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What to recycle in Wisconsin

Heavy equipment scoops up a pile of recyclables in a recycling center

In Wisconsin, many recyclable or compostable items cannot be put in the trash. Wisconsin's recycling law bans the landfilling or incineration of these materials to conserve valuable resources and landfill space. These disposal bans apply everywhere in Wisconsin, including in homes, businesses, schools, institutions and at special events.

Download a flier [PDF] with the full list of materials banned from landfills and incinerator disposal.

Many local recycling programs and drop-off centers accept additional materials for recycling. Local program contacts or recycling haulers can provide a complete list of what can be recycled.

Recyclable Materials Banned From Disposal In Wisconsin

Paper, Cardboard and Containers

  • Aluminum containers
  • Bi-metal containers (i.e. containers made from a combination of steel and aluminum)
  • Corrugated cardboard or other containerboard (please flatten boxes)
  • Glass containers
  • Magazines and other materials printed on similar paper
  • Newspapers and other materials printed on newsprint
  • Office paper
  • Plastic containers #1 and #2 - milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, soda and water bottles, etc.
  • Steel containers (tin cans)

Additional Materials

Wisconsin's recycling law also bans the following materials from disposal, but the DNR allows them to be landfilled or incinerated because there are not yet adequate recycling markets.

  • Foam polystyrene packaging (for serving food or beverages), loose particles intended for packing (e.g. packing peanuts), or rigid foam shaped to hold and cushion a packaged item.
  • Plastic containers #3 through #7. Many communities now accept some of these types of plastics, so check with your local recycling program or recycling hauler to find out if you can include them in your recycling.
What Not To Put In Recycling Bins Or Carts

The following items cause significant problems at facilities that process curbside recyclables and should not be placed in recycling bins or carts. Many of these items can be recycled at drop-off locations.

Item Issue How to safely recycle/dispose
Loose plastic bags, film or wrap Wraps up in recycling equipment, causing it to malfunction

If clean and dry, recycle at store drop-off sites.

Reducing, reusing and recycling plastic bags and wrap

Batteries Some batteries create a significant fire risk at all stages of the recycling process. No curbside programs allow batteries in bins or carts.

Alkaline batteries can go in the trash. Recycle other batteries at drop-off sites.

Proper handling of used batteries

Cords, hoses, light strings, ropes and wires Wraps up in recycling equipment, causing it to malfunction
  • For cords and light strings, check with local drop-off sites or electronics collection sites to see whether they accept these items.
  • Wires can be dropped off at scrap metal collectors.
  • Place hoses and ropes in the trash.
Electronics Recycling equipment for cans, bottles and paper isn't designed to handle electronics. Many electronics contain hazardous materials, or have batteries that can cause fires. How to recycle electronics in Wisconsin
Needles/sharps (includes sharps placed in a plastic container) Injury and disease transmission risk to recycling facility workers Managing household medical sharps
Propane cylinders Explosion and fire risk in recycling equipment For larger models, check with local distributors to swap your tank. Smaller ‘disposable’ models might be accepted at local scrap metal collections when empty.
Textiles Wraps up in recycling equipment, causing it to malfunction Check with nonprofit organizations like Goodwill or St. Vincent de Paul; many will accept textiles for recycling as well as reuse
Light bulbs Injury and potential exposure to toxic materials. Fluorescent tubes contain mercury gas that is harmful if inhaled. Recycling light bulbs
Resources For Recycling Other Materials

The Wisconsin Recycling Markets Directory [exit DNR] provides information about outlets for recycling various materials. Users can search by material/item type, view information about recyclers and suggest additional recyclers to include in the listing.

The following resources are for specific materials not mentioned in other sections of this page.

Plastics Recycling in Wisconsin

Types Of Plastics

Plastic containers

Each municipality in Wisconsin has distinct recycling rules regarding what it accepts, including plastics. Variations occur because facilities municipalities rely on to sort and process recyclables have different equipment, locations and markets.

Plastics are made from chemical resins, and various resins have different physical properties. Generally speaking, different resins cannot be mixed together to make new products. To help keep resins separate, the plastics industry developed a standardized numerical resin code system. These codes, numbered 1 through 7 and usually imprinted with a triangular arrangement of arrows on the bottom of plastic containers, help consumers identify the plastic. However, even if a plastic item has the triangular “chasing arrows” symbol, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s recyclable everywhere.

All recyclers in Wisconsin accept plastic with resin codes #1 and #2. These plastics comprise about 97% of all plastic bottles, according to the Association of Plastics Recyclers. Since there are strong and stable markets for these plastics, they are banned from landfill disposal in Wisconsin.

Plastics with resin codes #3 - #7 are generally harder to recycle into new products. Some municipalities may direct residents to keep some or all of these out of the recycling bin or cart. Some of these plastics, such as bags marked with resin codes #2 or #4, may have other recycling options.

