What you can and can't recycle

It's not always clear what can and can’t go in kerbside recycling bins. Here’s our guide on some of the most commonly mis-recycled items.

Recycling bins put out on Auckland neighbourhood street

Unsure about adding an AA battery or broken drinking glass to your kerbside recycling bin? Some of us don’t stop to check, but throw it in and “wish-cycle” it. However, adding even one non-recyclable to your bin can mean the whole load goes to the landfill.

Some items wrongly added to recycling bins are hard to understand – thoughtless additions include used disposable nappies, broken-down engine parts and even a pig’s head.

But this is the exception, according to Waste Management Institute chief executive Paul Evans. “Most contamination is from people who are trying to do the right thing,” he says.

What makes things harder is that one council will happily accept an item, while the next council over won’t. Adding to the confusion, some of this rubbish – particularly aerosol cans and waxy cartons – will feature a recycling logo.

One item here and there may not seem like much. But each year, councils sift out thousands of tonnes of non-recyclables from kerbside collections. All must be sent to the landfill. Unfortunately, any recyclable items contaminated by the non-recyclable – from a full nappy to rotten food – must also be chucked.

To help you sort what goes where, here’s our guide on some of the most commonly mis-recycled items.

Sometimes accepted

Aerosol cans (empty)

Accepted by: Auckland, Buller, Carterton, Central Otago, Christchurch, Clutha, Dunedin, Gisborne, Gore, Grey, Hastings, Hauraki, Horowhenua, Hurunui, HuttA, Invercargill, Kaipara, Mackenzie, Manawatu, Masterton, Matamata-Piako, New Plymouth, Opotiki, Otorohanga, Palmerston North, Porirua, Queenstown Lakes, Selwyn, Southland, South Taranaki, South Waikato, South Wairarapa, Stratford, Tasman, Thames-Coromandel, Timaru, Waikato, Waimakariri, Waipa, Whakatane, Whangarei.

Declined by: AshburtonB, Central Hawke’s Bay, Hamilton, Kaikoura, Kawerau, Marlborough, NapierC, Nelson, Rotorua Lakes, Ruapehu, Tararua, Taupo, Waimate, Wairoa, Waitomo, Wellington, Westland.

Declined because: Aerosol cans are pressurised, and could cause damage or injury if punctured during processing. If your council doesn’t accept them, they’ll have to go in the general rubbish bin.

Metal jar lids

Accepted by: Auckland, Buller, Carterton, Central Hawke’s Bay, Central Otago, Clutha, Dunedin, Gore, Hamilton, Hastings, Hauraki, Horowhenua, Hurunui, Hutt, Invercargill, Kaikoura, Kaipara, Kawerau, Manawatu, Marlborough, Masterton, Matamata-Piako, Napier, Nelson, New Plymouth, Opotiki, Otorohanga, Palmerston North, Porirua, Queenstown Lakes, Rotorua Lakes, Southland, South Waikato, South Wairarapa, Tasman, Taupo, Thames-Coromandel, Waikato, Waipa, WairoaD, Whakatane, Whangarei.

Declined by: Ashburton, Christchurch, GisborneE, Grey, Mackenzie, Ruapehu, Selwyn, South Taranaki, Stratford, Tararua, Timaru, Waimakariri, Waimate, Waitomo, Wellington, Westland.

Declined because: These can be too small for some of the machines that sort recyclable items, so they won’t be sorted properly. This can contaminate other forms of recycling. If your council doesn’t accept them, try a local scrap metal dealer.

Plastic shopping bags

Accepted by: AshburtonF, Central Otago, Gore, Invercargill, Kaikoura, Kawerau, MarlboroughG, Opotiki, Southland, Waimakariri.

Declined by: Auckland, Buller, Carterton, Central Hawke’s Bay, Christchurch, Clutha, Dunedin, Gisborne, Grey, Hamilton, HastingsH, Hauraki, Horowhenua, HurunuiJ, HuttH, Kaipara, Mackenzie, Manawatu, Masterton, Matamata-Piako, NapierH, Nelson, New Plymouth, Otorohanga, Palmerston North, Porirua, Queenstown Lakes, Rotorua Lakes, Ruapehu, SelwynJ, South Taranaki, South Waikato, South WairarapaB, Stratford, Tararua, Tasman, Taupo, Thames-Coromandel, Timaru, Waikato, Waimate, Waipa, Wairoa, Waitomo, Wellington, Westland, Whangarei, Whakatane.

Declined because: The bags may jam recycling-sorting machines. If your council doesn’t accept them, you’ll currently have to toss them in the rubbish. The countrywide soft plastic recycling scheme (which collected these materials via bins in supermarkets and other retailers) was suspended in December 2018, though will re-start in select Auckland stores in May 2019.

