Can I Recycle This? A Guide for Do-Gooders

By Jason Woods

January 22, 2019

Last Updated: October 3, 2019

Can I Recycle This? A Guide for Do-Gooders

In This Article

  • Recycling's a great thing to do, but if you're doing it wrong, you're not helping.
  • Plastics: recycle your 1s and 2s, not your 6s and 7s.
  • Glass and metal are endlessly recyclable.
  • Disposable coffee cups and used pizza boxes go in the trash.

If you’re paying attention even a little bit, it’s easy to find some alarming news about human consumption and how it affects the Earth. If we want to prevent a future where we all live on a Wall-E-style trash planet, an easy place to start is recycling at home.

Make the Planet a Better Place

While you're becoming a better recycler, also consider donating to our work to end hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth.

But is it that easy, though?

On a daily basis, I try to get some quick Good Place points by recycling. But an irritatingly high percentage of the time, a more seasoned do-gooder hits me with an “Actually, you can’t recycle that” before I can get to the bin. Apparently, I’ve been an “aspirational recycler”all this time, which does more harm than good.

So it’s time to reform. Here’s a simple guide for what goes in your home recycling bin to make sure you and I are recycle-shamed no more. (And, you know, actually helping the environment).

Before we dive in, keep in mind that it never hurts to check with your local recycler to see what can and can’t be recycled — some recycling facilities can handle more types of materials than others. And whatever you're recycling, make sure to rinse all food residue before putting it in the bin.


7-time NBA All-Star Alonzo Mourning, thinking about recycling some plastic cups.

Can you recycle plastic?

This is probably the most complicated question on the list. And it’s arguably the most important—after food, plastics take up the most space in municipal landfills. So let’s break it down.

  • YES: Bottles, jars, jugs.
  • NO: Bags (shopping bags, packaging, Zip-lock bags). But you may be able to find a drop-off location that accepts them.
  • MAYBE: Cups. The general rule for all plastics is that if the number in the triangle on the bottom is 1 or 2, you can recycle it. If it's a 3, 6 or 7, probably not. If it's a 4 or a 5, you should check with your local collection service to see if they will accept it.
Recycle glass until your heart's content.

Can you recycle glass?

If you’re not going to find a new use for your glass jars, go ahead and recycle that glass with reckless abandon — or near-reckless abandon: you generally can’t recycle lightbulbs. But unlike plastic, you can recycle glass infinitely without degrading its quality.

Recycle metal? You bet.

Can you recycle metal cans?

Same story as glass. Go for it.

Sadly, your paper coffee cups go in the trash.

Can you recycle disposable paper cups?

In most cases, you can’t recycle your coffee cup because it’s lined with polyethylene to hold your liquid better. Some cups don’t have the liner, but it’s really hard to tell the difference, so you’re safer just throwing it away.

And I would have tried to recycle that pizza box, too, if it weren't for you meddling kids.

Can you recycle pizza boxes?

This is perhaps the most notorious offender coming from aspirational recyclers. You can recycle a pizza box that has never been used, but once the box has been coated in grease, most facilities will say it’s too contaminated to recycle. If the top of the box doesn't have any food residue, you can certainly rip that off and recycle that.

For the last time ... you can't recycle Styrofoam.

Can you recycle Styrofoam?

A hard no.

Don't put those receipts in the recycling.

Can I recycle receipts?

Receipts are indeed made of paper, but thermal paper, which is usually coated in Bisphenol A (BPA) and contaminates the rest of the recycled paper with the chemical. Composting your receipts probably isn’t a great idea, either, for similar reasons.