How to Recycle What Can't Go in Your Curbside Bin
Updated: Mar 2, 2019
While putting everything all in one bin certainly makes recycling more convenient (called 'single-stream recycling'), it can result in 'wish-cycling', where residents put items in their bins that they're either not quite sure should be there or are simply unaware that it's an unrecyclable item. Unfortunately, that can result in bins being considered contaminated, and the entire contents of the bin are either landfilled or incinerated. Some items can even result in damage or temporary shut-down to recycling facilities, like these plastic bags wreaking havoc at a recycling center in the picture below.
There are also differences between cities as to what can and can't go in curbside bins. For example, here in Michigan, the City of Warren and the City of Ann Arbor are two of the few municipalities that have not privatized their waste management (meaning that their waste hauling is not contracted out and waste haulers are still city employees) - both take some materials that cities with privately managed waste hauling generally do not accept (Warren actually takes plastic bags curbside). and some items that are not accepted in curbside bins can be dropped off at the recycling facility (most often, things like styrofoam, hardcover books, and batteries).
Adding to the confusion, there can be items that are similar to each other, but one is acceptable in the curbside bin while the other is not. For example, paper juice and milk cartons are widely accepted in curbside bins, but the cartons that unrefrigerated, shelf-stable milk, juice, soup, and wine come in are often not allowed in curbside bins. People often think that 'cartons' means all cartons, but the shelf-stable containers (also called 'asceptic' cartons or Tetra-Paks) are not just waxy paper - they're actually composed of layers of different materials that must be separated from each other for recycling.
While it can be difficult to make general statements about what can and can't go in curbside bins because there can be slight differences between cities, a good rule of thumb is paper, plastic, metal, and glass. There are caveats, however. Food and grease-soiled paper or cardboard (think the bottom of a pizza box or ketchup-stained french fry containers) and metallic gift wrap paper should never be placed in curbside bins. And not all plastic can go in the curbside bin, either, such as plastic that does not have a recycling number on it. Some cities will not accept anything with code #7 on it. If you have questions about what can and can't go in your bin, the best place to start looking for answers is your city's website. If your city has privatized its waste hauling (as most cities have), you may be directed to contact them or their website directly.
Now that we've covered some basics, let's get into how to recycle things that you know for sure CANNOT go in your curbside bin. Some experts are concerned that helping people recycle outside of just what goes in the curbside bin will lead to confusion, causing people to think that if Pink Elephant Products takes something for recycling, then that means it can go in the curbside bin too, resulting in further contamination of bins. I would argue that contaminated bins have been a big problem long before we were accepting any recycling. The key is finding a way to educate people about recycling. And our customers are coming to us with a desire to reduce their waste as much as possible - they're already on board and have a desire to learn as much as they can about proper recycling. Given the problems that the U.S. recycling infrastructure is currently facing due to China no longer tolerating contaminated recyclable materials from us anymore, there's never been a better time to 1) figure out how to reduce the creation of waste in the first place and 2) find creative ways to reduce the amount of recoverable waste being landfilled or incinerated.
You've probably seen trash bins like the ones pictured below at major public events - what's really sad is that much of what's pictured is actually recoverable waste and shouldn't be in the trash heap in the first place. There actually is very little waste that's truly unrecyclable. It's just that some items are very costly to recycle - when it's cheaper to make a new container than to recycle the old ones, then a recycling market will generally not exist for that container (at least in curbside bins). Personally, I think the manufacturers of items like chip bags, K-cups, and disposable fast food and coffee cups should either fund the collecting and recycling of these waste streams they've created, or find a way to make the packaging recyclable curbside. They've earned the profit on the sale of the item that the consumer has paid for - why should the onus be on the consumer and city governments to pay for the recycling of the packaging?
To a certain extent, that's what Terracycle is doing. Terracycle has partnerships with many companies that sell products in difficult to recycle packaging, and some of the programs are free. But many of them are not. One of the most popular programs for chip and snack bag recycling is closed to new participants, and the wait list is over 1,000 people long. You can still recycle this waste stream, but you have to purchase a box - and they're not cheap. What follows is a discussion of some items that can be confusing to know what to do with.
