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Paper Recycling 101

How To Recycle the Right Way

Last Updated on December 13, 2023

There is a lot of mystery these days around paper recycling. Most seem to understand the basics like what to do with bulk paper, cardboard, or newspapers.

However, recycling paper gets complicated once you get down to plastic lined coffee cups or the paper wrapping around soda bottles. What about receipts and magazine paper? Is paper recyclable in those instances? Paper recycling actually gets much more difficult once you get into the nitty gritty of it. I demystify how to recycle paper in every instance in this post!

Blue background with colored envelopes and a pencil spread across it with overlay text reading "how to recycle paper the RIGHT way"

paper recycling

I do get a number of more complicated questions like “can you recycle magazines” or “is tissue paper recyclable?” Each municipality accepts different items making it even more difficult to figure out what is and what isn’t recyclable. Let’s dig in and discover what kinds of paper are recyclable and how to stop filling our landfills with paper products.

I think a lot of people want to recycle paper properly, they’re just a little confused about where to start. So, here’s my comprehensive guide on recycling paper products of all kinds. Of course, always check with your own waste management facility, and remember the zero waste lifestyle is about recycling less NOT more. 

As a reminder, at the beginning of 2018, China (the main global buyer of recycled paper products) stopped accepting ANY paper bales with a 1% contamination rate or higher.

The best recycling facilities are operating at a 4-5% contamination rate. It is so important that we recycle properly to try and get to the 1% rate.

important note on recycling paper:

The most important thing about recycling paper is that there is NO contamination in the recycling bin. In a mixed-bin recycling container, contamination between the various items can result in materials that are no longer able to be recycled. Keep your containers clean and follow other best practices to ensure the recycled paper is able to be processed.

This means that bottles and cans need to be empty of all liquids. Other food containers like yogurt tubs and pasta sauce jars should be rinsed.

Any food, soda, beer, etc. that gets on the paper renders it unrecyclable and can ruin an entire bale. 

how to recycle paper:

compressed cardboard and paper in a post about paper recycling.

cardboard boxes:

With the onslaught of online shopping, we have more cardboard boxes than ever before. It is more important than ever to learn eco friendly ways to recycle cardboard. You do NOT have to remove the tape and the labels (unless it’s excessive like tape all around the box), but you should break the boxes down. 

Before recycling these boxes, you should try to find a local business that will accept used shipping boxes for their own shipping needs, or put them up on social media sites to see if others in your community may use them.

This way, the boxes can be reused. We should try to keep our resources in play for as long as possible before recycling. Remember, recycling is a last resort.

We should first reduce the amount of products we’re consuming that come in cardboard boxes. Then, we should reuse the cardboard boxes as many times as possible. Only when the cardboard box can no longer be used, should we recycle them. 

brown paper:

Brown paper is recyclable, but once again, see if someone else will take it and reuse it before recycling. 

You can save it for placemats, for labeling a cheese board for a party, or even wrapping presents

printer paper:

“Is printer paper recyclable” is a very common question. The answer is absolutely yes! Paper that comes out of your printer, bills, notebook paper, or any other common sheet paper is recyclable. Something I found really interesting is that crumpled paper is less likely to be recycled — but have no fear. If the paper is crumpled, torn in half, or folded it is still recyclable! 

Most recycled printer paper gets remade into new printer paper, which is good. What is even better is to find simple ways to use sheets of paper to their fullest before sending them through a recycling process.

Some ways to maximize the use of printed paper before it gets recycled:

  • Always print on both sides
  • Use previously printed paper for packing material when shipping
  • Create a “scrap pile” that allows you to do quick grabs when you need something to write on
  • Make crafts or fun projects
  • Use it for wrapping paper on gifts

These are just a few ideas on what to do with printer paper before you send it to the recycling. Add to the list in the comments below!

shredded paper:

While crumpled and slightly altered paper is recyclable, shredded paper is not. So the answer to a common question of “is shredded paper recyclable” is, unfortunately, no. The paper fibers have been shortened too much, and the small shreds can jam machinery and contaminate bales of other materials. 

Shredded paper is a great packing material, especially for fragile items. Beyond that, it’s fabulous for compost — especially worm bins!

I understand that in some municipalities they will take shredded paper that is containerized in a plastic bag. Reach out to your recycler for approvals.


Receipts are coated with Bisphenol A (BPA) and are not recyclable or compostable. Consider asking for electronic receipts when necessary or using receipts in other projects and creative ways.

Latte cup with a stack of receipts to illustrate how to recycle paper receipts.


Are photos recyclable? Unfortunately not. The chemicals used to make photos simply cannot be processed in a recyclable way. Consider instead using unwanted photos in other creative ways like art projects, or shred them for packing paper.

glossy magazines:

Can you recycle magazines? The answer is a resounding yes! However, a lot of artists use magazines for their art projects. See if you can reuse this material before recycling it. If you have newer magazines, donate them to libraries, waiting rooms, family shelters, nursing homes, schools, etc. It is always better to reuse first before recycling. Once the magazine has lived a healthy life, then get it to your recycling center!

parchment paper:

Any paper that is stained with food or cooking oils is not recyclable, so parchment paper is out. However, you can reuse parchment paper several times and then ultimately compost it! 

butcher paper:

Butcher paper or freezer paper is coated with plastic. It’s neither recyclable nor compostable. 

wax paper:

Wax paper is a mixed bag. It can be coated with a vegetable wax or coated with a petroleum based paraffin.

