Naughty or Nice? Your Chicago Guide to Holiday Recycling

Season’s greetings, Windy City friends! Here’s your official, merry guide to sorting out the naughty and nice in your holiday recycling routine, Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation approved!

Stringy Things NAUGHTY 

String lights, garlands, and other festive frills like bows and ribbons might sparkle with holiday cheer, but they're not recyclable in the Blue Cart. Why? They can tangle up the recycling equipment and cause shutdowns.

Pro tip: Have a set of faulty string lights? Don't give up hope just yet - most string lights have a hidden fuse in the plug; if they fizzle out, try replacing it. Can't revive the twinkle? Recycle them with Reduce Waste Chicago's Holiday Lights Collection Program, available at 22 locations citywide from Dec. 1 to Jan. 31.

Packing Paper - NICE!

Packing paper gets a festive thumbs up! It's a recyclable, reusable, and eco-friendly wrapping paper substitute. 

Though also made of paper, shredded paper is not recyclable in the recycling cart. Learn why

Glitzy Wrapping Paper and Cards NAUGHTY 

Wrap it up in style, but beware of the bling. Most wrapping paper contains laminates, glitter, or metallic foil, making it non-recyclable. 

Consider alternative packaging – newspapers, glossy magazines, or old travel maps can add homemade charm to your presents. Scarves or a beautiful dish towel can also make a stunning wrap – and a gift twofer!

Get creative with these inspiring gift wrap ideas using household items and a dash of non-traditional thinking.

Earth-Friendly Tip 

Opt for 'post-consumer' or PC recycled paper products when buying paper or cards. These days, there’s a vast assortment made from 100% recycled content. Buying products made from recycled materials encourages companies to prioritize using recycled content in their products, which supports the recycling process, benefitting us all.

Coffee Cups - NICE!

Let’s get real.  Despite our best waste-reduction efforts, disposable coffee cups happen.

To all who can relate, here’s some good cheer: coffee cups are now recyclable in Chicago. Ensure they're as dry as Uncle Frank’s humor before tossing them into the Blue Cart. 

Coffee cups are becoming more widely recyclable due to innovations and investments in the U.S. paper recycling system. Nearly $7 billion dollars in manufacturing and investments have been completed or announced since 2019.

Old Electronics NAUGHTY 

Deck the halls with caution when it comes to bidding farewell to old computers and cell phones. While tossing them in the recycling or trash might be tempting, electronics are extra naughty and deserve special attention. 

Computers are laden with potentially toxic elements such as lead, mercury, and flame-retardant chemicals. If improperly disposed of, they can wreak havoc on the environment, contaminating crops, livestock, and wildlife. 

Because of their toxic ingredients, by Illinois state law, computers must be recycled.

Specialized e-waste recycling facilities have the know-how to dismantle and recycle electronic components responsibly, preventing the release of harmful substances while preserving rare-earth metals and other elements for use in new gadgets. 

Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to recycle or trade in your old tech for free. There are lots of local drop-off locations, and even free services that make it possible to trade in or recycle unwanted computers, tablets, and phones without ever leaving home. All it takes is about 10 minutes online with the old tech nearby and a printer for the free shipping label. For newer items, you’ll make a few bucks too.

For non-working computers, recycling options include local retailers, the Household Chemicals and Computer Recycling Facility, and city-hosted Electronics Recycling Events from May - Dec. 31st. 

Better to Donate or Recycle? 

To do what’s best for the environment, always opt for gifting, selling, trading in, or donating items in usable condition -- rather than recycling. The largest environmental benefits are gained when someone continues to use an item; recycling is the last resort. 

Paper Towels and Napkins - NAUGHTY 

Paper towels, napkins, and tissues are destined for the trash because the fibers are too short to recycle.

If you’re not ready to make the switch to reusable napkins, consider switching to 100% 'post-consumer' recycled paper napkins and towels, which are readily available these days. 

The benefits of using recycled paper go beyond saving trees -- as if that weren’t enough. 


Food & Beverage Cartons - NICE! 

Recycle all cartons this festive season. From eggnog to ice cream to broth and whipped cream, all empty food and beverage cartons (aka tetra pak) are recyclable in the Blue Cart. Just give them a quick rinse out and screw the cap back on if they have one.

Warm-hearted reminder

Please don’t bag your recyclables. The items will not be sorted, and the whole bag will go to the landfill.  Learn why.  

Bubble Mailers & Bubble Wrap - NAUGHTY 

Wish as we may, bubble mailers, bubble wrap, and other things made with ‘soft plastics’ are not recyclable in the Blue Cart.  Municipal recycling systems are designed to capture hard plastic containers like bottles, tubs, and jugs, not soft plastics like plastic bags, bubble wrap, bubble mailers, or anything fabric-like. 

However, many soft plastics can be recycled when collected separately. That’s why recycling drop-off locations have been established with major retailers - learn more here.  

Before recycling packaging like bubble wrap and mailers, please consider donating them to local initiatives like EcoShip Chicago, which will distribute them to businesses that can use them. EcoShip maintains drop-off locations at dozens of local retailers. 

Beverage Bottles - All Colors - NICE!

Empty water, wine, beer, and booze bottles are recyclable in the Blue Cart, but keep any corks out. Hold onto those corks, and learn why they're awesome and where to recycle them in Chicago. 

Note: Only common glass bottles and jars are recyclable curbside because other glass objects can contain additives that will pollute the recycling process; everything else is a no-no-no. This includes ornaments, plates, Pyrex, crystal, drinking glasses, windows and lightbulbs. 

Here’s the full lowdown on glass recycling in Chicago.

Flattened Cardboard Boxes - NICE!

Santa's bounty brings a sea of boxes – big and small, we want them all. Just remember to empty all packing materials and flatten them for efficient recycling. By doing so, you're making room for more recyclable holiday joy in the bin.

That's a holiday wrap!  We hope these tips make it easy to celebrate the season responsibly, keeping everyone's recycling efforts on the Nice List.

Happy recycling, Chicago! May your holidays be merry and oh-so eco-bright.



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