What the Resin Codes Tell Us

Type of plastic Recycled curbside? About Common forms Recycled into
Polyethylene terephthalate (#1 PET) Yes Strong, lightweight and usually clear. Most have a nub centered on the bottom, where you will also find the “#1” resin code. Strong recycling market. Soda/water/drink bottles, peanut butter jars, toiletries bottles, plastic clamshells* New PET bottles and containers, carpet fiber, fleece jackets, comforter fill, industrial strapping
High density polyethylene (#2 HDPE) Yes, except plastic bags. For plastic bags, check locally; may be recycled at plastic bag collection sites, such as grocery stores and other commercial businesses. Thicker and denser plastic, usually opaque. Strong recycling market. Bottles for milk, hair products, detergents, household cleaners, plastic bags Plastic lumber, floor tiles, flower pots, buckets, non-food bottles
Polyvinyl chloride (#3 PVC) Check locally, but generally not recyclable. Note: #3 PVC plastic film should not be placed into plastic bag collection site bins. Also known as vinyl, it is durable and versatile. Limited recycling market, as it breaks down into toxic chemicals (dioxins) under typical recycling processes. Piping, pill packs, shrink wrap, bags for bedding Pipe, gutters, carpet backing, traffic cones, garden hoses
Low density polyethylene (#4 LDPE) Check locally; may be recycled at plastic bag collection sites, such as grocery stores and other commercial businesses Typically thinner and more flexible, diversifying its uses. Limited but growing recycling market. Plastic bags, dry cleaning bags, squeezable bottles, wire covering Shipping envelopes, garbage can liners, paneling, furniture film
Polypropylene (#5 PP) Check locally: some municipal programs accept these containers Stiffer yet heat-resistant, this is a happy medium between LDPE and HDPE. Limited but growing recycling market. Dairy tubs, medicine bottles, some takeout containers, reusable water bottles Auto parts, garden tools, shipping pallets, storage bins
Polystyrene foam (#6 PS) May be recycled at private collection locations Lightweight, durable and a good insulator. Commonly known as Styrofoam™. Extremely limited market. Single-use dishes and cutlery, takeout containers, packing peanuts, egg cartons, meat trays Thermal insulation, thermometers, rulers, license plate frames
All other types (#7 Other) Some items may be recycled at private collection locations or reused, but generally not recyclable All other plastics, mixed plastics, bioplastics or multi-layer materials. Extremely limited recycling market. Chip bags, hangers, toys, toothbrushes, fiberglass, eyeglass frames, 3D printing filaments Varies

*Clamshell berry containers, deli containers and frozen food trays are often a type of shaped plastic called thermoforms. Thermoforms are molded using a different method than standard bottles, and some Wisconsin recyclers do not accept them due to market restrictions.

Why Not Recycle All Plastics?

If you put the wrong kind of plastic into your recycling bin, it could cause recycling equipment to break down or contaminate a bale of plastic sent to a manufacturer to be recycled into new products. The presence of the wrong kind of plastic in a bale may make that bale unusable or less marketable. Even if the recycler is able to sort out the incorrect plastic, this comes at a cost to the recycler, including labor expenses and landfill disposal fees.

Although getting plastics recycling right may seem complicated at first, it’s worth trying! Manufacturers are interested in increasing recycled content in their products, and recycling plastic bottles, bags and other items according to the local municipality guidelines helps.

Want To Do More?

In addition to learning about which plastics to recycle, the following actions can make a difference:

  • Consider cutting back on non-essential plastic items that aren't recyclable.
  • Reuse plastics such as beverage bottles, plastic bags and packaging when possible.
  • Show appreciation for events and locations that provide recycling opportunities for customers and participants.
  • Subscribe to the Recycling Updates, the DNR's free emailed newsletter dedicated to recycling.
  • Find a drop-off location for plastic bags, wrap and film through Plastic Film Recycling [exit DNR].
  • Find locations that accept plastics not accepted in curbside recycling through the Wisconsin Recycling Markets Directory [exit DNR].
When Recyclables Are Sent To Landfills Or Incinerators By Recycling Programs
A recycling sorting line

Even a good recycling program will not capture 100% of potential recyclables, and some materials can't be recycled because of contamination. Examples include food or drink containers with significant amounts of liquid/food left inside, plastic jugs used for waste oil collection (waste oil should be taken to a local waste oil site) or newspapers used for cleaning. There are also exceptions for emergencies, unintentionally contaminated materials, the approved beneficial reuse of a material within a landfill, and certain plastics if recycling is not feasible.

Recycling programs only have to send a tiny fraction of the materials they collect to landfills. More than 750,000 tons of residential curbside recyclables are successfully processed in Wisconsin every year, an amount that has remained steady over the last decade.

Recycling programs in two waste-to-energy incinerator areas (La Crosse and Barron counties) are also allowed to send recyclable paper (including newspaper, magazines and cardboard) and plastics to waste-to-energy incinerators, although local ordinances in those areas may require paper and plastic items to be recycled.