If it’s coated with a vegetable wax, then it’s compostable in an industrial setting. While it can break down in a backyard compost, there might be some difficulties. 

The petroleum based paraffin is neither recyclable nor compostable. It’s very difficult to tell the difference between the two coatings, so it is best to avoid wax paper usage or see if you can obtain the ingredients to determine if your wax paper is recyclable. 

paper cups:

How to recycle paper cups is challenging and a common misperception in the world. Coffee cups are actually lined with plastic! They’re not compostable, and they’re not recyclable in most locations. To recycle coffee cups, waste management facilities have to have special machinery that separates the plastic lining from the paper cup.  

The lids are plastic #6 and not recyclable in most curbside bins, but the cardboard sleeve is recyclable! The best way to have a zero waste coffee is simply to use a reusable coffee cup.

A paper coffee cup to illustrate why recycling paper coffee cups is difficult

milk cartons:

Milk cartons, soy milk cartons, etc. are mixed materials. Many have plastic linings like paper cups. Some are tetra paks which have aluminum sandwiched between the paper. Whether or not your waste management plant takes this type of material varies greatly from town to town. 

pizza boxes:

How many times have I been asked… can I recycle pizza boxes? Ummm…hundreds! Typically, the bottoms of pizza boxes are too greasy to be recycled. So, you’ll want to separate the lid and bottom of your pizza box. The greasy bottom part of the pizza box can be composted, and the top of the pizza box can be recycled! (assuming the top is grease free) 

paper napkins and towels:

The fibers are too short to be recycled, but they can be composted. 


Newsprint is recyclable and compostable! It’s always best to reuse newspaper as many times as you can. Try a variety of creative things like packing material, wrapping paper, arts and crafts, etc. Once it has served a full life though, newspaper is recyclable.

Is paper recyclable? A stack of newspapers to illustrate a post about paper recycling.

pasta, cereal boxes: 

These boxes are recyclable — just make sure to remove the plastic window if there is one!


If you have paper envelopes, please remove the plastic windows before recycling. While it might not have been that big of a deal before the contamination rules were placed, it’s incredibly important now to keep the paper as clean as possible! 

tissue paper:

Tissue paper doesn’t have a cut and dry answer. It will depend on your recycling center and their abilities. While tissue paper is made from organic materials, the fibers have been refined heavily already. Without the proper technologies and capabilities, they may not be able to be fully recycled an additional time. Check with your local recycling center for their abilities.

what kinds of paper cannot be recycled?

Paper that cannot be recycled includes:

  • Paper towels
  • Any paper coated with plastic, wax, or foil
  • Juice boxes
  • Paper with a lot of contaminations (oils, food waste, etc)
  • Shredded paper
  • Pet food bags
  • Dryer sheets
  • Wax paper

For a zero waste effort, consider ways to avoid these types of paper or come up with creative ways to reuse them in other ways around the house. Many may also be compostable.

is paper recyclable if it’s small or in scraps?

In recycling, paper size does matter. Finely cut paper that has been shredded or cross-cut cannot be recycled. The final size determination is generally up to the municipality or recycling business. My rule of thumb is to recycle everything that is at least 2 inches square. That’s pretty small.

However, if the municipality won’t give you a specific size, then I would consider this. If you throw away all small paper, it has a 100% chance of ending up in the landfill. If you instead send it to the recycling bin, it at least has a chance to be included in the recycling process.


if you can’t recycle, can you burn paper?

Burning paper adds CO2 to the atmosphere. And throwing it away takes up landfill space as well as contributes to greenhouse gases. Try to exhaust other options, such as repurposing the product, recycling, or composting before resorting to these other environmentally damaging options.

how much energy is saved when you recycle paper?

According to, every ton of recycled paper will save 17 trees, 4000kw of energy, 7000 gallons of water, and 380 gallons of oil. Overall, that means a total of 64% energy savings, 58% of water savings, and 60 pounds less air pollution.

Let me know if there are any paper products I left off, and I will add them to the list! Stay tuned for the next posts in this series about recycling plastic and e-waste. 

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  1. Thanks for this very helpful article. I am going to save it and reread it regularly.

    Our city recycling pickup states ‘no shredded or crosscut paper’ so I know that is a no-no… but I have always wondered how small of a piece of paper scraps can still go in the paper recycle ? Is 3 x 5" too small ? Thank you. 🙂

    1. I was wondering about this as well. I have some clothing tags I’d like to throw in the recycling bin, but wasn’t sure if they were too small and actually did more harm than good (clogging up the machines maybe?). If they are too small, would it be possible to stick them inside an envelope to ensure they get recycled?

