Taking the Confusion out of Paper Recycling

Photo Courtesy of Millenium Recycling, Sioux Falls, SD

When it comes to recycling, some materials that come in a variety of forms can make it confusing to know what goes in the recycling and what goes in the garbage. Last month, we discussed the confusing world of jar and bottle caps. This month, we tackle all the different types of paper we come across.

Is there a difference between plain paper and paper with coatings such as wax or plastic? What about papers with staples or plastic ‘windows’ or binding? Or that food-soiled wrapper your hamburger came in? We’re here to help you sort out the variations.

There are two main things to consider in recycling paper: the quality of the paper, and whether it’s coated with something.

Quality of Paper

Higher quality paper, such as writing or printing paper, has long paper fibers. This means it’s easy to recycle and should be placed in the recycling container. These papers may be recycled into lower quality papers such as paper towels, napkins, and tissues. Turning high quality paper into lower quality paper means the fibers become shorter and are no longer recyclable.

Lower quality papers such as tissue, paper napkins, or paper towels are not recyclable and should be placed in the garbage container. Besides, these types of papers are often contaminated with other substances such as food or grease or personal care products, which also renders them nonrecyclable. It’s important to keep recyclables clean and dry to ensure they’re recyclable.

Newspaper and advertising inserts, however, are recyclable.


Now, if paper is coated with something like wax or plastic, such as the liner on a disposable coffee cup, then the coating makes it unrecyclable, and these items should be placed in the garbage container. This includes the coated paper that comes on the back of address labels or stamps as well as parchment or butcher paper that may be used for cooking.

Store receipts are also not recyclable because they are coated with something called BPA, so make sure to put these in the garbage.

Other Types of Paper

Paper that is otherwise recyclable often has other things on it, too.  A rogue staple here or there can be recycled with a printed document. Same with a paper clip, though we recommend removing paper clips to reuse. Window envelopes that you get in the mail or envelopes with clasps can be recycled as well as papers with adhesives such as post-its and envelopes.

Bound paper such as books and magazines can go in the recycling container though you may want to donate them to a local thrift shop or start a neighborhood free library.

As always, any food-soiled items, including paper food wrappings or paper food ‘boats’, should go in the garbage or your home compost bin.  Food residue can contaminate the clean paper you’re recycling so that it, too, could end up in the garbage.

Fortunately, you can minimize some of the paper waste you make by taking your own cloth napkin and containers when enjoying take-out food, having receipts emailed to you instead of printed, and reading newspapers and magazines online.

With this ‘ream’ of information, you should now be able to dispose of all your paper products correctly. But when something ‘stumps’ you, go to SanJoseRecycles.org to get the answer.

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Got HHW? Be part of the solution to reduce pollution

Every September, we celebrate Pollution Prevention Week as a time to recognize our collective efforts to reduce sources of pollution. There are many ways that residents can reduce pollution at home, including reducing Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) and disposing of HHW correctly.

What is Household Hazardous Waste?

HHW are corrosive, flammable, or toxic materials that can accumulate in your garage or storage closet and endanger you, your family and the environment. If these items are left around the house, they can be dangerous for children and pets. HHW can also create air pollution inside your home, and products like chemical cleaners, nail polish, hair spray, and pesticides can contain ingredients that irritate eyes and skin, worsen asthma and can even be carcinogenic!

Here are some common HHW items:

  • paints, paint strippers and other solvents
  • wood preservatives
  • aerosol sprays
  • cleansers and disinfectants
  • moth repellents and air fresheners
  • stored fuels and automotive products
  • hobby supplies
  • dry-cleaned clothing
  • pesticides
  • nail polish and nail polish remover
  • glues and adhesives, permanent markers and photographic solutions.
  • office equipment such as copiers and printers, correction fluids and carbonless copy paper

What is the best way to store HHW items?

Store HHW items that you’ll be keeping for a while in well-ventilated areas, out of reach from children and pets. If you won’t be promptly using the products again, consider disposal to avoid the hazards of keeping them in your home.

How should residents dispose of HHW?

Dispose of all HHW for FREE by making a drop-off appointment with the Santa Clara County HHW Program or visiting a take-back location. Never put HHW in your garbage or recycling container or pour them down your toilet, sink, a household drain or storm drain.

How to avoid HHW

If it’s a product you use consistently, such as a household cleaner, consider non-chemical alternatives that are healthier and just as effective. If you’re more comfortable with a commercial cleaning product, look for third party-certified products such as the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Safer Choice, or check out  the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Healthy Cleaning. For all spray products, mist spray bottles are healthier than aerosol spray cans.

Taken together, these actions can reduce the risks associated with these hazardous everyday products.

