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Recyclopedia: Can I recycle it?

FAQ

About Recycling in Massachusetts


What you need to know to Do Your Part, Recycle Smart.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Recycle Smart MA team receives many questions about recycling best practices and which items can be recycled in Massachusetts. Below are answers to some of the most common questions we get. Don’t see what you are looking for? Check out the Recyclopedia search tool above to find out what to do with hundreds of different items. Recycling basics:

This is the most common question we get here at RecycleSmartMA. Our advice: Don’t worry about the numbers, focus on the shape. If it is a clean and empty plastic bottle, jar, jug or tub, it can be recycled in Massachusetts. There are a few exceptions, for example clear plastic cups, egg cartons, and deli and fruit containers, but on the whole, this rule of thumb works!

The numbers are an industry coding system that indicate the type of plastic used to make the item. Many non-recyclable items display the code, so it’s NOT a good indication of whether something is recyclable. Recycling facilities are designed to sort hard plastic containers. They cannot handle odd-shaped plastics (like toys or plastic furniture), very small items (smaller than a credit card), or plastics that are flexible – like bags, wrap, and pouches.

If you are still in doubt, check the Recyclopedia.

It sounds like your municipality has not synced their recycling educational materials with the statewide recycling guidelines. Recycle Smart MA has the most up-to-date information on what can and cannot go in the recycling bin. This information comes directly from Massachusetts’ nine material recovery facilities where the vast majority of our recyclables go for sorting and recycling. While our goal is to get all 351 municipalities across the Commonwealth to adopt the Recycle Smart MA guide, it’s ultimately the municipality’s choice. We would be happy to contact your city or town’s recycling staff to help get them on board. Just send us an email at recyclesmartma@mass.gov. In the meantime, we recommend you follow the rules in your community, but know that you won’t be wrong if you follow the Smart Recycling Guide.

“What to do with caps and lids” is one of the hottest debates in the recycling field. The good news? We now have a definitive answer for you. Put a lid on it! Plastic and metal caps and lids should be reattached to empty containers before you recycle them. That goes for soda and water bottles, milk jugs, juice containers, yogurt tubs, mason jars... pretty much anything that has a cap or lid that can be reattached. This is true even if the lid and container are different types of material (i.e. a metal lid on a glass jar).

Loose lids and caps should go in the trash. When not attached to a container, they are too small to be captured by the recycling machinery and will fall through the cracks during the sorting process. Glass bottle caps (for beer or soda), for example, should go in the trash because they cannot be reattached securely.

Tips for metal can lids: You can either leave a bit of the lid attached and bend it into the can, or plop them down in the can’s bottom and give the can a little pinch.

Learn more about what happens to your recycled caps and lids here: #BottleCapChallenge 2.0 - Put a lid on it | Recycle Smart (recyclesmartma.org)

The bottles and containers you recycle don't need to be spotless, but they do need to be empty and free of liquid and most food residue. A quick wipe or rinse does the trick - no need to run the recyclables in the dishwasher or scrub them 100% clean with hot soapy water. The goal is to keep food and liquids from contaminating the paper and cardboard in the recycling system, avoid attracting unwanted pests, and keep recycling workers from having to sort through sticky, moldy recyclables!

Worried about your water usage? To save water you can rinse your recyclables with the dirty dishwater after cleaning a sink full of dishes or use the water you use to rinse the recyclables to water plants. The amount of energy saved by recycling is far greater than the energy of washing the recyclables (even in hot water).

Tips for peanut butter jars: use a spatula to scrap the sides of the jar to get most of the extra peanut butter off, add a little hot water to the jar, replace the lid, and shake. Voila!

Unfortunately, no. Recycling facilities are designed to sort metal food and beverage cans, plastic bottles, jars, jugs and tubs, glass bottles and jars, and paper and cardboard. They are not designed to sort toys, broken laundry baskets, resin patio furniture, pots and pans and other over-sized items. Search the Beyond The Bin directory to find options for reusing or recycling these items. Or check your local transfer station for a scrap metal bin and a “bulky rigid plastic” bin.

If an item is 2 inches or smaller in diameter, whether plastic, paper, or metal, it should NOT go in the recycling; it will slip through the cracks at a recycling facility and end up in the trash.

Recent news coverage has cast a negative light on the recycling industry with headlines like “Recycling is a Dumpster Fire. Literally” or “Recycling is Broken.” While bad news sells – it’s not the full story.

