Paper: How to Recycle Right
Updated: May 17
We get it—recycling can be complicated! With over 52 different grades of paper, it can get tricky to know exactly what kinds of paper are recyclable, what kinds should be composted, and what goes into the trash. It’s important to know what goes in your bin and what doesn’t, so that you can ensure your paper is actually getting recycled.
Paper is the most recycled material in your recycling bin, with recycling rates of 69% and above!
And, much of the paper you recycle stays within Indiana, where we have a booming paper recycling industry. Pratt Industries, for example, is one company recycling paper within Indiana. Their plant in Valparaiso takes paper, newspaper, cardboard, and more and makes them into new cardboard boxes made from 100% recycled materials. Paper recycling matters, and we’re here to help you do it right. We even made a nifty guide you can always refer back to!
General paper recycling guidelines
If you’ve ever heard anyone’s recycling guidelines, you’ve probably heard the phrase “empty, clean, and dry.” Recycling, paper and every other commodity, is used to make new products—and in order for those products to be safe and functional, the manufacturing inputs can’t have too much contamination. In the case of paper, contamination typically comes in the form of food waste and/or mold. Think about it this way—you don’t want the pizza from a box’s former life in your brand new pizza box, do you?
When you make sure your paper recycling is empty, clean, and dry, it reduces the contamination going into the recycling system. Empty and clean items prevent food contamination, and keeping them dry also prevents mold. Since your recycling gets mixed with everyone else’s recycling, mold and food waste can contaminate large amounts of paper, which then sends it to the trash.
What Types of Paper are Recyclable?
Cardboard & Paperboard
What is cardboard/paperboard?
Everything from the standard brown cardboard box that your Amazon packages come in to the thinner, printed boxes used to package cereal.
Is cardboard/paperboard recyclable?
Yes! Make sure to flatten before recycling. Flattened boxes save space in your recycling bin, but also ensure they get recycled. Some sorting facilities have a hard time identifying cardboard if it isn’t flat, so make sure to take that final step!
Watch out for:
Pizza boxes: They are recyclable, but make sure to tear off any parts with large amounts of grease or cheese. Bonus: compost the greasy parts!
Boxes with a plastic lining: Some paperboard boxes, like some freezer meals, have a plastic lining, making them not recyclable. Pro tip: Gently rip a corner of the box to see if there is a plastic lining.
Cylindrical cardboard containers: Items like oatmeal containers can be recycled if you remove the plastic parts (lid and lip) then flatten it. On the other hand, things like Pringles containers are generally not recyclable due to their multi-layered packaging (coated/plastic-lined).
Paperboard packaging with plastic windows/film: Tissue boxes, pasta boxes, pastry containers, etc. These items are generally recyclable, and it's helpful if you remove the film.
Printed Paper and Office Supplies
Types of printed paper and office supplies
Mailing materials like envelopes, printed materials, sticky notes, fliers, mailers, and junk mail
Are printed paper and office supplies recyclable?
Yes! No need to worry about staples, paperclips, labels, adhesives, or plastic envelope windows—these are removed during the recycling process
Watch out for:
Multi-lined bubble mailers: These often have paper on the outside, but plastic on the inside and are not recyclable.
Padded mailers with foam inside: Check with your hauler to see if they accept them
Large fasteners: Remove binder clips, sheet protectors, and other large non-paper items
Types of paper reading materials
Magazines, newspapers, books, and notebooks
Are reading materials recyclable?
Yes! Many types of magazines and books are made from very high quality paper, which is particularly valuable for recycling.
Watch out for:
Hardcover books: Check with your hauler to see if they are recyclable in your area
Spiral-bound books or notebooks: Remove any plastic or metal spirals before recycling. Unlike staples, spirals are too difficult for recycling machinery to remove efficiently.
What kinds of paper are lined with plastic?
Cartons, to-go cups, and other kinds of paper to-go packaging
Is plastic-lined paper recyclable?
Generally, no. However, more places are starting to accept cartons and to-go cups, so check with your hauler to see if they are recyclable in your area! Remember: even if there is a recycling symbol on your carton, that does not necessarily mean that your recycling hauler will accept it.
Don’t have a carton recycling program in your area? Carton Council has a mail-in program —visit their website for more info!
What is considered low-quality paper?
Tissue paper, toilet paper, facial tissue, paper towels & napkins, egg cartons/produce packaging, and coffee filters
Is low-quality paper recyclable?
Unfortunately, this type of paper is usually too low quality to recycle. Many kinds can be reused or composted, but make sure to keep them out of your recycling bin! (Visit our Reduce/Reuse page for more tips on how to reduce waste!)
Paper bags, packing paper, gift wrap, playing cards, molded-paper packaging (like the fiber inserts that come in new shoes, or protective molding instead of styrofoam), and anything else else made of paper
What types of other paper are recyclable?
Plain brown paper: like the kind in paper bags, brown packing paper, and plain wrapping paper (no glitter or foil) is very recyclable
Watch out for:
Molded-paper packaging: check with your hauler to see if they accept them. Some machinery may have difficulty sorting these properly.
Playing cards: these are only recyclable if they are solely made of paper—no plastic or waxy coating
Bathroom products: flushable wipes, cotton balls/swabs, and other bathroom hygiene products may appear to be made of paper, but actually have plastic in them and are not recyclable
Compostable items: while many of these items are made of fiber, they are not recyclable. Instead, follow the instructions on the package for how to properly compost them.
Thank you for Recycling Your Paper!
Now you know the basics of paper and how to recycle it right, we encourage you to share that knowledge with your circles of influence, like your family, friends and neighbors! And if you want to learn more paper recycling tips, check out our list of what is recyclable or our How to Recycle Right webinar (start at 17:30) for more tips. Thank you for recycling!
Here's your quick guide on how to recycle your paper right:
At Circular Indiana, we are providing critical education around recycling and the circular economy, completely free of charge. If you found this blog helpful and would like to see more content like it, please consider supporting us or becoming a member today!