Tetra Pak cartons

Accepted by: Ashburton, Auckland, Buller, Gore, Invercargill, Kawerau, Southland, Waimakariri.

Declined by: Carterton, Central Hawke’s Bay, Central Otago, Christchurch, Clutha, Dunedin, Gisborne, Grey, Hamilton, Hastings, Hauraki, Horowhenua, Hurunui, Hutt, Kaikoura, Kaipara, Mackenzie, Manawatu, Marlborough, Masterton, Matamata-Piako, Napier, Nelson, New Plymouth, Opotiki, Otorohanga, Palmerston North, Porirua, Queenstown Lakes, Rotorua Lakes, Ruapehu, Selwyn, South Taranaki, South Waikato, South Wairarapa, Stratford, Tararua, Tasman, Taupo, Thames-Coromandel, Timaru, Waikato, Waimate, Waipa, Wairoa, Waitomo, Wellington, Westland, Whakatane, Whangarei.

Declined because: : The cartons are made from paper, plastic and aluminium. Only some paper recyclers can separate the components or use them to create new materials. Tetra Pak says it’s “open to” working with councils to boost recycling rates. Until then, if your council doesn’t accept the cartons, they’ll have to go in the general rubbish bin.

Not accepted

Household batteries

Not accepted in any kerbside recycling bins

Declined because: The chemicals inside a battery can be hazardous and must be disposed of carefully. Batteries can cause fires in collection vehicles or the recycling processing plant.

Where they go: Some councils have collection point where you can leave used household batteries, though you’ll have to drop them off in person. Check your council’s website for information.

Glassware

Not accepted in any kerbside recycling bins (except Opotiki)

Declined because: The glass used in drinking glasses, plates, mirrors and light bulbs has different melting points to that used in food jars and bottles. If the former is used in recycled glass, it can weaken the newly produced item. Broken glass is also a hazard for staff handling your waste.

Where they go: In the general rubbish bin. If it’s broken, wrap it up in newspaper.

Polystyrene foam trays

Not accepted in any kerbside recycling bins

Declined because: Juices from raw meat or food soak into the trays, and can harbour infectious bacteria. There’s also little demand for used polystyrene.

Where they go: In the general rubbish bin. Supermarkets say they’ve replaced foam trays with recyclable plastic packaging for most meat in their butchery sections.

Takeaway coffee cups

Not accepted in any kerbside recycling bins

Declined because: To make them waterproof, disposable coffee cups can have a plastic or waxy lining. Current paper-recycling facilities can’t handle them.

Where they go: In the general rubbish bin. You can reduce your usage by taking a reusable coffee cup.

GUIDE Councils that don’t run kerbside recycling schemes are excluded. Private contractors provide recycling services for Far North, Kapiti, Upper Hutt, Waitaki, Western Bay of Plenty and Whanganui council residents. Tauranga will introduce kerbside collection in 2021. Chatham Islands and Rangitikei council residents only have access to drop-off recycling facilities. Information collected from council websites and inquiries in April and May 2019. Aexcept aerosols with paint residue. Brecyclable at drop-off facilities. Cfrom November 2019. Djar lids are accepted, but not recycled. Efrom June 1, 2019. Fonly accept plastic supermarket checkout bags. Gaccepted in small volumes. Hrecycled items may be sorted into plastic bags, but bags are not recycled. Jfrom July 1, 2019. Carterton, Masterton and South Wairarapa councils do not accept any meat trays for health and safety reasons. Tararua council does not offer kerbside glass recycling.

Top tips

About 730kg of waste per person is sent to the country’s biggest landfills every year. From 2013, this amount has grown steadily. Here’s what you can do to make sure recyclables get recycled:

  • If you move or go on holiday, familiarise yourself with the new council’s recycling rules. There are notable differences even between neighbouring authorities.
  • Keep recycling loose, unless your council specifically says otherwise. If you unnecessarily group items in plastic bags, the whole lot may be dumped.
  • Thoroughly rinse all items. Excessively dirty items will be sent to the landfill. Paper and cardboard with food residue belongs in the rubbish bin.
  • If in doubt, don’t add it to the recycling bin. Give your council a ring or check its website to find if it’s accepted. Just one “wish-cycled” item could result in the whole load going to landfill.
  • Recycling is only part of the solution. Recycling can feel virtuous, but the best thing you can do for the environment is to reduce the amount of waste you create.