As long as you put the right things in your recycling bin you can rest assured, they are being recycled. Just follow the “YES” list on the Smart Recycling Guide. The nine material recovery facilities that sort our recyclables in Massachusetts sell this material to earn revenue that offsets sorting costs. Sending recyclables to a landfill or incinerator is against the law in Massachusetts and it costs a lot of money! Your efforts are not in vain!

Want to learn more? Check out these related Recycle Smart Stories MA articles about what happens to our recyclables:

Is Recycling a Waste? The Other Side of the Story (spoiler alert - the answer is no!)

Let’s Talk About Plastic

That depends on whether you recycle at the curb or at a transfer station. Curbside recyclables go to a sorting facility known as a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where everything is sorted into marketable commodities (metal, paper, plastic, etc). At the MRF, recyclables are sorted by a combination of manual labor and highly specialized equipment including magnets, screens and optical sorters. After sorting, the MRF produces compressed cubes of metal, plastic and paper (called bales) which are loaded onto trucks and moved to a recycling mill or a secondary processor, in the case of plastics. Glass is crushed and shipped loose to end-markets.

Here in the Northeast, nearly 100% of plastics are sold to U.S. companies and about half of the paper and metal are also sold to domestic mills.

To find out which MRF your recyclables are sent to, check out the searchable map on the “Where Does It Go?” Recycle Smart page.

At a transfer station, you may help with the sorting process by placing paper in a separate bin from bottles and cans, or you might even sort different plastics into separate bins. In this case, your recyclables are sent to multiple recycling companies that handle clean “source separated” materials. These materials have a higher value and may even be sold directly to mills or end-users.

“Tanglers” are things like old hoses, string lights, ropes, chains, and electronic cords that jam the machinery used to sort recyclables. These items do not belong in the recycling bin; they can shut down operations at the MRF, increase sorting costs, and even harm workers who must manually cut the tangled items out of the machinery.

Consider donating items in good working condition or throw tanglers in the trash bin.

Carbonated and malt beverage bottles and cans should ideally be returned for a deposit at a local grocery store or redemption center or placed in your recycling bin.

Any recycling end markets prefer beverage bottles and cans sourced from redemption centers since they are typically a cleaner product. Plus, you get the $0.05 deposit back!

Either way the bottle or can will be recycled.

Not sure where to drop off your redeemable bottles? Find a redemption center near you.

No. Items labeled as compostable must either be taken to an industrial composting facility or put in the trash. If you have access to a compost program do NOT include anything in the compost bin that is not listed as acceptable. Check the program guidelines before including materials other than food waste.

No, your recyclables should be placed loose in your recycling bin.

That bag, whether paper or plastic, might be full of good recyclables but when it reaches the recycling facility, it will be tossed in the trash. Workers on the sorting line do not have time to break open bags and it is a safety hazard. Paper bags can be folded and put in the recycling bin. Plastic bags should be brought to a film plastic collection site or put in the trash.

Nope! Plastic bottles, jars, jugs, and tubs can be recycled regardless of their color, as long as that color is not black or another really dark color.

The reason we say no to black plastic is because recycling facilities sort plastics by bouncing a beam of light off them. Since black plastic absorbs light, it can't be sorted and goes straight through the system and off to landfill or incineration.

Most current (and past) black plastic use carbon to make the black, which absorbs the beam so the reader can’t identify the resin.

The same is true for really dark colors in general (dark grays and sometimes navy).

Please put black plastic containers in the trash.

To determine if an item is recyclable or not, use the Recyclopedia search tool above. Below are some of the top questions we get about specific items.

Styrofoam

Styrofoam is the #1 searched material in the Recyclopedia. Expanded polystyrene foam (aka Styrofoam) in any shape or size is not recyclable in your household recycling bin. This material is difficult to recycle and there is little market demand for it.

Can’t stand the thought of throwing it away? Try reusing it or find a drop off location to recycle it.

Pro Tip: Packing peanuts can be returned to most shipping stores for reuse.

Pizza Boxes

EMPTY pizza boxes can be recycled (with the exception of frozen pizza boxes).

Remove all food, liners, and pizza savers (plastic tables) before placing the box in the recycling bin. Leftover pizza (if there is any) can be composted or put in the trash.

