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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