Member comments

Get access to comment

Mark B.
30 Mar 2019
Other recycling avenues

In Hamilton we have the Environment Centre, they have a pay to recycle scheme for batteries, electronics etc. only a small fee to subsidise recycling. I accept it as part of the cost of ownership but will be interesting to see if pressure on manufacturers to design less wasteful items takes hold

Bryan W.
02 Feb 2019
Confusion in article

Some items are stated to not be acceptable in any roadside bins, but are then said to be acceptable in general rubbish bins. This should be clarified (in the article itself).

Stace H.
06 Aug 2018
Education

I'd much rather see this be a compulsory part of the school curriculum than calculus or similar. I've struggled to learn how and what to recycle and how to reduce waste and while everyone 'should' find this out themselves, only a small percentage will. A quick survey around the office shows most adults have no clue including me. Thanks for the article.

Colleen K.
04 Aug 2018
Wine bottle caps

Does the aluminium collar that remains on the neck of wine bottle when the cap is removed have to be removed? I thought I read somewhere that wine caps did not have to be removed but it doesn't seem logical.

Consumer staff
06 Aug 2018
Re: Wine bottle caps

Hi Colleen,

Thanks for your question. Before glass from our kerbside bins goes back into the furnace, glass recyclers have a step where they filter out contaminants like metal from the crushed glass (known as cullet). It’s at this point that wine collars are removed. Recyclers say that they prefer wine caps and other metal lids to be removed but it’s not mandatory. If you’re interested, you can read more about the process here: http://recycleglass.co.nz/glass-making/
I hope this has helped.
Kind regards, Olivia - Consumer NZ writer

Janice T.
28 Jul 2018
Clarification on items

Excellent , Thanks for the clarification. No harm in being more informed!

Catherine G.
21 Jul 2018
Helpful

I thought I was pretty ok with rules in Christchurch- but wrongly putting in jar lids and leaving out tetrapaks. Thanks for clarifying.

Trevor B.
21 Jul 2018
Recycling where does it go?

Now that China is no longer accepting out recycling.
Where is it all going?
And what is the governments plans for recycling in the future?

Consumer staff
23 Jul 2018
Re: Recycling where does it go?

Hi Trevor, thanks for your questions. One way our country can reduce the recyclable material it sends overseas is to increase our usage of New Zealand-made recycled plastic packaging – we look at recycled PET plastic in this article: https://www.consumer.org.nz/articles/plastic-packaging

Kind regards, Olivia - Consumer NZ investigative writer

Trevor B
21 Jul 2018
Aerosol cans - where they can be recycled

In your "can and can't recycle article you say "Hutt". Does this mean Upper Hutt and Lower Hutt?

Consumer staff
23 Jul 2018
Re: Aerosol cans - where they can be recycled

Hi Trevor, we’ve used the proper name of the council, so we mean Hutt City Council, which covers the Lower Hutt area. Some councils, like Upper Hutt, don’t run kerbside recycling schemes – instead residents have to choose and pay a private operator. Because of this, these councils aren’t included in our report. There’s a full list of the excluded councils in our Guide. I hope this has helped.
Kind regards, Olivia - Consumer NZ investigative writer

Caroline E.
21 Jul 2018
Only supermarket checkout bags can go in CCC recycling bins

This is a very useful article, however it has one thing wrong. The only shopping bags which can go in Christchurch City Council recycling bins are supermarket checkout bags. You cannot put in other soft plastic shopping bags such as those you get from clothes shops or even those used for produce in supermarkets. The only recycling option for these are the soft plastic recycling bins now at many supermarkets.

Consumer staff
23 Jul 2018
Re: Only supermarket checkout bags can go in CCC recycling bins

Hi Caroline, thanks for this feedback. We'll try to clarify this issue in our article.

Kind regards, Olivia - Consumer NZ investigative writer

Jenny W.
21 Jul 2018
Rubbish and recycling

Every wk I see bins stuffed with things in the wrong bin, or dumped at the roadside because they are unwanted. Many people are too bone idle to find out what they can recycle, or donate unwanted household goods to charity shops. Hard to monitor, I don't put my bin out the night before because it's never full and someone will dump crap in it overnight.

Laura K.
21 Jul 2018
Council lists

It would be so helpful if this article could be expanded to include other councils. I live in Kapiti but it isn't listed at all.

Peter R.
21 Jul 2018
Council Lists

I feel the same as the previous member. I live in Tauranga and the TCC features neither in the "accepted" nor "declined" lists. I am wondering what this says about the TCC.

Consumer staff
23 Jul 2018
Re: Council lists

Hi Laura and Peter,

Councils that don’t run kerbside recycling schemes are excluded from our list. Private contractors provide recycling services for Far North, Kaipara, Kapiti, Tauranga, Upper Hutt, Waitaki, Whanganui and Western Bay of Plenty council residents. Hope this helps.

Cheers,
Frank – Consumer NZ staff