the un-compostables…
dealing with stuff that just doesn’t belong


Gone are the days of having just a single trashcan for all household waste. And we couldn’t be happier! As much as we love composting and recycling, however, it can be confusing. We’ve written posts on recycling electronics and about the surprising things you can compost. It’s time to talk about the things that can’t go in the compost pile or recycling bin. 

Compost first

There are lists upon lists of what you can and can’t compost and many of them seem to contradict each other. Bread, pasta and rice are controversial, not because they’re bad for your compost, but because they tend to attract pests and bacteria. In a healthy, functioning compost bin or pile, small amounts of these items should be OK. Just be sure to bury them well to discourage pests. Weeds are another touchy topic in compost. If a weed is a seed-born plant, feel free to compost it after removing any seeds. However, many weeds grow and spread via their roots, and that’s not something you want taking hold in your nutrient-rich compost. So proceed with caution.

A few things that should never find their way into your compost?

Cooking oil – fat is a problem for compost piles, and oils will also attract animals who think it smells like food. Unlike some things, you just can’t bury oil.

Diseased plants – unless you know for sure that your compost pile gets hot enough to kill any fungal or bacterial problems, you’re just inviting those things to thrive in your compost. Note: the average backyard compost bin does not get that hot; it’s just not worth the risk.

Heavily coated or printed paper – magazines, glassy advertisements, catalogs, wrapping paper, foils, etc. It’s a long list of a bunch of things that just don’t break down well, and really, do you want all those chemicals in your compost?

Carnivore feces – if it eats meat, don’t put the poop in your compost. There are ways to safely compost carnivore waste, but in the backyard bin isn’t it. Herbivore poop, however, is fine!

Meat products – that means, bones, blood, meat of all sorts and bone meals. They’re difficult to compost well and tend to really attract pests.

Milk products – dairy products are another gray area. The primary reason for not including them in compost is that they attract pests. In small doses, well buried under lots of yard waste, you might be OK.

Used personal products – that means diapers, feminine hygiene products and any other item soiled with human blood or waste.

Black walnuts – walnuts contain a natural compound called juglone which is toxic to some plants.

Can you compost these things? Sure, possibly. We’ve tried to stick with best practices, with a wide margin and we like to leave it up to each individual about what’s right for them.

On to recycling

Every area is different, some cities have single-stream recycling where just about anything and everything can go into the same bin, and others have color-coded bins and different pick up days for glass and plastic. Some will restrict even more items than we’ve listed, and some even have special programs or “hazmat” days for things like batteries and paint. Check out Earth 911 to find out about recycling centers in your area, and check with your recycling pick up provider for details of what’s OK and what’s not.

A few things that are almost never safe to recycle?

Aerosol cans – it’s the propellants and chemicals that make these things non-recyclable. Treat as household hazardous waste.

Batteries – because of the chemicals in them, don’t put them in recycling. Many municipalities are now offering specific battery recycling or collection programs. If yours does not, either dispose of as household hazardous waste, or look online for options.

Brightly dyed paper – yeah, it’s nasty stuff and it’s just not good for your recycling bin. Processing this stuff takes its toll. Sadly, it belongs in the trash can.

Ceramics and pottery – ceramics are the bane of recycling, and this include broken coffee mugs. Try repurposing these items in your garden, or look online for solutions.

Diapers – there is just too much other waste to make it worth reclaiming the plastic in a disposable diaper. Switch to cloth, or dispose of these in the trash.

Hazardous waste – household cleaners, motor oil, antifreeze, paint and other chemical items don’t belong in your regular recycling. Motor oil can be recycled at most local auto shops, and many communities have options for handling household hazardous waste.

Household glass – bottles and jars are fine, but broken windows, mirrors and CFL light bulbs are not. They all involve other chemicals that make recycling more difficult. Dispose of these items as trash, or as household hazardous waste.

Medical waste – syringes, tubing, pipettes, and any other biohazard should be disposed of as such.

Napkins and paper towels – the problem isn’t the paper, it’s what they may have on them. Dispose of as trash, or consider composting.

Pizza boxes – these are a touchy subject. Some areas will accept the box (just remove the inner liner that’s still covered in melted cheese and grease) and others won’t Check with your provider, and be careful about composting, it’s a safe bet there is too much grease on that coated paper box to put it in the compost.

Plastic bags and plastic wrap – these things are just not really recyclable under normal conditions. Which is why it’s so important to reduce the use of them and look online for safe disposal options in your area.

Any plastic without a recycling number or mark – sadly, it’s the trash bag for these items.

Plastic screw-on tops – remove them from your recyclable bottles and put them in the trash.

Styrofoam – your community may have a facility for Styrofoam, otherwise, it belongs in the trash.

Tires – if the shop where you purchase tires doesn’t dispose of your old ones, look online to find a local source for tire recycling. They can’t go in regular recycling or trash.

This is by all means not an exhaustive list, but it’s easy to see how many things are neither recyclable or compostable. Everything has a life cycle and will eventually end up needing to be disposed of. Consider how you will safely dispose of any item you are about to buy, and make choices that allow you the most options and prevent our landfills from overflowing.

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One thought on “the un-compostables…
dealing with stuff that just doesn’t belong

  1. Pingback: the compost files... gardener's gold | inspired habitat

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