The Ultimate A to Z Guide to Recycling Everything (Like, Everything) While Living in NYC

We could all do a little (or a lot) more to take care of the environment. But you don’t have to go completely off the grid to make a difference: NYC happens to have an incredibly comprehensive recycling program. That said, it can be a little confusing at times. So we’re breaking down the most common recycling mistakes and questions—alphabetically, of course.

How to Get Rid of Stuff You Don’t Want Without Leaving the House

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Items that are mostly metal (like toasters) or mostly plastic (like hair dryers) can go into your regular blue bin with other glass, plastic and metal. (Certain brands, like Hamilton Beach, offer take-back programs.) For items like refrigerators and air conditioners—which contain Freon—make an appointment with the Department of Sanitation to have them removed.

It’s illegal to toss rechargeable batteries of any kind. Instead, you can take them to any store that sells them (like Duane Reade and Home Depot) or an NYC disposal event. Regular alkaline batteries (e.g., the AAs you use in the remote) can go in the regular trash, but it’s better to bring them in, too.

Most people know corrugated boxes are recyclable, but so are brown bags, magazines, empty toilet paper and paper towel rolls, wrapping paper, shoe boxes and egg cartons. Pizza boxes are also acceptable—but throw out the grease-covered liner (or better yet, compost it).

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Drink Cups
Yep, that empty coffee (or matcha) cup is recyclable, as long as it’s plastic (including the straw) or paper; just be sure to use the appropriate bin. Styrofoam has to go in the trash, though—thankfully, you don’t see as much these days.

PSA: It’s illegal to throw electronics—like TVs, computers, smartphones, etc.—in the trash. (You can actually get fined $100.) Instead, donate anything that still works and bring the rest to a drop-off site or SAFE (Solvents, Automotive, Flammables and Electronics) disposal event. If your building has ten or more units, you’re eligible for electronics collection service.

That aluminum wrap that came with your Seamless order can be rinsed off and thrown in with metal and glass.

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Bottles and jars that are still intact, with lids, can go in blue bins. Other glass items—like mirrors or glassware—unfortunately aren’t recyclable, so donate anything that’s in good condition. Broken glass should be double-bagged (for safety) and thrown in the trash.

Hazardous Products
Certain household cleaning products, like drain and toilet cleaners (anything labeled “Danger-Corrosive”), should never be thrown in the regular trash. The same goes for anything flammable, like lighter fluid. Take them to a SAFE disposal event, and consider looking for greener cleaning alternatives—baking soda and vinegar works wonders for a stopped drain.

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Due for an upgrade? If your old model still works, you might be able to make some money selling it. You can also donate it to a good cause, dispose of it properly with other electronics or ship it back to Apple. (Android phones like Samsung also make it super easy.)

Junk Mail
Ugh, the worst. Almost everything (including catalogs) can get thrown in the mixed paper (green) bin. But your best bet is to unsubscribe from unwanted subscriptions entirely. (It’s actually way easier than you think.)

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Don’t trash your coffee pods: Rinse them and toss them in the blue bin with other rigid plastics. Alternately, many manufacturers (like Keurig and Nespresso) offer take-back programs for offices.

Light Bulbs
If it’s a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), it contains a small amount of mercury and should be taken to a SAFE disposal event. Incandescent or LED bulbs can go in the trash, but be sure to double-bag them for safety. (And for the record: Environmentally friendly LEDs will save you a ton on your Con Ed bill.)

Along with the obvious Diet Coke and Trader Joe’s chili cans, you can recycle things like empty aerosol cans, wire hangers and pots and pans. Knives, believe it or not, are also recyclable—but be sure to wrap them in cardboard, tape them up securely and label them “Caution - sharp.”

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Nail Polish
Believe it or not, that ancient bottle of Essie is a toxic substance (same goes for polish remover). If you’re definitely not going to use them up, take them to a SAFE disposal event.

Whatever you do, don’t pour it down the drain. Kitchen grease of any kind should be poured into a container and labeled “Cooking Oil - Not for Recycling” before being tossed in the trash.

Paper Towels
Paper towels can’t be thrown in with paper and cardboard recycling (a common mistake), but they can go in the compost. But it's better to limit your use when you can: Use cloth towels when drying your hands or dishes, and sponges when cleaning up messes (just be sure to zap them regularly in the microwave to kill germs).

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As in a quart of milk. (We know, it’s a stretch.) But cardboard cartons—like milk cartons and juice boxes, rinsed out—should actually go in with metal, glass and plastic, not paper. (They have a special lining so they require different sorting.)

No, you can’t recycle those antibiotics from last November, but you should know how to dispose of them properly. Flushing certain medications is damaging to the water supply, so instead follow a specific procedure (it involves coffee grounds or kitty litter). Sharp items like needles should be put in a sealed, puncture-proof container labeled "Home Sharps - not for recycling" before going in the trash. You can also bring both to a SAFE disposal event.

Shopping Bags
By now, you don’t need us to tell you that reusable canvas totes are your friend (and, you know, the Earth’s). But if you happen to have a drawer full of delivery and Duane Reade bags (not to mention dry-cleaning plastic, shrink-wrap and Ziplocs), you can take them to most major chains that give out bags (like Target, Rite Aid and most grocery stores).

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Old fabric still has plenty of uses after you’re done with it. Many items can be donated, linens and towels can be used as bedding in animal shelters (aww) and even scraps and rags can be recycled. Any apartment building with ten or more units (or any office) can request a free collection service. And certain brands—including & Other Stories, H&M, Madewell—offer in-store drop-off that comes with a sweet discount as a reward.

Sadly, these aren’t recyclable. But investing in a windproof version that actually holds up means less waste (and less annoyance for you). Aka stop purchasing $5 umbrellas every time it rains.

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Aka food waste. Composting is actually super easy: Any food scraps (plus flowers and houseplants) are fair game. That includes things like takeout leftovers, coffee grounds, eggshells and banana peels. Keep everything in a compostable bag in the freezer (no smells!), then bring it to a drop-off site like your local Greenmarket for collection. Some neighborhoods already have curbside pickup, with more starting later this year.

You might think this falls into the compost category (we did), but it’s unfortunately more complicated. Small twigs are compostable, but if you live in Brooklyn or Queens, large branches and firewood need to go through the NYC Parks Department (due to, of all things, a beetle infestation). Wood that’s been treated (meaning furniture) should be donated if in decent condition, otherwise it can be set out for trash collection.

Don’t see an answer in this list? Use the NYC Department of Sanitation’s handy search tool to look up pretty much anything. We’re feeling greener already.

purewow author


From 2016-2019 Carolyn Kuang-chen Stanley held the role of Editor covering food, travel and all things nyc.