Recycling Paper 101

Knowing what paper is and isn’t recyclable is confusing sometimes. If you’ve ever stood before your recycling bin with anything other than plain sheets of paper and wondered: can I recycle this? You’re not alone.

About one in every four items in US household recycling bins are non-recyclable.

In Canada, the situation is not much better. For example, in Toronto, around 26% of items sent to recycling facilities are non-recyclables. This is a problem because those non-recyclable materials could be contaminated with food, non-biodegradable plastics, or chemicals. Even if the majority of items in a bin are recyclable, it only takes a couple of pieces of garbage to spoil the entire bin and force recycling facilities to send the bin to landfill.

How should paper look before it’s recycled?

  1. Clean, dry, and stain-free — Even a piece of paper with a coffee stain is non-recyclable.
  2. Unlined and non-coated — Many to-go paper plates and coffee cups have plastic lining to stop food and liquid from leaking through. Butcher paper is coated in plastic, wax paper in paraffin wax, and parchment paper in silicone.
  3. Folded or flattened — Make sure to disassemble and flatten large cardboard boxes. Avoid crumpling paper sheets as recycling facilities often don’t accept those!
  4. Larger than a 2-inch square — Unless it’s in a plastic bag, loose shredded paper is not recyclable.

To help you recognize recyclable and non-recyclable paper, here are some examples:

Keep in mind that recycling rules will vary based on your jurisdiction.

Recyclable Paper Items

1. Cardboard — This includes cardboard boxes, inserts, and box-board packaging, clean pizza boxes, cereal boxes, shoe boxes, egg cartons, and paper towel rolls.

2. Cartons – This includes juices, milk, soup, and frozen dessert box. Frozen food boxes are often coated in plastic and are not recyclable.

3. Magazines, catalogues, and flyers — Even if they’re glossy, these are recyclable.

4. Envelopes — Before you toss these, remove any plastic windows.

5. Store receipts — Check if they are plain paper by rubbing them with a coin. If they discolor when you do, then they may be chemically treated and can’t be recycled.

6. Paper bags and kraft paper — Since they’re unbleached and made from wood pulp, these are safe to recycle.

7. Egg cartonsRecyclable egg cartons are a kind of molded, cardboard-like paper in grey shades. Any that are made of clear plastic materials or foam are non-recyclable.

8. Printer paper — Any writing, ink, or other printing on these is fine.

9. Newspaper — But before you toss these away in the recycling, try making DIY seed starters with them using this Newspaper Seed Starters craft.

10. Phone books — Even the binding on these is recyclable.

Non-recyclable Paper Types

1. Greasy pizza boxes — Remember, if it’s dirty, keep it out of the blue bin.

2. Greeting cards with glitter, ribbons or other mixed materials — If it’s 100% paper, then it’s recyclable!

3. Books in hardcover and paperback — Special glue used in the bookbinding process makes these nonrecyclable.

4. Decorated tissue paper — Some tissue paper is recyclable depending on your juristiction’s laws. However, tissue covered in foil or glitter is not safe to recycle.

5. Dryer sheets — Scents and a variety of chemicals are often in these.

6. Wax paper — This paper type contains chemicals such as petroleum.

7. Paper cups – More often than not, these have a plastic or wax lining.

8. Photographs – These contain chemical ingredients.

9. Wet cardboard — Water weakens the fibers of cardboard, making it flimsy and hard to recycle.

10. Used napkins, paper towels, tissues — Since these get in contact with dirt, grease, and body fluids, they’re contaminants.

Compostable Paper Types

Before you throw non-recyclable paper in the trash, check to see if it’s compostable! Most types of paper break down easily in the soil. If you’re unsure, look for a certified compostable label that reads ASTM D6868, ASTM D6400, or PLA.

1. Seed paper — This unique eco-friendly paper is made from recycled paper waste and is embedded with seeds so it’s made to be planted in the soil. Instead of sending it to the recycling bin, you can grow wildflowers or herbs from it!

2. Bagasse food packaging & plates — This plant-based material is gathered from sugar cane and is recognized for its light brown shade. The compostable to-go plates and bowls at restaurants are typically made of bagasse.

3. Greasy pizza boxes — Tip: Tear off the clean parts for recycling, then put the rest in with your compost!

4. Soiled napkins and paper towels — Since compost is turning into dirt eventually anyways, light food or stains are no problem.

5. Shredded paper — Tip: Mix the shredded paper in well with your mulch. This will help airflow and prevent any build-ups.


There you have it! A quick guide to some common paper types you can and can’t recycle. Be sure to check out these resources below which will give you more information about local recycling rules in your state or province:


Learn more about this special paper made by Botanical PaperWorks that uses post-consumer materials and is embedded with seeds so that it will grow when planted!

You can buy seed paper sheets for eco-friendly papercraft projects from Botanical PaperWorks. We have a variety of seed options, including wildflower, herb and veggie, and over 25 seed paper colors. Join our mailing list to receive emails with freebies, projects, coupons, green living tips, and decor ideas and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest

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