  2. Ah, never thought about tiny bits of paper not being recyclable… I do a lot of shredding at the end of summer semester as I don’t want to keep tons of students’ homework and data protection laws require shredding but now I wonder if there is a better way to deal with it (no homework at all?). I also tend to use some post it notes marking places in books and leaving comments where I shouldn’t write in pencil but are they recyclable?

  3. Receipts are RECYCLABLE even if you might think they aren’t.

    Shredded paper can be put in a plastic bag and thus be recycled (because the tiny pieces won’t clog up the machines if someone makes sure what’s in the bag is properly recycled in the right machine).

    I’m from Canada, maybe it’s different in the U.S. …

    but where does all this information come from??

    1. Recipes can but shouldn’t get recycled. They are coated with BPA and if they use these to make napkins or toilet paper we will have BPA on our bodies and that’s normally not what we want.

      1. Maybe we could make sure our receipts will not be coated with BPA instead of arguing about whether we should recycle them or not.

        1. Great Anita, I’m so glad you’ve volunteered for that job. Please start calling all receipt manufacturers and work on changing all of the processors that use BPA to print their recipes. Receipts are printed not with ink, but are thermally imprinted onto the paper. It’s going to be a massive undertaking to get this switched. In the mean time, receipts, like Jule said, should NOT be recycled. And, PS we’re not arguing just letting you know you’re wrong.

  4. Hi, I made a post on my Instagram account asking for advice on how to recycle old birthday and xmas cards that have glitter on them. No one seemed to know! I’ve a lot of articles saying to bin them because glitter can damage the recycling machines and also polute the quality of recycled paper. So what should I do? I was thinking of cutting and bining the parts with glitter but some cards have so much ! Would love to know what you think.

  5. What do you do with paper containing confidential information that you want to dispose of? Do you shred? Burn? Sharpie? Please advise.

  6. Thank you so much for the helpful tips! I’ve always been a wee bit confused about all the various things and generally just throw them all in there. This, however, isn’t the best way for sure.

    Jackie @ Reusable Menstrual Cups

  7. Depending on where you live, you don’t always have to remove the plastic lining in the mail/pasta boxes. Check with your local recycler. Where we live, it does need to happen.

  8. Thank you for the great post. Do you have any tips for what to use instead of paper cups for a business setting? Our small business hosts a lot of events that use up a lot of paper cups and we’re looking for alternatives. We’ve switched to uncoated paper cones that can be recycled/composted for the water cooler and encourage clients to bring their own water bottle that they can fill at the water cooler, but haven’t found a good substitute for paper cups for events yet. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks!

  9. Thank you for this informative post! I’m learning a lot from your blog! Never thought to rip the top of pizza box off ? Here in UK we can put shredded paper in recycling bin, but packed in a paper bag or envelope (depends on the council too). As for the receipts I tell the cashier in advance I don’t want one, before they print the customer copy. Luckily some still use uncoated paper printed ones, others (bakeries, coffee shops) oftentimes ask you, if you want a receipt printed at all. Most decline.

  10. Thanks for this in depth look at paper recycling. I’m trying to figure out if it’s a better bet to compost or recycle my paper. My compost pile could use the carbon, and I’m not confident in my local recycling plant. My first priority is reduction, but then is it better to avoid the risk of my paper going to a landfill by composting, or do I send it on and hope it gets recycled?

  11. Good afternoon
    My ask for help concerns a ton of magazines that I want to get rid of – recycle – but I did not want to take this all to our building’s basement – all at once, although I wanted to get it rid of them altogether also – So my question is, in NYC, is there an agency or company that I can can drive my old magazines and paper to and drop them off for recycling. is that even a thing? thanks for any guidance you can offer

  12. Thank you so much for all this information! Very useful! I found several things I did not know – glad I can be more beneficial in my paper recycling now. I made sure to share this article with my FB friends. Thanks again, Kathryn!

  13. Great article, very informative. What about the tissue paper–both colored and white–used for wrapping gifts?

  14. Hi! Would packs of gum be recyclable? I’m thinking of the paperboard package that holds the sticks of wrapped gum, not the wrappers. Thanks!

  15. Egg Cartons?

    And i am concerned about toxic red and other dyes on the compostable items. Any thoughts/knowledge?

    Thank you for all your wonderful/helpful info above!

  16. What’s your view on ripping cereal cartons into pieces, or is it best to leave them whole? Do the recycle workers care if paper and light cardboard is torn into pieces?

  17. I can’t find information regarding recycling newsprint that has yellowed. Recycle or not? No point in trying to good by doing bad.

  18. What about frozen food boxes? I’ve been reading that they are not due to coating on the boxes and the moisture in the box from the freezer. Although I have seen some boxes specifically have the recycle logo. Is it best to just toss them to be safe?

  19. Are #1 brown thin-cardboard boxes recyclable? My cooked takeout rice from Loving Hut restaurant came in it….you know, that chinese-food style box, except brown, not white, and without any metal handle. It says “Made from 100% Recycled Paperboard #1” at the bottom The outside edges don’t seem coated, but the inside does, there’s a slight sheen and slight waxy feeling