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Got bottle caps and container lids? How to know what goes where

Have you ever wondered what to do with bottle caps and lids? With such a wide variety of containers and caps, it can be hard to know how to dispose of them all. Should a metal cap be recycled on a glass jar or separately? What if it came on a paper carton and not a plastic jug? We’re here to make it easier for you with this list of simple rules:

  • Plastic bottle caps can be recycled if they’re screwed onto plastic bottles. In contrast, if a cap is loose, or it came on a paper carton or tetra pak (oat milk cartons, soup cartons and coconut water containers that have a liner), it should go in the garbage, not the recycling.
  • Very small items go in the garbage. The sorters and equipment at the materials recovery facility (MRF) are calibrated to separate larger items to be recycled. Very small items like loose plastic caps fall through the machinery and end up in the landfill.
  • Plastic lids from larger containers can be recycled. Larger lids, like those on hummus or yogurt containers, are big enough to be sorted individually at the MRF, so they don’t need to be attached to the container. Scrape off any remaining food residue into the garbage and place these in the recycling.
  • Plastic coffee cup lids are NOT recyclable. The cardboard sleeve from the coffee cup can be removed and placed in the recycling. The plastic lid and the coffee cup go in the garbage.
  • Put metal lids in the recycling container. Remove metal lids, like those on glass jars or tins cans, from their containers. Lids will be picked up by magnets in the MRF. This is also true for metal beer and wine bottle caps.
  • Paint lids that have dry paint on them can be recycled. Empty paint cans in the same condition can also be recycled. However, paint cans with any leftover paint need to be disposed of through the County Household Hazardous Waste Program or PaintCare.
  • Want more recycling and waste-related content? Subscribe to our bi-monthly e-newsletter, The Loop, for the most current recycling, garbage and waste reduction news: bit.ly/TheLoop_signup

Is it Recyclable? When in Doubt, Find Out

Do you ever put things in your recycling container without checking to make sure they’re recyclable?  You probably mean well doing this – recycling keeps things out of landfill, conserves resources, and perhaps gives them new life in a new product.  But this ‘wishcycling’– the act of tossing things in the recycling that you hope are recyclable – can actually do more harm than good. If the items are non-recyclable or soiled, they can contaminate the recyclables you put in your cart.  When this happens, all those materials can end up in the landfill – the opposite of what you intended!

When in doubt, find out! If you aren’t sure if something is recyclable, look up the item on SanJoseRecycles.org. Disposal information for over 300 common, and not-so-common, items is searchable on the website. Watch this quick video to see how quick and easy it is to use.


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Why Recycle?

If you have ever wondered about the benefits of recycling, this blog is for you. Recycling is important for many reasons, and has a positive impact for both people and the planet.

Recycling, and making sure we are recycling right, reduces waste, keeps recyclable materials out of landfills, and helps protect the environment. It is one of the easiest ways to take a positive action for the environment every day. It also saves energy. Creating new products from recycled materials requires much less energy than creating them from raw materials. Plastic, for example, can be transformed into fleece jackets, carpeting, and plastic lumber for park benches. Paper, glass and metal also become useful, items such as cereal boxes, new glass bottles and aluminum cans. Recycling also saves valuable natural resources such as trees, water and oil. It even fuels the economy and creates jobs – in California, there are an estimated 60,000 jobs in the recycling industry!

Check out our video to learn more about how recycling helps our community, the environment, and economy.

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Ask the Experts: What Can I Do With Extra Food?

Q: What can I do with extra food?

A: That’s a great question, and we’ll get to the answers shortly! First, it’s worthwhile to consider how to avoid having food waste. Here are some helpful food waste reduction tips and tricks to manage and store food after visiting the grocery store.


Despite our best efforts, we all sometimes end up with more food than we can eat. Instead of throwing food away, we have a lot of options that can help our wallets, other people and the planet.

Get Creative in the Kitchen

Sometimes we are just tired of our leftovers. But instead of thinking of leftovers as meals, we can think of them as ingredients for making new dishes. Leftover veggies, meats and grains can easily be transformed into a new meal such as a casserole, a pasta dish or soups. To see what you can do with food that is starting to go bad, or for recipe inspiration from leftovers or raw ingredients, check out Love Food Not Waste.

Freeze It

Not feeling those leftovers at the moment? Freeze them for later!

While you can freeze just about anything, there are a few guidelines to follow. For example, make sure hot food has cooled down before storing in the freezer to avoid freezer burn. Do not leave uncooked or thawing food out of the refrigerator or freezer for more than a couple hours. Transfer refrigerated leftovers to the freezer within four days and be cautious about mold or slime. Also, be intentional about eating the frozen meals that can get lost in the back of the freezer – make a plan to eat them and avoid unintended waste.

