5 Surprising Things You Can’t Recycle (And What To Do Instead!)

August 16, 2021

Paper reading "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" by a succulent and pen

If you’ve ever turned over a plastic container, only to give up after seeing strange numbers and acronyms like PETE, PVC, LDPE and more stamped across the bottom, you’re not alone.

Often, recycling can feel like a fraught and hopeless battle, with research stating that one misrecycled thing can cause a whole batch of recycling to go to the waste bin instead. 

Although the fear of misrecycling is real, feel more confident in your recycling decisions by educating yourself on the do’s and don’ts of recycled goods. Read on to learn five surprising things you may be recycling, and what you can do instead. 

 1. Paper Towels 

Despite its paper base, paper towels themselves cannot be recycled due to the shortness of the fiber and their linkage with food/grease/cleaning products which have the potential to contaminate the recycling process. For that reason, many eco-friendly individuals have opted to use reusable paper towels instead. The problem? Not every mess is best managed with a reusable fabric, and every once in a while a paper-based paper towel is the only option available. When those situations arise, learn more about how to properly dispose of your paper towel below. 

What To Do: Did you know that paper towels are actually compostable? Depending on the substance you cleaned up, composting your paper towels is a much more environmentally-friendly way to dispose of the paper towels that could otherwise fill up your garbage can. When deciding whether to compost or not, consider whether the paper towel came in contact with any harsh chemicals, pet waste, or oil. If the answer is yes, place the paper towel in the trash to avoid contaminating your compost. Otherwise, compost away!

2. Shredded Documents/Paper 

While the workforce is growing increasingly digital, less than 8 years ago the EPA estimated that the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper each year.

As we wrestle with that staggering number, this statistic becomes even more concerning when we consider that every document, receipt, and piece of paper shredded in the office shredder cannot be recycled and therefore becomes landfill waste. Looking for creative solutions to save those waste bins of shredded paper? Explore some suggestions below. 

What To Do: For the crafty consumer, consider creating new, recycled sheets of paper using this DIY paper method. Other options include using it as packing paper, mixing the shredded paper with soil for your outdoor plants, or adding it to your compost or vermicompost. Additionally, pet parents can line shredded paper in your pet’s crate or donate to a local animal shelter or vet office for bedding.

3. Broken Glass 

Just because an item is made of glass doesn’t mean you can recycle it. In fact, if any of that glass is broken it’s considered hazardous for waste handlers and should be disposed of in the trash instead, for fear of having the whole parcel of recycling thrown away by recycling plants. However, not being able to recycle glass doesn’t mean you can’t reuse it. Read on to figure out how to upcycle broken glass for a repurposed use. 

What To Do: If you’re looking for a rainy day project, making mosaics could be the solution! DIY-ers online offer a variety of mosaic projects to make with your broken glass, from these stepping stone mosaic tiles to this more advanced mason jar backsplash. Since some of these projects require a fair amount of broken glass, consider allocating a specific jar as a broken glass collector, and add in bits of broken glass until you have enough to start a mosaic. If crafting isn’t your thing, you can also consider upcycling broken pieces of crockery (pots, plates, planters, etc) by placing them in the bottom of flower and plant pots to assist with proper water drainage.  

4. Clamshell Berry Containers 

If you’ve been recycling those strawberry and blueberry containers due to their deceptive plastic appearance, you’re in for an unfortunate reality check. Due to their thin nature, berry containers (aka clamshell containers) are simply too flimsy to heat and repurpose in recycling. While there are smarter, more sustainable options such as buying local berries or picking your own, for those who can’t afford the time or cost of locally-sourced berries, I’ve outlined some solutions for you below. 

What To Do: Online gardeners across recycling blogs tout the use of berry containers as the perfect solution to start those seedling planters. My personal favorite alternative option comes from Enviromom’s blog, who suggests turning these plastics into a DIY shrinky dink project (talk about a blast from the past!).  Beyond that, berry containers can also be used as sandwich containers for a lunch box or a colander to rinse fruit and veggies. If you collect enough, you can also reach out to local art teachers and see if there might be any use for the containers in the classroom.

5. Receipts

According to a 2018 report by the Ecology Center’s Health Stuff Program, 93% of tested receipts contained hazardous chemicals like BPA (Bisphenol A) or BPS (Bisphenol S) which have been linked with issues of brain development, reproductive abilities, and heart and lung health. Due to their toxic nature, these thermal paper receipts can neither be composted nor recycled, and should be disposed of in the trash can.

What To Do: Due to their toxic nature, avoiding receipts is the most eco-friendly way to go. As much as possible, request an e-receipt sent to your email or opt for no receipt at all. Since manufacturers are making more than 8 billion pounds of BPA worldwide every year, it’s important to divest from receipt consumption as much as possible.


Have a recycling question? 

Check out this helpful resource, RecycleThis.co.uk, to ask the best way to recycle an item. To date, this site has covered everything from toilet seats and old board games to bonfire ashes and bottle caps.  Recycle This also offers an adjacent website, Compost This for further insights into reducing your overall environmental impact. Whatever you do, whether repurposing, reducing, or recycling, know every consumer choice can make a difference.

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Photo: Vlada Karpovich via Pexels

Dana Drosdick
Dana is a marketer living in Saratoga Springs, NY with a passion for all things related to stewardship, faith, wellness, and personal enrichment. Her work has been featured in various Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, The Odyssey Online, and The Banner Magazine. Follow her at @danadrosdick on Instagram for foodie trends, her latest book recommendations, and far too many photos of clementines.


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