Beyond the Bin: What Else is Recyclable—And Where?

by Sara Swenson

This year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) issued the first Municipal Solid Waste Composition Study for the state in 13 years, describing how much paper, plastic, household hazardous waste (HHW), metal, glass, electronics, organic, and other waste ends up in our trash.  The results of the study show that the breakdown of Minnesota’s waste stream has changed since the last study conducted in 2000.  Plastics and organic materials account for a significantly greater share of our trash today, and while the waste stream percentage of paper is down, it still represents 24.5% of our trash.  In fact, we are estimated to throw away $217 million worth of valuable materials each year, one third of which could be recycled.

bins matwellers

Photo Credit: Mat Wellers (photo cropped)

Minnesotans recycle at a higher rate than most states, but that rate has remained stagnant at just under 50 percent for years.  An important challenge for our state’s waste management is to figure out how to get our recycling rate growing again and to create a wider-reaching, more efficient recycling system.  But you can help divert used goods from landfills and incinerators right now.  Most people know about recycling cans and bottles—but what about all the other odd objects we find ourselves needing to get rid of?  Don’t automatically turn toward the trash can.  Think before you throw—try to find where else it can go!

General Guides

Recycling opportunities and resources vary depending on where you live.  Contact your local waste service provider for general information on what types of items they will accept or consult your county our city website.  For odd types of items outside your typical recyclables, check out the great online guides available from counties like the Hennepin A to Z How to Get Rid of it Guide for Households or the Ramsey Resident Guide for Recycling and Disposal.  Rethink Recycling’s online Resident Guide also provides tips for reducing and reusing items as well as information on recycling resources for cities across the metro area.  I myself have had a lot of success finding facilities that will recycle my junk by typing in my city name, what I want to get rid of, and words like “recycling,” “disposal,” or “drop-off” into Google (e.g., “Minneapolis scrap metal recycling”).


Photo Credit: Recycle Harmony

Paper and Cardboard

As this year’s MPCA study reveals, the category of paper and cardboard still makes up a large portion of our waste stream and includes many recyclable materials.  Office paper, newspaper, envelopes, advertisements, paper bags, gift wrap, corrugated cardboard, boxboard, shoe boxes, packaging, cartons, and other types of paper and cardboard can usually be recycled in your curbside bin or at county drop-off locations.  Check with your waste service provider, city, or county to learn your local guidelines.

Aluminum and other Metals

Metal cans are a familiar category in curbside recycling, but a large portion of them still do not get recycled, even though aluminum and other metals are highly recyclable.  Many appliances and other items you may think of as unrecyclable trash actually contain parts made of valuable scrap metal that can be used to make new metal products.  Recycling metal decreases the need to mine new metal and the environmentally destructive impacts that would come with it.  There are many scrap metal recycling facilities throughout the Twin Cities as well as some county drop-off facilities that will accept scrap metal such as aluminum, steel, cast iron, appliances, electronics, and other household materials.  Find a facility near you online or in the phone book and check for a list of accepted materials or contact the facility to ask about a specific type of item.


Photo Credit: elycefeliz


Most people are used to recycling plastic bottles and other containers.  But there are many different types of plastics, and not all can be recycled the same way.  Plastic resin codes are the numbers (1–7) that are found within the “chasing arrows” triangular recycling symbol found on plastics.  Plastics are recycled according to their resin numbers, but more and more curbside services have started accepting plastic resin numbers beyond the more common 1 and 2.  Look for the resin code on your plastics, and check with your local provider, city, or county to learn which resin numbers can be recycled where.

Our drinking habits are likely playing a part in how plastic’s share of Minnesota trash has increased in the past 13 years, as more people consume beverages like bottled water away from home where recycling receptacles may not be easily available.  You can help by resisting the convenience of the trash can and making the effort to take your empty recyclables home with you or at least keep them long enough to find a proper disposal bin.  Every bit of plastic diverted from landfills and incinerators helps!


Bag and Film Plastic

Plastic gets even more complicated with bag and film plastic, the kind found in plastic shopping bags and other packaging, but don’t be discouraged—there are plenty of resources for recycling this type of plastic too!  Bag and film plastics usually can’t go in curbside bins (unless they have an appropriate resin number), but your local drop-off facilities may take them as well as plenty of retail stores.  The website How2Recycle offers a great place to search for stores in your area that will accept bag and film plastic for recycling.  Your county website is also a good place to look for recycling information.



Photo credit: CERTS

Food Waste and Organics

Organic waste includes food waste, food-soiled paper products, and yard and wood waste.  Organics account for 31% of Minnesota waste according to this year’s MPCA study, but much of this waste can actually be “recycled”—composted and broken down into useful material rather than stuffed into a landfill or burned in an incinerator.  You can compost organics yourself in your backyard or check to see if county drop-off facilities or other nearby yard waste facilities accept compostable organics.  Curbside organics recycling programs have also started up in the Twin Cities—check with your city to see if this service is available or to express your interest in getting one started.  Learn more about organics recycling and residential organics recycling from the Hennepin County website.


Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

Remember, the best way to cut down on the recyclable paper, plastics, metals, and organics from ending up in Minnesota’s trash is to not buy or use them in the first place.  Keep recycling in mind when choosing and using products, avoid what you can, and recycle as much of the rest as possible, even beyond the typical papers and bottles.  And remember that recycling services are expanding all the time!


Sara C Swenson is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities with a B.S. in Environmental Sciences, Policy, and Management (concentrated in Environmental Education and Communication) and a minor in Spanish.  She has studied biology and conservation in the Galápagos Islands and the effects of tourism on coral reef ecosystems in Belize, is well-versed in Minnesota’s Environmental Review process, and has a longstanding interest in environmental policy and communication.


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