While rechargeable batteries are accepted for recycling at Home Depot, Best Buy, Lowe's, and other retail stores, many cities are telling residents to just throw single-use batteries out. There's an exception, though - it is illegal to dispose of ANY type of battery in the trash in California. Duracell's website says that alkaline batteries can be safely disposed of with normal household waste. Energizer also confirms that regular batteries are fine to toss in the trash. This is partly due to the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act passed in 1996 that phased out the use of mercury in alkaline batteries (button cell batteries are an exception), making them less of an issue when disposed in landfills. Duracell confirms that their entire line of batteries is actually mercury-free, even their button cells. But, given that single use batteries no longer contain valuable heavy metals, there's not as much of a market for their recycling. Some button cells may contain small amounts of mercury and should NOT go in the garbage.
In a nutshell, the laws regarding alkaline battery disposal can vary between cities and states. Many states allow single use alkaline batteries to be thrown away normally. Others maintain tight control over batteries, assuming incorrectly that all alkaline products are hazardous and must be disposed of as hazardous waste. However, even if your city accepts batteries for drop-off, this doesn't mean they're recycling them. It may mean they're just disposing of them with hazardous waste controls in place because they (incorrectly) think alkaline batteries are still hazardous waste.
And yes, we accept single-use alkaline batteries for recycling (and we really get them recycled - we're not throwing them out). Instead of tossing batteries in your garbage can, in addition to sending them to us, you may also be able to take them to your city's designated drop-off point - but remember, many cities that take batteries aren't actually recycling them. Inquire about what happens to the batteries after you drop them off!
The trigger sprayers on cleaning products and personal care items are actually composed of both metal and plastic parts, and should not be put in recycling bins. There are newer trigger sprayers that are composed entirely of plastic, but the vast majority of triggers sprayers on the market also have metal parts inside. We take trigger sprayers, too.
Starbucks and Other Disposable Coffee and Soda Cups
While it seems like these should be just tossed in the curbside bin because they're made of paper, they actually have a thin layer of plastic on the inside to prevent leakage and seep-through. Therefore, they cannot be recycled with paper. We take these items for recycling. The plastic lid can go in your curbside bin, and the brown paper sleeve on Starbucks cups can also go in.
Shelf-Stable Cartons (Tetra-Paks, Asceptic Packaging)
Check with your city to see if these are accepted. Be sure to specify the type of carton you're talking about - nearly all cities will take paper and wax juice and milk cartons, but not all take shelf-stable cartons. It would be a shame to put them in the bin for recycling only to have them end up in a landfill or incinerator. Carton Council has a website where you can look up your zip code to see if these cartons are acceptable curbside. If your city does not accept shelf-stable cartons, we can get them recycled for you!
Check with your city to see if they accept styrofoam. Most cities will not accept styrofoam in curbside bins, but they may have a drop-off place for it. If you can't recycle it with your city, we can take it.
Coffee Pods (Keuring, etc).
Coffee pods CANNOT go in curbside bins. Coffee pods are often provided as a courtesy at office reception areas or other places of business when making an entire pot is not practical and clients and customers can select their own single cup for making decaf, regular coffee, or tea. To withstand the brewing process, coffee pods are made with four different layers of specialized plastic and topped with plastic foil, making them difficult to recycle and not biodegradable. We accept K-cups for recycling, too. It's better to move away from the use of single use K-cups altogether, however! A K-Cup might seem like a small thing, but when you multiply a small thing by hundreds of millions of people, it becomes a big thing. Nearly all of the 9 billion K-Cups sold annually end up in landfills or incinerators.
Check out this hilarious yet disturbing K-Cup Invasion video.
John Sylvan, the inventor of the K-Cup who sold his share of Keurig Green Mountain for $50,000 in 1997, expressed his regrets for the invention in an interview with The Atlantic, saying "I feel bad sometimes that I ever did it. It's like a cigarette for coffee, a single-serve delivery mechanism for an addictive substance." He now works at his solar power company called Zonbrak and doesn't even own a Keurig machine himself
There is, however, a company making a better coffee pod - check out San Francisco Bay Coffee's zero waste coffee pod. However, only the 100 count box, available only at Costcos Nationwide, is certified fully compostable.
Other Items We Accept
Plastic film and plastic bags (grocery and newspaper bags, Ziplock bags, bubble wrap, bread bags, etc. but NO frozen food bags)
Solo Cups and ALL disposable coffee and soda cups (Starbucks, Slurpees, etc.)
ALL brands of snack bags, potato chip bags, and candy bar wrappers
Coffee pods (Keurig and others)
Old/broken holiday light strings
ALL EPS - expanded polystyrene, commonly referred to as Styrofoam – take-out food containers, meat trays, product packaging, cups, egg cartons, etc.
