According to the EPA, Americans generate approximately 292 million tons of waste each year—and that amount keeps growing. In honor of Earth Day, which we'll celebrate on April 22, here are a few things you may have been throwing out that, with a little effort, you can actually recycle to help the environment.
Grandpa's choppers may hold recyclable precious metals, including gold, silver, and palladium. The Japan Denture Recycling Association is known to collect false teeth, remove and recycle the metals, and discard the rest of the denture (which is illegal to reuse). The program has donated all of its earnings to UNICEF.
2. Holiday Lights
Got burnt-out holiday lights? The folks at HolidayLEDs.com will gladly take your old lights, shred them, and sort the remaining PVC, glass, and copper. Those raw materials are taken to another recycling center to be resurrected.
They're made of plastic and metal, but razors are generally not accepted by curbside recycling programs. You can mail your used razors, blades, and plastic packaging (of any brand) to TerraCycle, which has partnered with Gillette to recycle the products' components.
4. Hotel Soap
Not all hotels throw out that half-used soap you left in the shower: Some send it to Clean the World. There, soap is soaked in a sanitizing solution, treated to a steam bath, and then tested for infections. Once deemed safe, the soap is distributed to communities across the globe. So stop stealing soap from hotels—you may be stealing from charity.
You don't need to dump your old box spring at the landfill. Because they're equipped with special saws, mattress recycling factories can separate the wood, metal, foam, and cloth. The metal springs are magnetically removed, the wood is chipped, and the cloth and foam are shredded and baled. In its future life, your saggy mattress could become a cute sundress or even wallpaper. Recycling options vary by state.
6. Cooking Oil
When you’re finished making French fries at home, it can be tempting to toss the spent frying oil down the drain. But you shouldn’t—nearly half of all sewer overflows are caused by fat and oil. There are a few curbside programs in the United States that accept used cooking oil, and municipal waste transfer stations may also accept it. The used oil will usually be sent to a biodiesel plant that will transform it into fuel.
7. Dirty Diapers
The average baby soils 6000 diapers before being potty trained—that's one ton of diapers rotting in a landfill per child. But not all poo-packages have to suffer this fate. The company Knowaste collects and recycles dirty diapers at hospitals, nursing facilities, and public restrooms. After sanitizing the diaper with a solution, they mechanically separate the "organic matter" from the diaper's plastic, which is compressed into pellets and recycled into roof shingles. Meanwhile, paper pulp in diapers grows up to become wallpaper and shoe soles.
CDs are made of polycarbonate plastic and won't decompose at a landfill. But if you send your discs to the e-waste recycler GreenDisk, they'll shred them into a fine powder that will be later melted down into a plastic perfect for automotive and building materials—even pavement!
Send your beat-up sneaks to Nike Grind and you'll help build a running track. Nike's recycling facility rips apart worn shoes, separating the rubber, foam, and fabric. The rubber is melted down for running track surfaces, the foam is converted into tennis court cushioning, and the fabric is used to pad basketball court floorboards. Many municipal waste transfer stations also accept shoes in their textile recycling bins.
10. Animal Poop
Why turn animal poop into fertilizer, manure, or trash when you can make it into a greeting card? Or a bouquet of artificial flowers? The folks at PoopooPaper do that, plus more—they can transform the poop of a wide variety of herbivores (cows, horses, elephants, and more) into cards, bookmarks, keychains, magnets, and jewelry.
Is your room full of plastic bowling trophies from fifth grade? If the thrill of victory fades, you can recycle your old trophies the Maryland-based company Lamb Awards. They'll break down your retired awards, melting them down or reusing them for new trophies.
12. Human Fat (Warning: Illegal)
If it weren't for legal complications, America's obsession with cosmetic surgery could solve its energy problem. In 2008, a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon lost his job when police caught him fueling his car with a biofuel created from his patients' liposuctioned fat. (Convicting him wasn't hard, since he advertised the substance online as "LipoDiesel.") That's not the first time fat has powered transportation: In 2007, conservationist Peter Bethune used 2.5 gallons of human fat to fuel his eco-boat, Earthrace.
