10 Things that are Surprisingly Not Recyclable & their Eco-Friendly Alternatives
Updated: May 25, 2020
From mesh fruit bags to chip and snack bags, here is a list of ten everyday items that cannot be recycled and some easy alternatives that will help you greatly reduce your environmental footprint.
#1: Mesh bags for fruit: These are particularly dangerous because when they end up in the ocean, they can easily ensnare and kill fish, turtles, seals, and other marine animals.
Alternative: Buy fruit loose or put it into a reusable or compostable bag at the grocery store.
#2: Plastic Clam-shell containers: These containers are used for take-out at restaurants and for fruit, nuts, and other items at grocery stores.
Alternatives: Limit your takeout from restaurants that don’t use compostable/recyclable containers, bring your own containers to restaurants if you are going to be taking leftovers home, and look for fruit, nuts, and other food items that are stored in compostable plastic containers, cardboard/paper containers, or compostable plastic or recyclable brown bags when grocery shopping.
#3: Tetra Pak Containers: These are usually used for beverage packaging especially juice and non-dairy milks.
Alternative: Buy juice and milk in recyclable paper cartons or, if you want to get fancy, make your own juice and non-dairy milks. This Breville juicer is very highly rated as is this cheaper Hamilton Beach Juicer. To make your own almond milk simply soak 1 cup of almonds overnight then combine the almonds, 5 cups of water, 2 whole dates (if you want some sweetness), and a pinch of salt in a blender, blend until frothy and smooth, and then strain the mixture into your milk jar or container with a nut milk bag or thin dish towel.
#4: Keurig Coffee Cartridges: While these may be the trick for a quick and easy cup of coffee in the morning, there is nothing quick or easy about these non-recyclable containers which can take hundreds of years to break down. In 2013 alone, Keurig produced 8.3 billion K-cups, enough to wrap around the globe more than six times!
Alternative: Buy real coffee beans, grind them up in a coffee grinder, and use a reusable coffee filter! Some of my favorite coffee companies dedicated to sustainability are Kickapoo Coffee Roasters, Café Direct, Higher Ground Roasters, and Grumpy Mule.
“While these may be the trick for a quick and easy cup of coffee in the morning, there is nothing quick or easy about these non-recyclable containers which can take hundreds of years to break down.”
#5: Juice and Milk Boxes and Pouches: Unfortunately most juice boxes and pouches such as Capri-Suns and kiddie milk boxes like the Horizon Organic one are not recyclable because they contain various plastic elements often on the interior out of sight.
Alternative: Buy juice and milk in recyclable cartons or make your own! (See juicer recommendations and almond milk recipe for #3.)
#6: Chip and Snack Bags: Even though these bags do contain recyclable aluminum elements, they also contain plastic components and must therefore be thrown in the trash.
Alternative: There aren’t too many great alternatives aside from avoiding buying chips and other snacks that come in bags. One thing you can do, however, is send your chip and snack bags to the TerraCycle Snack Bag Recycling Program. Sending TerraCycle these items is free and ensures that these bags get a second life as TerraCycle will turn them into raw materials which can then be used in the production of new products. Late July Snacks Packaging can also be sent to the Late July Snacks Recycling Program, a free recycling program through Terracycle.
#7: Most Disposable Hot Coffee Cups: While these cups appear to be made purely out of paper, the majority of hot coffee cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic to keep the liquid from seeping through the cup. Therefore, most coffee cups actually aren’t recyclable. However hot coffee sleeves and lids can almost always be recycled.
Alternative: Use a reusable coffee cup or thermos when purchasing a hot beverage!
#8: Pizza Boxes: While a clean pizza box can be recycled, the greasy, food-scrap-filled one you are left with after devouring a pizza can not. Why? Unfortunately the grease prevents paper fibers from binding during the recycling process resulting in a poor quality paper product.
Alternative: A handful of composting facilities in the US will accept pizza boxes including those in San Francisco. If composting isn’t an option where you live, you can strip the greased cardboard out of your pizza box, throw those scraps in the trash, and then recycle the rest of the box.
#9: Clothes Hangers: The odd shape of metal wires that can get them caught on recycling equipment, the chemicals used to treat wood hangers, and the various materials used in most plastic hangers make the majority of clothes hangers not recyclable.
Alternative: You can always donate hangers to your local thrift stores and dry cleaners or repurpose your wire hangers for new uses. If you are looking to buy some new clothes hangers, these cardboard ones are a great option. Despite being made from cardboard, they are super durable and can hold the same weight as a wood hanger. And the best part— they are 100% recyclable!
#10: Styrofoam and Polystyrene Containers: Not only are these items not recyclable, but they are incredibly durable and do not degrade in landfills like most other trash items.
Alternatives: Avoid restaurants and fast-food places that continue to use polystyrene packaging, and buy paper or compostable plastic cups, bowls, and plates rather than styrofoam ones.
Oatman, Maddie. March 19, 2014. "Your Coffee Pod's Dirty Secret." Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/food/2014/03/coffee-k-cups-green-mountain-polystyrene-plastic/
Whelan, Luke. December 7, 2015. "Suprise! These 15 Common Grocery Store Items Are Almost Never Recyclable." Mother Jones. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2015/12/these-15-grocery-store-items-are-not-recyclable/
Town of Truckee. n.d. "Potato Chip and Snack Bags." Keep Truckee Green. Accessed May 6, 2020. https://www.keeptruckeegreen.org/guide/potato-chip-snack-bags/
October 4, 2019. "Why Can't You Recycle Paper Coffee Cups?" Recycle Coach. https://recyclecoach.com/residents/blog/why-cant-you-recycle-paper-coffee-cups/
Minimalist Baker. n.d. "How to Make Almond Milk." Accessed May 6, 2020. https://minimalistbaker.com/how-to-make-almond-milk/
Sherfey, Jimmy. October 12, 2016. "10 of the Most Sustainable Coffee Businesses in the US." Civil Eats. https://civileats.com/2016/10/12/most-sustainable-coffee-businesses-in-the-united-states/
"15 Fair Trade Coffee Brands Worth Waking Up For." The Good Trade. Accessed May 4, 2020. https://www.thegoodtrade.com/features/fair-trade-coffee-brands
"Are Pizza Boxes Filling Up Your Trash?" CleanRiver Recycling Solutions. Accessed May 6, 2020. https://cleanriver.com/are-pizza-boxes-filling-up-your-trash/
Shwartz, Donna. n.d. "20 Suprising Things You Can't Recycle." bob vila. Accessed April 30, 2020. https://www.bobvila.com/slideshow/20-surprising-things-you-can-t-recycle-52079#can-you-recycle-styrofoam