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!
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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:
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 is recyclable, but once again, see if someone else will take it and reuse it before recycling.
“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!
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.
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.
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!
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 or freezer paper is coated with plastic. It’s neither recyclable nor compostable.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 ct.gov, 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.