Everything Households Need to Know about Solid Waste Recycling and Disposal

Americans throw out a lot of stuff—millions of tons per year. In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency explained that each person in the United States averages about 4.48 pounds of waste a day.

So, which items should go straight into the trash? What is OK to recycle curbside, and what needs to be recycled elsewhere? Does “solid waste” even have to mean solid? (No. Waste in this context can be semi-solid, liquid or even gaseous.)

Each community has its own guidelines for disposal and recycling, and these regulations may be updated annually. The collection of links below directs you to local information if you don’t have it already.

  • Your local waste management program: Enter your ZIP code into the box for, “Find local recycling information.” The links that follow should include an entry for your community’s waste management program (and other helpful local links too!).

View from the Experts

When in Doubt, Throw It Out

Curbside recycling can be problematic. This is partly because of good intentions gone awry. If an item could possibly be recycled rather than sent to a landfill, many folks toss it into the recycling bin. Such actions often end up costing thousands of dollars or more per occurrence, and incidents are more common than you may think. For example, Rebecca Olson, the solid-waste marketing and quality-control coordinator for St. Lucie County in Florida explains that 15% of the county’s collected recyclables are contaminated. Examples of common contaminants include:

Even frozen food boxes are common contaminants despite being made of paperboard. The paperboard is frequently coated with plastic, which prevents the paperboard from breaking apart during normal recycling procedures.

What happens when a contaminant enters the recycling stream at a facility? It depends on the contaminant. For example, plastic bags tend to stick to shafts and axles, jamming machinery and putting workers in danger. Likewise, cords and tanglers often cause jams. Workers expend a lot of time and energy to take machinery apart and put it back together. Contaminants such as dirty diapers and syringes potentially endanger workers’ health and must be taken out (more wasted time). If a load has too many contaminants, nothing gets recycled. Instead, the load is simply sent to the landfill.

Trying to recycle the wrong materials can cost thousands of dollars per mistake and result in far more items getting trashed rather than recycled. If you are in doubt about whether to recycle something, just trash it. Alternatively, you could look up your local guidelines, if feasible. The table below details common curbside recycling mistakes and what folks can do instead.

Regulations for large plastic items such as laundry baskets and children’s play sets can vary widely by community. Check your area’s guidelines.

Important: Do not put your recycling in a plastic bag unless you live in a place such as New York City that has an approved program. Open paper bags are OK.

Avoid Putting Certain Items in Your Household Trash

The section above touched on common items that people try to recycle. Some, such as clothes hangers, can instead be placed in curbside trash. Meanwhile, other items such as motor oil and furniture are usually not suitable for curbside trash disposal.

Hazardous Materials

Examples of hazardous materials include brake fluid, antifreeze, rust removers, cleaning solvents, varnish, paint thinners, pesticides, lighter fluids, nail polish, nail polish remover and furniture polish. Thermometers, barometers, light bulbs and paint also fall under this umbrella. These materials are potentially dangerous. They may be toxic, corrosive or flammable, which is why they’re not appropriate for curbside trash removal (or for curbside recycling).

Many localities hold drop-off events for hazardous materials. Similarly, many allow you to make an appointment to drop off your hazardous waste at certain sites/facilities. If you’re uncertain whether something is hazardous, assume that it is (err on the side of caution), or contact your municipality for clarification.

Furniture and Bulk Items (Often Including Large Yard Waste)

For large items, you might need to arrange a special pickup with your locality’s waste division. Many localities don’t do that, though, at least not for free. Your other options may include:

  • Contacting a private company to haul the items away
  • Asking a thrift shop to do pickup
  • Shopping for new furniture at a place that takes old furniture off your hands
  • Listing an item for sale online, with the new owner hauling it away
  • Waiting for a bulk collection day (if applicable)
  • Taking the item to the dump (check local regulations for fees and allowable items)

Electronics

Electronics are not appropriate for curbside recycling, and you shouldn’t put them out with the household trash, either. Part of the reason is that many of these items contain toxic substances such as mercury and lead. Consider donating working electronics to nonprofit groups. Just remember to delete/sanitize your personal information where applicable. If you are disposing of e-waste, contact your locality and ask where to drop the waste off.

Remember Expired and Unneeded Medications

Medications, especially prescription medications, over-the-counter pills and dietary supplements, don’t always get disposed of properly. The Food and Drug Administration urges the use of a take-back site, program or location.

If that option isn’t available, some medications are OK to flush down the sink or toilet. That’s because just one dose of them could be extremely harmful or fatal for someone else, and the impact to the environment is most likely negligible. Proper disposal keeps children, other adults in the household, and pets safe.

Put medication in the trash if a drop-off location is not available and flushing is not recommended. In these cases, mix the medication with dirt, cat litter or something unappetizing (don’t crush capsules or tablets). Put the mixture in a plastic bag, and seal the bag. Place the bag into the trash. Scratch out the information on prescription labels, and dispose of these containers as well.

To dispose of needles and sharps: Put them in a disposal container specifically for needles and sharps right after you use them. Keep this container in a safe place inaccessible to children and pets.

