What are the REAL RULES of recycling?

So many of us want to recycle, but the rules can be so confusing that it’s easier to just toss the empty soda can into the trash rather than figure out what can and can’t be recycled.

Plus, every state and city has different parameters around what, how, and where items can be recycled. It can be overwhelming, especially as you are just starting out.

In an effort to make things easier for you to begin recycling, we’re addressing some of the most common questions to recycling in today’s blog post!

Can all paper be recycled?  

Paper waste is a huge problem—but the good news is that most paper CAN be recycled.

All of the following is recyclable:

  • Newspapers
  • Magazines
  • Brochures
  • Catalogues
  • Computer paper
  • Envelopes (even envelopes with the plastic windows)
  • Junk mail
  • Telephone directories

However, avoid putting the following into recycle bins:

  • Paper that’s stained or soiled
  • Hygiene/sanitary products
  • Tissues
  • Sticky papers like Post-it notes
  • Wallpaper
  • Brown paper like Whole Foods bags (these bags can be recycled with cardboard)

Learn more about recycling paper products here.

Can styrofoam be recycled?

Styrofoam containers like egg cartons, take-out containers, or packing peanuts are not typically considered recyclable when it comes to curbside recycling. Of course, every city and state has different rules around what can and can’t be recycled, so this will vary. But mostly, these sort of Styrofoam containers need to be recycled elsewhere.

So where do you take them?

If you’re local to the Middle Tennessee area, EFP Corp Nashville located in LaVergne, TN accepts packaging foam for recycling (except for food containers—so it’s a no go on the egg cartons).

The best practice, of course, is trying to avoid the use of styrofoam materials whenever possible. Look for cardboard egg containers and opt for reusable drink containers rather than styrofoam or plastic.

Read more about styrofoam—and what it’s made up of—here.

Can water bottle tops be recycled?

There’s the common tip that you should remove the bottle top from plastic bottles before recycling. According to this informative Nashville Public Radio article, caps should remain on the water bottles:

“Caps themselves are typically too small to make it through the sorting line, so as long as they are attached to another plastic item, they’re good.

Once they go to the next facility, they get shredded and water is used to separate the various grades. The lid of your water bottle will float, the rest will sink. The lids will be skimmed off the top of the “bath” and the rest will be scooped up. If you were to separate them yourself and recycle your bottle cap on its own, it probably wouldn’t even make it through the line because it’s too small for the workers to grab.”

Which glass items can be recycled?

Most glass containers that you find at the grocery store, like the glass bottle that your favorite spaghetti sauce comes in, can be recycled. However, not all recycling programs will accept colored glass, so it’s important to check this first with your local recycle program.

In Nashville, curbside recycling does NOT accept glass items. However, there are several drop-off locations that will accept glass to be recycled. You can learn more about which items can be recycled in Nashville here.

Glass items that CANNOT be recycled include:

  • Any contaminated glass—so make sure you wash out those glass containers BEFORE placing them in the recycle bin!
  • Ceramics—like dishware or decor
  • Heat-resistant glass—like Pyrex
  • Mixed colors of broken glass
  • Mirror or window glass
  • Crystal
  • Light bulbs—read on to see how these can be recycled

Can you recycle plastic grocery bags?

Yes—but typically not in your curbside recycling!

Plastic bags are of a different grade of plastic, and most recycling plants can’t process these. However, grocery chains like Publix and Kroger DO offer storefront recycling bins where you can drop off your grocery bags to be recycled.

In fact, Kroger plans to completely discontinue use of plastic grocery bags by 2025 as part of their plans to become a zero-waste company.

How do you recycle hazardous items?

Items like lightbulbs, batteries, and ink cartridges shouldn’t go into the trash—these too can be recycled!

Light bulbs

Home Depot accepts compact fluorescent light bulbs from consumers for recycling. Lightbulbs especially need to be disposed of properly, as CFL bulbs contain small amounts of mercury and can be a hazard when broken.

While there is not currently a national recycling program for LED lights, some local municipalities do offer recycling for these, so it’s best to check with your city and state.

There’s also mail-in recycling options for light bulbs, though you will have to pay for it. LampMaster is a company that offers mail-in recycling programs for many difficult-to-recycle options, like lightbulbs, batteries, smoke detectors, and more.

Learn more about recycling light bulbs here.

Ink Cartridges

Major office supply chain stores offer to take back your ink cartridges, sometimes even offering a discount on a new ink purchase.

Office Depot offers in-store ink & toner cartridge recycling for a $2 membership reward in return.


Batteries should be recycled, as well.

Nashville residents can drop off batteries and other electronic waste at a handful of different recycle centers across Nashville. You can see these locations here.

Earth911.com features a recycling locator—you can search to see if there are facilities for recycling your batteries in your area!

And while batteries are not specifically listed here, this resource from the EPA lists electronic recycling programs from major retailers.

How do you find out your state/local parameters for recycling?

If your city recycles, the city will most likely have information on which items can be recycled, if it offers curbside recycling or drop-off locations, and more on the city’s government website. Google will be your best tool for finding the right webpage that explains your city’s recycling program!

If your city doesn’t offer recycling, there are likely still other avenues for recycling in your area. Recycle Nation is an excellent resource for searching for recycling locations for all types of different materials.

It’s up to us, today, to live sustainably—and recycling is an integral part of these daily decisions to keep the Earth healthy for generations to come. We hope you’ve found this post helpful and will begin taking steps to recycle if you don’t already!