7 Things that Cannot Be Recycled (and What to Do with Them)

Recycling is a serious issue for the environmentally aware people all over the world. Those of us who are trying to do some good in the world also make a sustained effort to recycle or reuse everyday products in materials to prevent them from ending up in landfills.

Not so long ago, we talked about the advantages and disadvantages of recycling to show everybody a clear picture of what we are up against when it comes to this approach. Today we will change the viewing angle a little and discuss things that cannot be recycled (although many people think they can).

These items, products, and materials make a vast amount of landfills. Even if some statistics show that about 1/3 of Americans recycle and compost their everyday trash, we still have a long way ahead of us, since some things are hard to transform and put to new use. Let us see today seven things that cannot be recycled and focus a little on what we can do with them or about them.

1. Plastic Grocery Bags

If something is made out of plastic, this does not mean you can recycle it. In fact, while we have engaged in a veritable global race to recycle plastic, those common, every day, inconspicuous plastic grocery bags are one of those things that cannot be recycled.

Plastic bags are some of the most common plastic objects around the house, and we use them by the billions. They also end up in landfills and, even worse, in our oceans. We cannot recycle plastic bags because they tend to be caught in recycling machinery and potentially damage the equipment.

What Can We Do with Them?

The most reasonable idea is to ditch them altogether and replace them with cotton/canvas reusable shopping bags. You can also check if your local grocery store accepts your old plastic bags back for reuse, but this is a rare practice.

2. Plastic Bottle Caps and Other Plastic Items

Recycling plastic bottles is the main concern for many people. However, if you recycle plastic bottles, such as water or soda ones, detergent bottles or other containers with a hard plastic twist-off or flip-top cap, be sure to remove them before tossing them in the recycling bin. These types of caps are typically made from polypropylene, or plastic #5, and make one of the largest categories of things that cannot be recycled.

It is interesting to notice that while the world uses and disposes of billions of plastic bottles and bottle caps, the latter also make a massive component of landfills and ocean garbage.

Among other plastic items you cannot recycle, there are bubble wraps, plastic wraps, food-storage bags, trash bags, food plastic bags, toys, shower curtains, piping, window frames, and more.

What Can We Do with Them?

Giving up plastic bottles completely and switching to glass bottles and jars is one way of making sure you save the planet from even more trash. Some of these caps, plastic wraps, refrigerator plastic bags, and so on can make the object of DIY repurposing projects.

However, it is not likely that you will be able to reuse all the plastic caps and un-recyclable plastic items you collect. Therefore there are high chances that they will eventually end up in landfills. Think well before you buy plastic bottles and containers next time you go grocery shopping.

3. Styrofoam

Styrofoam, or expanded polystyrene, cannot be recycled. Expanded polystyrene, what we usually call Styrofoam, is present daily in our lives, even if sometimes we do not pay a lot of attention to it. Most Styrofoam items include takeaway food containers, Styrofoam coffee cups, coolers, etc.

Though some EPS containers come with #6 for recycling, most community recycling programs do not accept them. It is not impossible to recycle EPS, but cups and plates often still have food and drink particles contaminating them. There is no way to recycle soiled materials, and this includes all food packaging.

What Can We Do with It?

Repurposing EPS is a difficult process, while demand for the finished product is low. About half of it enters the cycle of making more packing material but in a small quantity. Styrofoam does it biodegrade, and you should be careful to limit your use of these types of products.

4. Certain Paper Products

If we cannot recycle paper, what can we recycle then? The question is valid, and we can and do recycle paper, with a few exceptions. There are certain types of paper products that we cannot recycle, because of either some issues related to contamination or some problems related to their composition.

Such items include napkins, paper towels, and tissues, which are too contaminated to make it to the recycling plants. Other things that cannot be recycled include laminated paper, paper with a plastic coating, or heavily dyed paper.

Although you may think all the carton coffee cups you get on your way to work will go in the recycling bin, they usually won’t. Takeaway coffee cups are made of paper and many people assume that they too can be recycled. However, takeaway coffee cups are also treated with a special coating (often wax). This is so that they can safely contain your hot beverage.

This makes the cup non-recyclable. Part of the problem with coffee cups is that the protective sleeve is usually recyclable, but many consumers do not realize that only the cover should end up in the recycling bin. They throw the whole lot in, which is not good.

Items such as coffee cups, juice and milk boxes, chip bags, food bags, frozen food boxes, takeaway carton or paper containers (pizza boxes and so on), and other materials that have plastic, glossy or shiny coating are not recyclable. Sometimes, they include glossy magazines as well.

What Can We Do With Them?

Besides limiting their use, you can think about composting some of them. Moreover, you can try repurposing them and transforming them into other items – if you are into DIY projects. Cardboard repurposing is not impossible; you have to know what to do.

Another idea is to support the coffee shops and to-go food and drinks joints that use recyclable coffee cups. They do exist. Awareness and advocacy are the main and some of the most important steps you can take.

5. Certain Types of Glass

We have discussed the glass recycling process in detail. However, we have not touched the subject of glass that cannot be recycled, and now that time has come. Among the non-recyclable glass items, we can count ceramics (plates, mugs, and other ceramic kitchen items) and other glass items. Glass food containers, rinsed well, are often recycled. If they are broken, though, do not put them in the bin. Other glass products you cannot recycle include some window glass, mirrors, and some glass cooking dishes.

What Can We Do With Them?

Turn your damaged mugs and ceramic containers into flowerpots for your balcony or porch. If you want to recycle glass items, make sure they are crispy clean and not broken. There are many arts and crafts DIY projects that include broken glass, but we use more than we can repurpose. This is why one way to go about this is to limit their use.

6. Paint

Most latex paints go to a special place to turn into new latex paint. Therefore, check with your local recycling authority to see if you have such facilities in your community. Old paint often contains lead or mercury and cannot be recycled. The same goes for oil and acrylic paints used for arts and crafts. Other things that cannot be recycled include painted building materials or wood fencing.

What Can We Do About It?

You can reclaim and reuse painted wood items. Be mindful of recycling latex paint and keep using your stored arts and crafts paints and oils until you finish them. Try using only recyclable paint.

7. Books

Similar to coffee cups, people assume that books are paper, so they must be recyclable. Unfortunately, many books are bound together using glue varieties. This means they can ruin the recycling process and cause a whole batch of potentially recycled paper to go to waste.

If old, broken books also feature sticky tape, they will not go to the recycling plant. This is because the sticky tape is plastic and it is not recyclable. It can severely prevent the paper from being thoroughly mulched. Moreover, paperback editions feature a thin plastic coating with a glossy effect. As we saw above, heavily painted paper or plastic wraps do not make the category of products that we can recycle.

What Can We Do About Them?

We are all much better off donating our old books (and anything bound, such as college courses or study materials) to our nearest charity shop, library or school, orphanages, retirement homes, hospitals, or foundations.


This was our list of things that cannot be recycled. Many of the items on this list are so commonplace we tend to ignore them when we think about water and land pollution. However, as long as we are aware that we overuse some products that do not make the recycling factories, we can become more mindful about limiting their use or come up with innovative ideas to repurpose them.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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