13. Aluminum Foil
Foil is probably one of the most thrown-away recyclable materials out there. (Americans throw away about 1.5 million tons of aluminum products every year, according to the EPA.) But foil is 100-percent aluminum, and as long as you thoroughly clean it of any food waste, you technically should be able to recycle it with your aluminum cans (but first check with your local recycling plant to ensure they’re equipped to process it; some aren’t).
Don't toss those stubby Crayolas! Instead, mail them to the National Crayon Recycle Program, which takes unloved, broken crayons to a better place: They're melted in a vat of wax, remade, and resold. So far, the program has saved more than 120,000 pounds of crayons.
More than 10 million tons of shingles are disposed each year. Most of them are made out of asphalt, which is why more than two dozen states pulverize the old shingles and recycle them into pavement. For every ton of shingles recycled, we save one barrel of oil.
16. Dead Pets
When Fluffy bites the dust in Germany, you can memorialize your beloved pet by recycling her. In Germany, it's illegal to bury pets in public places. This leaves some pet owners in a bind when their furry friends die. A rendering plant near the town of Neustadt an der Weinstraße accepts deceased pets; animal fat is recycled into glycerin, which is used in cosmetics such as lip balm.
17. Prescription Drugs
You can—and should—properly dispose of expired prescription drugs. But what about unneeded pills that are still good? Some states let you donate unused drugs back to pharmacies. Some charities also accept leftover HIV medicine from Americans who have switched prescriptions, stopped medicating, or passed away. These drugs are shipped overseas and distributed to people with HIV around the world.
18. Fishing Line
Fishing line is made from monofilament, a non-biodegradable plastic that you can't put in your everyday recycling bin. At Berkley Fishing, old fishing line is mixed with other recyclables (like milk cartons and plastic bottles) and transformed into fish-friendly habitats. So far, Berkley has saved and recycled more than 9 million miles of fishing line.
19. Wine Corks
Your recycling center probably doesn't accept wine corks, but companies like Terracycle will. They turn cork into flat sheets of tile, which you can use for flooring, walls, and veneer. Another company, ReCORK, has extended the life of over 4 million unloved corks by giving them to SOLE, a Canadian sandal maker.
Most pantyhose are made of nylon, a recyclable thermoplastic that takes more than 40 years to decompose. Companies like Swedish Stockings grind old nylons down so the material can be made into industrial pipes and furniture.
If you buy a plastic toothbrush from Preserve (which makes its toothbrushes from old Stonyfield Farms yogurt cups and other everyday items), it will take back your used toothbrush and give it a new life—this time as a piece of plastic lumber.
22. Tennis Balls
The company reBounces gives old tennis balls a second life. If you’ve got at least 200 balls in relatively good shape sitting around, the company will send you a prepaid shipping label to help get the box on the road and repressurize the balls. For those that are totally worn out, the company will reuse the rubbery material to pave new tennis courts.
23. Yoga Mats
Most yoga mats are made from PVC, the same material in plumbing pipes, heavy-duty tarps, and rain boots. While many local yoga studios will accept well-loved mats and find them a new home, the company Sanuk has an appropriately squishy vision for each mat’s future: It will transform your old yoga mat into flip flops and sandals.
24. Defunct Currency
All governments have a way of dealing with old, worn money. (In 2016, the Indian government shredded old bills and turned them into hardboard.) But what about currency that is no longer legal tender? It turns out you can donate your old French francs, Spanish pesetas, or Dutch guilders to Parkinsons UK, who will recycle the old coins and banknotes.
25. Pet Fur and Hair
All of the pet fur on your sweaters, couches, and carpet could help save the ocean from oil spills. Hair is excellent at sopping up oil from the environment (hairball booms were used to soak up oil from the 2010 BP oil spill), so non-profit organizations such as the San Francisco-based Matter of Trust will accept pet fur to make oil-absorbing mats of Fido's fuzz.
A version of this story ran in 2019; it has been updated for 2022.