When the container is about three-fourths full, follow your community’s guidelines for disposal. In many places, you can drop the containers off at hazardous waste collection locations, medical offices, pharmacies, police stations and fire stations. Many communities let you put the lids on disposal containers, seal them with duct tape, and add a “DO NOT RECYCLE,” label. You can then add the container to your household trash.

Dispose of Yard Trimmings and Smaller Yard Waste

In many localities, yard waste gets its own container like recyclables and trash do. If this applies to your area, certain “yard” items may still be off limits in the yard waste bin.

Fibrous plants such as bamboo have the potential to jam the equipment that makes mulch, which is why you should trash these plants. Meanwhile, some localities such as King County (Washington) allow food scraps and pizza delivery boxes in yard waste bins.

Dos and Don’ts for Composting

Many households and community groups use compost to fertilize gardens and farms. Whether you have your own compost pile or donate to one, you generally should avoid composting these items:

These items are good to compost:

Frequently Asked Questions

Here’s a look at FAQs that waste disposal and recycling groups get. Do note that these questions and answers are broadly applicable. It is possible that a few communities do things differently.

Can I recycle a pizza box that has grease stains? Some municipalities outright ban pizza box recycling. If yours doesn’t, curbside recycling may be OK if:

  • The bottom of the box is lightly stained.
  • There are no food remnants, however tiny.
  • There are no stickers, coupons and the like affixed to the box.

Pizza box top lids usually remain unspoiled, so you should be able to tear them off for recycling. If there is any doubt about the bottom, put it in the trash to avoid the possibility of costly contamination. Check whether your locality allows pizza boxes in yard waste bins for composting.

Why are some pizza boxes bad to put into recycling bins? Their oil and grease can contaminate a load.

Can I recycle books? Possibly. Contact your municipal solid waste department to find out. Otherwise, you may be able to donate books or recycle them through the mail.

What about phone books? You can recycle them! However, don’t include plastic bags, magnets or other items that came with the phone books.

Is gift wrap OK to recycle? Generally, no. That’s because the paper is laminated and shiny. However, it’s possible to purchase gift wrap that can be recycled or that is made from recycled materials. Recyclable decorative boxes are a good alternative to gift wrap.

Can I recycle junk mail envelopes that have windows? Yes.

Can plastic utensils and Styrofoam trays be recycled? No for plastic utensils and most likely not for Styrofoam.

But…my package of Styrofoam has a label saying that the plates are recyclable. The symbol is not regulated, and it appears on plenty of materials that recycling companies won’t accept. In the case of Styrofoam, it’s so lightweight that most companies prefer not to deal with it.

Is it OK to leave the label on the plastic bottles I recycle? Yes. The same goes for leaving labels on glass bottles and steel cans.

How about leaving the caps and lids on? The answer varies by locality. If yours don’t get recycled, try to collect loose caps and lids in a plastic bag. Seal the bag before you put it in the trash. By doing this, you reduce the chances that these lids and caps become marine debris.

How clean do peanut butter jars and other containers need to be? Rinse them, but don’t worry about passing a white-glove test. Of course, peanut butter jars pose a special challenge. Scoop out as much peanut butter as you can with a soft spatula. Fill a quarter of the jar with water, and add a drop or two of soap. Replace the lid and shake. The remnants should come out nicely.

Plastics with which numbers can be recycled? Most plastics with the numbers “1” and “2” are recyclable curbside. One common exception is the clamshell containers for fruits and vegetables. Another is plastic bags, which should be returned to stores. Also, if a piece of plastic is “1” or “2,” you may need to remove attached items first (e.g. a soap dispenser pump). It’s always best to check with your locality to see which plastics it wants in recycling bins.

What can I recycle through the mail? A surprising amount of items, including paper, plastic, batteries, light bulbs and electronics large and small. You can also recycle medical supplies, electronic media, and inkjet and toner cartridges. In addition, miscellaneous household items such as crayons, ceiling tiles, trophies, eyeglasses, shoes and much more can be recycled via mail.

What types of paper products should I trash instead of recycle? Many paper products are actually paper plus something(s) unrecyclable. In general, you should trash items such as ATM receipts, waxy-like receipts, carbon paper, coffee cups, paper cups, paper towels and paper plates (dirty and clean), tissues, toilet paper and laminated paper.

What are common items that people mistakenly recycle? Pizza boxes, coated paper, broken glass bottles, straws, blister packs and beverage pouches.

Household Recycling and Solid Waste Disposal

People usually have good intentions with the items they try to recycle. We want to do right by the environment, but we don’t realize the risks posed by a greasy pizza box or a tangle of Christmas lights. When in doubt, throw an item out, and take special disposal measures with hazardous waste, medications, furniture and a few other items.

Additional Resources

  • Earth911: Recycling Guide for Vehicles, Glass, Plastic, Household Waste, Electronics and More
  • Family Handyman: Don’t Toss These Things, Repurpose Them Instead
  • EPA: Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste and Recycling