Donate It

One of the most impactful options you have for your extra food is to donate it. About one in eight Americans faces hunger, according to Feeding America, and about forty percent of food grown, processed and transported in the United States is never eaten.

Donate unwanted food to Second Harvest Food Bank or another nearby food bank. Keep in mind that food banks and charities will typically only accept non-perishable items.

If your backyard fruit trees produce more than you can use, there are local groups that can pick and distribute the extras to others.

Repurpose Food Scraps and Waste

We can use some food scraps (carrot, celery and apple peels are nutritious dog favorites) or cooked meats and grains (not heavily seasoned) to feed our furry friends. See a list of human foods that dogs can eat.

Don’t have a furry friend in your life? You can also use vegetable scraps to grow new food. Many veggie scraps can be grown right on your windowsill with no need for an outdoor garden!

Compost It

Another environmentally friendly home for your fruit, veggie and grain food scraps is your backyard compost pile. Backyard composting keeps organic material out of the landfill, creates rich soil and helps combat climate change through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Don’t have a backyard compost pile? If you’re interested, sign up for a free online home composting class and learn how to get started. Otherwise, rest assured that in San José, organics from your garbage are separated after collection and composted. Learn more about the process here.

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The Five Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot

We’ve all probably heard of the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.” But do you know about the other two “Rs”? 

The Five Rs: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot

The Five Rs are guiding principles for reducing the waste we produce, and they follow a specific order. Here’s the hierarchy in order of importance, and more information on each of the Rs:

  • Refuse: This is the first and leading principle that tells us to refuse anything we don’t really need. Even if it’s free, if you don’t really need it, say no. Politely decline knick-knacks and other promotional freebies, single-use items like utensils, cups and food ware, and anything else that isn’t truly essential in our lives. This is the first step to cutting down on our waste. 
  • Reduce: Reducing goes along with refusing, in terms of thinking about what is actually needed and cutting out what is not. Whenever possible, we can make choices to reduce the things we use, such as bringing our own bags to the grocery store, our own water bottle to events or a reusable cup to the coffee shop.
  • Reuse: It’s important to note that reuse comes before recycling, and this means that whenever possible, we should see if items can be repurposed. Old pasta jars, for example, can be repurposed as containers for dried food items.

    Reuse also means that instead of tossing something out that we don’t need anymore, if it is still usable we can donate it or give it to somebody who can continue to use it. BuyNothing groups, Freecycle and Craigslist are all great ways to donate gently-used items or find an item you may need yourself. There are numerous thrift stores in San José that will take items you discard as well. 

  • Recycle: If we are unable to reuse items, and they are recyclable, we can recycle them so the material can be converted into something new. While recycling is a way to extend the lifespan of a material, it still requires resources and energy. Some materials, like plastic, have a limited number of times they can be recycled before their quality is diminished and they can no longer be recycled. Visit SanJoseRecycles.org to learn more about what you can recycle in San José. 
  • Rot: And finally, rot means creating a valuable resource from food waste and organics by home composting. Recycle your fruits, vegetables, and yard trimmings into a nutrient-rich soil fertilizer that helps your garden grow while reducing waste to the landfill. Sign up for a free online home composting class to get started and learn the basics. Unable to have your own home compost pile? No problem. Here in San José, organics from your garbage are separated after collection and composted. Learn more about the process here.

And that’s the Five Rs. By following these guiding principles, we take steps towards reducing our waste and keeping valuable items out of the landfill and reducing our impact on the planet!

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What to Do with Your Old Clothes

Did you know that textiles – such as clothes, shoes, and towels – are taking up more and more space in landfills every year?  According to the EPA, Americans threw away over 11 million tons of textiles in 2018.

In San José, textiles are not accepted in curbside recycling bins or carts. However, that doesn’t mean that items like used clothes and shoes need to go to the landfill – there are many options to reuse, upcycle, or recycle your discarded items after you’re finished with them:

  1. Donate – If your items are in good condition, consider donating them. Just be sure only to donate items that still have some life left in them. You can also check with friends, family, or neighbors to see if they’d like any items.
  2. Turn them into cash – Clothing that is still in good condition can be turned into cash through online resellers or taken to a local consignment shop.
  3. Give back – Before donating or selling, it’s also good to check whether your clothing brand takes back its old clothes. Some retailers also accept clothing for recycling and offer benefits such as discounts on your next purchase.
  4. Repurpose – If your clothes are too worn to be donated, sold, or given back, consider repurposing them as cleaning cloths. Instead of buying reusable rags or washcloths, you can make your own from cut-up pieces of clothes.
  5. Last Resort: Place in the Garbage – If you have tried options one through four and still need to discard your items, put them into your curbside garbage container.

