff into bins. Like what stuff can be mixed together so that its less space being taken up in my house.

    • Heather

      Crystal, you can easily break papers down into brown paper bags; that’s what I do. But each recycling program is different. Your city might want you to keep tin/metal, paper, and plastics in separate bags, or they might not care if you mix them all together. It’s best to call your city to find out how they want it sorted.

      As far as keeping it organized, I just keep my recycling bins in the garage. I have a small bin in my kitchen for paper/plastic, where I put our recyclables in daily. Then, at night, I take that small bin and dump it into the recycling bins in the garage. This keeps clutter down. :) Good luck!

  • Mirna95304

    can food cans as ell be recycled?

  • Write2youngt

    Is painting can be recycled?

  • Write2youngt

    Is painting can be recycled?

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