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Earth Day: 5 Things You Can and Can't Recycle

Some of these items might surprise you.

Zachary McAuliffe Staff writer
Zach began writing for CNET in November, 2021 after writing for a broadcast news station in his hometown, Cincinnati, for five years. You can usually find him reading and drinking coffee or watching a TV series with his wife and their dog.
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Zachary McAuliffe
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Trash entering a machine from the left and plants exiting the machine on the right

Recycling is easy, but what you can and can't recycle might be confusing.

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Earth Day was started in 1970 to make people aware of damages to the environment. Since then, companies like Apple have introduced plans to reduce or eliminate their carbon footprint, and some companies, like Microsoft, have introduced product settings to use more renewable energy when it's available.

We've compiled a list of things you can and can't recycle to help you reduce your carbon footprint, and some of the items might surprise you.

Note: Recyclable items may vary by location, so check with your local recycling center or government agency.

Recycle: Pizza boxes

Even if the boxes have grease in them they can be recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. However, you have to get rid of any food scraps, including uneaten crusts, and you have to flatten the boxes.

Don't recycle: Hardcover books

Hardcover books can't be recycled. The covers are usually made of different materials, including plastic and leather, which aren't recyclable. The glue that binds the books together can be hard to separate from the pages as well. Besides, why recycle a book when you can donate it to a school, library or a nonprofit organization? Donating books can help people increase their vocabulary and improve their communications skills. Plus it's a guilt-free way of making more room on your bookshelves.

Recycle: Paperback books

You can recycle a paperback book if it's beyond repair. Like hardcover books, though, consider donating the book if you want to get rid of it. 

Don't recycle: Receipts

Most receipts are coated with Bisphenol A, a plastic compound more commonly known as BPA. This compound makes the receipts unrecyclable, and it could be bad for your health, according to the Mayo Clinic. The best way to dispose of receipts is in the trash, but you might want to shred the receipt before throwing it away for financial security.

Recycle: Batteries

Lead-acid batteries are one of the most recycled items, according to the EPA. This includes car batteries, too. However, batteries require special handling, so they need to be recycled at separate locations and can't be recycled in your home recycling bin. This tool can help you find a location to recycle your batteries.

Don't recycle: Stickers

The glue that holds stickers in place can gunk up recycling machinery, and some stickers, like vinyl stickers, can be harmful to the environment.

Recycle: Carpet

Nearly all kinds of carpet can be broken down and used to make new products, and the complex fibers of carpet make it nearly impossible to break down in landfills. However, the infrastructure required to recycle carpet isn't widely available, and you can't put carpet in your home recycle bin. The nonprofit Carpet America Recovery Effort is one group working to put the necessary infrastructure in place to recycle carpet everywhere. For now, use this tool to find a location that will recycle your carpet. 

Don't recycle: Compostable plastics

Even though they're made from renewable materials like corn, cellulose and soy protein, compostable plastics can't be recycled. "Compostable plastics aren't meant to be recycled and can contaminate and disrupt the recycling stream if mixed with non-compostable plastics," according to the EPA.

Recycle: Motor oil

Many garages and auto shops recycle your old oil when you take your car in for an oil change. If you perform your own oil change, usually these same shops will accept oil for recycling. Like batteries, motor oil should not be put in a household recycle bin. The used material from one oil change is enough to contaminate one million gallons of fresh water, according to the EPA. Use this tool to find a location that will recycle your used motor oil. 

Don't recycle: Wrapping paper

Shiny and laminated wrapping paper can't be recycled. There is recyclable wrapping paper available, though. The EPA said a good wrapping paper alternative that is recyclable is newspaper. Plus, using newspaper as wrapping paper gives the gift recipient something to read while they wait to open their gift.

Bonus: Aluminum cans

Empty aluminum cans can be recycled, but not crushed cans. The EPA says crushed cans are harder to detect when being sorted within recycling facilities. All those shows and movies showing people crushing cans to take to the recycling center lied to us all. 

For more, here's how to recycle old tech and gadgets for free, how to use Best Buy's recycle-by-mail program and how plastics recycling misses the point.

Watch this: Meet the Recyclable, 3D-Printed Home