What about the grease?

Grease and trace amounts of residual cheese are OK. Paper recycling mills have assured us that this does not interfere with the paper making process. For more information, check out the Recycle Smart MA newsletter article: “No Matter How You Slice It.”

Pro tip: Fold the box inside out before you put it in the recycling bin. This will help ensure the box is empty and there are no surprises at the recycling facility!

Shredded Paper

Shredded paper should NOT go in your recycling bin, even if it is in a stapled paper bag. Shredded paper is considered “dreaded paper” at the recycling facility. It either ends up floating all over the place like confetti or, if it gets wet, it turns into pulp and sticks to food and beverage containers. Either way it isn’t captured for recycling.

The good news: many communities host paper shredding events where you can watch your documents get shredded on site in a truck equipped with industrial shredders. These trucks will take the paper directly to paper recycling facilities. Check with your local recycling program to find out when and where the next event will take place: bit.ly/2Nk9epX⁣.

Office supply stores also offer shredding as a paid service you can access year-round, and they send the paper to secure facilities that shred and recycle the paper.

What if my paper is already shredded?

Compost it! There is no limit to how much shredded paper you can add to your compost pile since it’s a “brown” ingredient (which can be 100% of the pile). An easy recipe would have 75% shredded paper and 25% food scraps – or 3 parts brown to 1-part green (food scraps, grass, etc.). Dampen the paper with water and you’re set; it should fully compost within 3 to 6 months. Check out this poster for simple composting steps https://www.mass.gov/doc/poster-composting-is-easy/download

For curbside or subscription compost pick up services, please check with your municipality or composting service provider, as each has their own rules.

Alternatively, check out this blog post, “11 Uses for Shredded Paper.”

If none of these options work for you, please put shredded paper in the trash.

Cartons (Milk, Juice, Soup)

For most of Massachusetts, cartons should go in the trash.

Cartons are made with multiple layers of plastic and paper (plus an aluminum layer in drink and soup boxes). To recycle them, they must be sorted and sent to a special mill that can separate the layers.

There are currently only 3 mills in the U.S. that recycle cartons right now and the cost to sort, collect, and transport this material is prohibitive for most recycling facilities. In Massachusetts, there is only one Material Recovery Facility (MRF) located in Western Massachusetts (the Springfield MRF) that accepts cartons for recycling. The remaining MRFs in the state do not have the equipment to properly sort out cartons or storage space to accumulate enough cartons for a marketable load (which can take 6 months or more).

If your municipality sends your recyclables to the Springfield MRF (see this list), you can put cartons in your recycling bin. Otherwise, please place your cartons in the trash to ensure your community doesn’t face increased fees for contaminated recycling.

If carton recycling becomes more economically feasible in the New England area and the rest of the Massachusetts MRFs start accepting this material, we will update the Recycle Smart MA guide accordingly.

Plastic Bags

Plastic bags of any kind, size, or shape do NOT belong in the household recycling bin. This includes plastic grocery bags, bags from e-commerce orders, bags with recycling symbols and the plastic resin number on it, produce bags, bread bags, pellet bags, pet food bags, dry cleaning bags, cereal box liners, product and case wrap, etc.

Plastic bags and plastic wrap (collectively known as “plastic film” in recycling industry short-hand) are the number one problem at recycling facilities because they wrap around sorting machinery, shutting down the sorting line often multiple times per day. Workers then must cut the plastic off the machines, which puts them at risk of injury. Check out this short video about plastic bags and other tanglers at the recycling sorting facility.

Although they do not belong in the household recycling bin, plastic bags and wrap SHOULD be recycled … at drop-off collection bins in most supermarkets. See the Recycle Smart MA Newsletter “It’s in the bag…” for more information about what types of plastic bags and wrap can be recycled at a drop-off location near you.

Take-Out Containers

Take-out food comes in containers of many sizes shapes, and colors. Check out the graphic below or this helpful <1 minute video to learn what is and isn’t recyclable from your next carry out order. Still not sure? Check the Recyclopedia.

Eating at home? Ask the restaurant to skip the plastic utensils, straws, napkins or condiment packets next time you order.

Want to see less waste? Start a conversation with your local restaurant owner about greener take-out packaging options. Feel free to share this RecyclingWorks guide for restaurants about reducing waste from restaurant takeout and delivery meals.

