What Goes Where: Recycling Tips

Most of us know the basics: glass, paper, and cans go in the recycling bins. But there are always those unusual items that leave us guessing. What do we do with a broken plastic toy, a shattered drinking glass, or clothes hangers? This is a quandary that most living in Santa Cruz County and Silicon Valley face on a daily basis. A lot of us are asking ourselves, “What goes where?”

Not everything that appears recyclable is, but there are also items that we throw in the garbage without thinking that we can either compost or recycle. When we encounter this dilemma, we may place something in the wrong bin, which results in recyclables deteriorating in landfills or trash contaminating recyclables, which turns them into refuse. In fact, recycling experts claim that up to a third of what we designate as garbage could be composted or recycled.

So what can be recycled or composted? Below is a general list of items that typically get improperly sorted. But, it is always best to confirm with your local waste management company for their recycling and composting requirements. If your local service doesn’t accept items that are recyclable, there are usually other facilities that do.

Food Scraps & Food-Soiled Paper

Most local waste management companies now offer the ability to compost food scraps by either placing them in your green waste bins or by requesting a separate composting container. The composting of food waste dramatically decreases the amount sent to landfills. It also reduces the production of methane, which results from decomposing vegetables, fruit, and other foods. Creating rich soil from food waste is one of the most environmentally friendly things we can do as consumers.

As for food-soiled paper including paper towels, napkins, pizza boxes, and many other take-away food containers in addition to ANY paper products that may have come in contact with food, they are an ideal addition to the composting container. Since it is contaminated with food, the paper can’t be recycled but it can contribute to the creation of fertile soil. Shredded paper can’t be recycled since the shredding process splits the fibers. But it can be composted so add that to your green/yard waste bins along with your food and food-soiled paper products. Most wood products, including wooden hangers, can also be placed in the green waste bins.


Believe it or not, not all glass belongs in the recycling bin. Glass bottles used for soda, wine, beer, and other beverages are recyclable but the following items are not:

  • Mirrors
  • Glassware
  • Bake ware
  • Window panes
  • Ceramics
  • Light bulbs*

Since most of these are produced using different types of glass, they melt at different temperatures and as such, cannot be combined with bottle glass for recycling. If reusable, donate items like mirrors and drinking glasses to your local thrift store or if they are broken, they belong in the refuse bin.

*Incandescent, LED, halogen, and fluorescent (these contain mercury and should NOT be thrown in the garbage) light bulbs can be recycled but shouldn’t be placed in your normal recycling bin. Most hardware stores including Home Depot, Lowes, and Ace Hardware all provide light bulb recycling services. We recommend calling your nearest store for details on their recycling program.


There is a misconception that the recycling numbering system on plastics denotes how frequently the item has been recycled when in fact it indicates the level of resin used. A good rule of thumb for recycling plastic is to place all hard plastic items in the recycling bin, even if there it doesn’t have a number. Any thin or film-like plastics such as bread bags, the baggies provided by your grocer for fruits and vegetables, sandwich bags, dry cleaning plastic, and the plastic film that encloses paper towels and other products should be collected and returned to your grocery store for recycling. You can also check Plastic Film Recycling for more details on what is recyclable and nearby drop-off locations. Any other plastic bags are considered trash. Plastic clothing hangers cannot be recycled-those should be thrown in the garbage.


Food and beverage cans are all recyclable but should be scraped or rinsed clean. Clean aluminum foil and trays, empty aerosol cans, small metal appliances, keys, and metals lids are all typically able to be recycled. Again, donate any items such as appliances and metal cookware if possible and check with your local service provider on their specific recycling guidelines for metal. Propane tanks are NOT recyclable and should be disposed of via a hazardous waste facility.

Batteries & Hazardous Waste

Some cities allow consumers to place batteries in a clear bag and place on top of their recycling bin. If not, they and other hazardous waste items can be dropped off at local Household Hazardous Waste facilities, which are available in each county. Items such as motor oil, paint cans, and chemicals can be dropped off at these locations free of charge.

There are many things that can be recycled but may not be collected by your local refuse service. Earth911’s website has a comprehensive list of over 350 recyclable materials including metals, paint, garden and construction materials. By entering your postal code, the website offers information on nearby recycling solutions.

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