As more and more countries and cities make recycling compulsory, and invest in responsible waste management infrastructure, consumers also need to become more aware on what can and can’t be recycled. I have put together the below list of everyday consumer items that can’t be recycled, along with practical tips on what you can do to replace them with sustainable alternatives.
1. Disposable coffee cups
Disposable coffee cups might be made of paper, but are often lined with a fine film of polyethylene, which makes the cups liquid-proof but also difficult and expensive to reprocess. You might be able to recycle the lid (check the plastic number against your local recycling guidelines), but the cup would likely contaminate the rest of the recycling load.
Sustainable alternative tip: Bring along your own tumbler or KeepCup for your next coffee run – it will taste better, allow you to waste less and will likely get you a discount too!
2. Paper receipts
Paper receipts are coated with a substance called bisphenol A (BPA) or bisphenol S (BPS) which gives it a shiny texture – this material if released in the environment or ingested in large amounts can be extremely harmful.
Sustainable alternative tip: Ask your retailer for an electronic receipt instead!
3. Squeezable tubes
Squeezable tubes: Toothpaste, sunscreen and other squeezable tubes are also hard to recycle because they typically contain a thin layer of aluminium, and are made of various types of plastic.
Sustainable alternative tip: Replace liquid toothpaste with toothpaste tablets which you can store in glass jars. Start collecting empty metal, plastic or glass containers, which you can reuse after you run out on their original content, and visit your nearest zero waste store to stock up on toiletries and detergent, without the need to buy them with disposable packaging.
4. Dirty pizza boxes and styrofoam containers
Dirty pizza boxes and styrofoam containers: the oil would often seep into the cardboard, which makes dirty pizza boxes a much less valuable item to recycle. Since Styrofoam (or polystyrene foam) has the tendency to burst into a shower of tiny plastic pieces, it is not suitable to be processed through conventional recycling machines, and requires to be put through a specialist compacting machine first. However, due to the high costs and complex logistics of building a polystyrene compacting machine, polystyrene is very rarely recycled. In addition, as a light-weight material, a large bulk doesn’t provide much to recover after it’s compacted, further reducing its recycling value.
Sustainable alternative tip: try to cut down on online food orders (or choose retailers that provide eco-friendly packaging), and bring along your Tupperware when you next order take-away food, or buy groceries.
5. Paper straws
Paper straws meant to offer a more eco-friendly alternative to plastic, but they are not always made of pure paper – some are lined with non-recyclable plastic in the inner layer to increase durability and prevent them from becoming soggy in your drink. McDonalds has made a recent public announcement that their paper straws which were introduced in 2019 in their UK and Ireland outlets as part of their “green drive”, cannot be recycled because they are too thick to be processed.
Sustainable alternative tip: Get yourself a reusable (stainless steel or bamboo) straw set together with a cleaning brush, or even better, say no to straws (unless you have a medical condition which requires you to use them) and lobby restaurants to not automatically offer them/place them in our drink.
6. Crisps/chips packets
Crisps/chips packets cannot be recycled because they contain several different layers of plastic known as metallized plastic film, and because of the grease and food residue that’s stuck to them. Pringles tubes are one of the most challenging packaging products to recycle because they combine five different materials, including a metal base, a tear-off foil top, a plastic lid, a silver foil lining inside and a cardboard outer sleeve.
Sustainable alternative tip: follow your New Year’s Resolutions to become healthier, and avoid the snacks section in your local supermarket.
7. Make-up removal pads
Make-up removal pads: 100% cotton pads can be composted, but only if they haven’t been used with chemical make-up removals as that would contaminate the compost. Cotton wools are also often blended with other synthetic materials, such as polyester, which will make it even more challenging for them to decompose.
Sustainable alternative tip: Replace your disposable make-up removal pads with a reusable one, made out of bamboo for instance.
8. Sticky notes
Sticky notes: the glue on the adhesive strip is troublesome to remove so many recycling centers refuse to process sticky notes as paper waste.The glue also often separates when it’s put into the pulper, which might result in the recycled end-product ie. a newspaper to have a stain on them.
Sustainable alternative tip: stop using sticky notes to write your to-do lists, and add digital reminders to your calendar instead.
9. Plastic bags
People often get into habit of collecting their paper, glass and plastic waste in used plastic bags (to avoid having to use an additional plastic bin bag), but are not aware that the plastic bag should not be placed into the recycling bin. Plastic bags are notorious for plugging up machinery and should therefore not be sent for recycling. They also take hundreds of years to decompose, often breaking into microplastics in our oceans, and their use should thus be avoided at all costs.
Sustainable alternative tip: collect your recyclable content in a bin, and swap out plastic bags to reusable or eco-friendly alternatives, such as biodegradable bags made out of cassava.
10. Wine glasses and Pyrex dishes
Wine glasses may contain lead, whilst Pyrex dishes might have other materials like ceramics in them, so they are not recyclable. They are also are heat-treated and wouldn’t melt at the same temperature as other glass items like bottles or jars.
Sustainable alternative tip: increase the longevity of these items – be more careful next time when you take out your piping hot Pyrex dish from the oven, or when washing up your wine glasses.
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Based out of Singapore and Indonesia, Trang is in charge of editorial content and strategy for Causeartist in Asia, looking after the media platform’s coverage of the region. In addition to her role at Causeartist, she divides her time managing a global sustainability project for Refinitiv (formerly Thomson Reuters Financial & Risk), as a freelance contributor to publications focused on social and environmental issues, and as a consultant on international development projects on issues ranging from climate change mitigation to education or women’s rights.