📷: RecyclingWorks MA

To learn more, check out the Recycle Smart MA newsletter “Let’s Talk about Plastic: Are My Take-Out Containers All Trash?”

Tubes & Pouches – i.e. toothpaste, lotions, deodorant, juice/food pouches

Many food, beauty, health, and cleaning products come in flexible pouches and tubes. These items do NOT belong in your household recycling bin. For example, this includes toothpaste, lotion and deodorant tubes, the standup zippered bags that trail mix and dried fruit comes in, baby food pouches, the sachets that sample beauty products come in, or soap refills that come in a pouch with a spout. Remember, recycling facilities are designed to sort hard plastic containers. If it’s a clean and empty plastic bottle, jar, jug or tub, it can be recycled. Otherwise, check the Recyclopedia or throw it out.

Glass Items (mirrors, drinking glasses, crockery)

Just because something is made of glass does not guarantee it can be recycled. Flower vases, candle jars, mirrors, drinking glasses, and crockery do NOT belong in your recycling bin. These items cannot be recycled because of additives that cause them to melt a different temperature than beverage and food containers (like pasta jars or wine bottles). Consider reusing or donating items in good condition that you no longer need.

Clothing and Textiles

Most clothing and textiles can be reused or recycled … but NOT in your household recycling bin. The equipment at recycling facilities is not designed to sort clothing. For more information see “what is a tangler?”

Instead, drop off unwanted clothing or textiles at a nearby clothing collection box, your favorite local charity or thrift store, or see if your community offers curbside pick-up of clothing and textiles.

One of the biggest misconceptions about donating clothing and textiles is that items must be in good condition. It ends up, clothing and other textiles (bedding, towels, table linens, etc.) are a still useful, even if they are stained, ripped, missing buttons, or have broken zippers. As long as items aren’t wet, moldy, or soaked in oil or hazardous materials, they can be donated. If they are unable to be sold for reuse locally, they may be baled and sold to export markets, made into industrial wiping clothes, or converted to fiber for insulation, carpet padding or sound-proofing material.

Learn more about textile recovery in Massachusetts or use the Beyond the Bin Recycling Directory to find out where to recycle, reuse, or re-purpose your textiles.

For more about textile donation and reducing your “fashion footprint,” see the Recycle Smart MA newsletters: What’s in your closet? and Making Every Thread Count

Batteries

Batteries do NOT belong in the recycling bin. Single-use alkaline batteries (AAA, AA, C, D, and 9-volt) can be put in the trash or taken to a battery recycler but these are few and far between.

Rechargeable batteries of all kinds are a serious fire hazard when placed in the trash or in the recycling bin. To find a recycling location for rechargeable batteries consult Call2Recycle.

Button batteries (e.g., the round ones found in your watch) may contain mercury and should be dropped-off at a collection bin, event, or recycled through a mail-in program.

Contact your local municipality or visit Call2Recycle’s website to find drop-off sites near you: https://www.call2recycle.org/locator/

Metal Items

The only metal items that should go in your household recycling bin are empty metal food and beverage cans.

Although they are made of metal — items like pots, pans, baking sheets, metal gutters, car parts, propane tanks, bike wheels and hangers are classified as “scrap metal” and cannot be recycled with food and beverage containers. Check with your local municipal recycling website for a scrap metal drop-off bin or search Beyond The Bin Recycling Directory for scrap metal recyclers in your area.

Or – donate items that are in decent condition.

Stretchable, Flexible Plastics

Stretchable plastics like the kind found around paper towels, toilet paper, or bottled water do not belong in the recycling bin. Just like plastic bags, plastic wrap gets tangled in machinery and can shut down equipment at the recycling facility.

Many stretchable plastics (also known as film plastics) can be recycled along with your plastic bags at your local supermarket drop-off bin.

Check out this guide for what types of stretchable/flexible plastics can be recycled and where:

To learn more, check out the Recycle Smart MA newsletter “It’s in the bag…”

Still have questions?

If you are looking for what to do with a certain item — check the Recyclopedia search tool above. For any other recycling questions, email us at: recyclesmartma@mass.gov

Test your recycling knowledge by taking the Recycle Smart Quiz Today!

Recycle Smart

Empty and rinse all containers

No plastic bags, plastic wrap, or recycling in plastic bags

If in doubt, check the Recyclopedia for specific items