Once you’ve cleaned items from your closet, you’ll want to ensure you don’t have to repeat the exercise very soon. Be mindful of what you buy – favoring quality purchases that will last and that you’ll look forward to wearing for many years to come. Consider shopping secondhand for clothes in thrift shops and consignment stores. If you just donated or sold your clothes, this will contribute to this more sustainable system.

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What Happens to Organic Materials in San José?

Compostable material in a garbage container being turned into compost.

Ever wonder why San José doesn’t have a separate curbside container to put food scraps, compostable paper (e.g. paper towels, paper napkins, some takeout containers, coffee filters) and other organics? San José has a unique system by which all residential garbage is first taken to a facility where organic materials, like food scraps and compostable paper items, are separated for composting. Once the organics have been separated out, they are delivered to a compost facility right here in Santa Clara County. Leftover materials that can’t be composted – called “residue” – are taken to the landfill. This system is referred to as “backend processing” and is why you don’t have a separate organics bin or cart at home.

San José residents should place all food scraps and compostable paper in their curbside garbage container, and the collection companies and processors will take care of the rest. Finished compost is used on landscaping and median projects, returning nutrients to the soil, improving soil structure, and conserving water. This system of recycling organic waste fights climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and helps the City comply with state regulations to reduce organic waste disposal. Watch the GreenWaste Materials Recovery Facility in action here.


What if I Set Out Yard Trimmings in a Pile or Cart?

If you set out yard trimmings either in a loose pile in the street or use a green yard trimmings cart, these are for yard trimmings only. Yard trimmings include items like branches, prunings, leaves, palm fronds, and grass. Do not place food scraps or compostable paper items in your yard trimmings pile or cart. For that matter, dog poop bags do not belong in yard trimmings piles.

Residential yard trimmings are collected and processed separately from the organics separated from your garbage. Yard trimmings are shredded, mulched, and made into a higher-quality compost, commonly used for local agriculture. Watch this video to see how residential yard trimmings are transformed into compost.


Compost at Home

Interested in composting at home? Residents are encouraged to try home composting to turn organic material into compost for their yard or garden. To learn home composting basics and sign up for a free composting class (currently held online and tentatively in-person later this summer), visit the Santa Clara County Composting Education Program website. Home composting bins will be available for purchase at the workshops.


Stop Food Waste in the First Place

Even though San José’s residential food scraps are composted, it’s still important to avoid wasting food in the first place – check out our food waste reduction tips and tricks.

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Ask the Experts: How Do I Recycle Cardboard?

Have a tough recycling question? We’re here to help! Ask the Experts » 

Q: How do I recycle cardboard? Does it need to be broken down before being placed in the recycling? Can shiny or waxed cardboard be recycled? 

A: Great question. Cardboard boxes should be broken down before placing them in your recycling container. Flattening the boxes makes it easier for workers and recycling facilities to handle, and they take up less space, making more room in your recycling container (and therefore reducing costs) as they travel to the recycling center. If you can’t fit the cardboard in your cart and can’t wait until the next week to fit it in, flatten and cut it into pieces no larger than 4’ x 4’ and lean them against your recycling container.

However, be mindful that not all cardboard can be recycled. 

  • Food and liquid-soiled cardboard is not recyclable and should not be put in the recycling. Soiled cardboard can ruin otherwise good recyclables and make an entire load of materials unrecyclable. Therefore, food and liquid-soiled cardboard belongs in the garbage. If you can rip or cut off the soiled parts, place those in your garbage container and recycle the clean pieces in your recycling container. 
  • Waxed cardboard cannot be recycled. Waxed cardboard is a multi-layered cardboard coated with plastic and is mostly used by retailers for shipping produce, so unless you’ve brought your groceries home in a produce box, you most likely don’t have it in your home. 
  • Unlike waxed cardboard, paperboard and shiny cardboard can be recycled. Some common examples of items in this category include:
  • Cereal 
  • Cookies and crackers
  • Toothpaste
  • Tissues

If you are not sure whether you are dealing with waxed cardboard or shiny cardboard, simply give it a scratch and see if any waxy residue comes off on your fingernail. 


Now that we know what types of cardboard can be recycled, let’s cover how to break down the boxes: 

1. Remove and separate any extra packaging materials such as plastic foam or bubble wrap. Reuse or place these in the garbage. 

2. Use a box cutter, knife or scissors to cut through any tape or along the edges to flatten the box as much as possible. You do not have to worry about removing tape, staples or adhesives. 

3. Cut or break down until cardboard is flat and can fit into your recycling, then toss it in! If you have more cardboard than your cart will hold, please save any extra for next week’s collection. If it really can’t wait until next week, flatten and cut it into pieces no larger than 4’ by 4’ and lean them against the cart. Tie pieces together with string, twine or packing tape (not duct tape).

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