ALL BRANDS of Energy Bar Wrappers
Arm & Hammer/Oxi-Clean Pouches
Barilla Ready Pasta Packs
PUR Water Filters: PUR® pitchers, all types of PUR® filters, PUR® faucet filtration systems and adapters, PUR® packaging film, and PUR® dispensers
ALL BRANDS of performance nutritional packaging including energy chews packets; energy gel packets; hydration, recovery, and energy drinks
Malt-O-Meal Cereal Bags
Bear Naked Granola Packaging
Earthborn Holistic Packaging
Entenmann's Little Bites Packaging
Everpure Water Filters
Flonase Nasal Spray Packaging
All NOW brand packaging
ALL BRANDS personal care product containers: Mouthwash bottles and caps, deodorant containers and caps, toothpaste tubes and caps, soap packaging, floss containers, and toothbrushes, etc.
ALL BRANDS Drink Pouches/Juice Bags (Capri Sun, etc.)
ALL BRANDS Squeezable Baby Food/Snack Food Pouches
Wellness Brand Pet Food Containers
ALL Snack Bags (Family-size snack bags, individual snack bags, and multipack snack bags)
LemonKind SuperDetoxMe™ pouches.
Juicero Brand Pouches
Earthborn Holistic Pet Food and Treat Packaging
Dawn Dish Soap/Oil of Olay/Old Spice Soft Packs
Bausch and Lomb Contact Lens Packaging
Used chewing gum! (in a bag, please)
Here's how it works: Pink Elephant Products is partnering with TerraCycle and other commercial recyclers to help our customers get closer to Zero Waste AND support non-profits at the same
time. You can bring us certain items that most municipalities do not recycle, such as juice bags and baby food pouches. We will collect and ship these items to our commercial recycling partners for complete recycling. Many of these shipments earn points which are redeemed for donations to our non-profit partners that focus on poverty, homelessness, and neighborhood revitalization in the City of Detroit.
If you're local, items can be dropped off at our new retail store, or you can drop off your items at our Downtown Detroit office or our production facility in Midtown. If you have a box that is at least 12 inches on one side and is completely full, we'll even send you a pre-paid shipping label FREE so that you can get your unrecyclables to us. Click on the button at the bottom of this page to download an information sheet about how to recycle with us, and a list of the items we take - ideal for putting on your refrigerator or near your waste bin at home to remind everyone in the household not to throw these important items away! Furthermore, if you bring us your used Pink Elephant Products containers, we will give you 10% off the purchase of a replacement! (Applies only to replacement product, not entire order).
We can also set up collection bins at your business or community organization. We handle the set up and collection of materials in the bins. If you're a part of a nonprofit seeking to partner with us and receive funding from this innovative program, we'd love to hear from you! Contact us about getting a bin set up at your school, business, church, or community organization!
Go to https://www.pinkelephantproducts.com/wecanhelpyourecycle to request a shipping label or download a printable list of what we accept - ideal for putting on your refrigerator or near your waste bin at home to remind everyone in the household not to throw these important items away!
Reducing waste as much as possible needs to become mainstream, practical, and affordable, not a fringe phenomena practiced by people who are seen as either elitist or extreme. Nothing short of a cultural paradigm shift away from a consumerist, disposability mindset will stave off the doom-and-gloom predictions of the consequences of climate change for our society - some of these consequences are happening right now. The whole idea that packaging used for mere moments can easily be thrown away is simply an unsustainable way of doing things. It needs to not be okay to throw away recoverable materials. It needs to not be okay for a company to know that most of its packaging ends up in landfills and oceans but bear none of the financial responsibility for cleaning up the mess.
Pink Elephant takes items that cannot go in municipal bins because we are seeking to create a different thought process of the whole idea of waste. We want to inspire new ways of thinking holistically about the waste our lifestyles generate. We recognize, however, that recycling is not an all-encompassing long term solution - it's a band-aid until we redesign the consumption patterns that generate these waste streams in the first place.
But we also need to be realistic and meet people where they're at. Potato chip companies and candy bar manufacturers are not going to stop selling their products any time soon, and people are still going to eat them and have a bag or wrapper that can't go in their curbside bins. People are still going to eat at McDonald's and get coffee from the Starbucks drive-thru or gas station and end up with a cup they can't put in their curbside bin.
Recycling is certainly a valuable part of reducing waste. But reusing and reducing take precedence (that's why the recycling 'R' is last in reduce, reuse, recycle). That's why we're focusing on refillable and reusable home care and personal care in our new retail store!