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Because You Asked

Does Cigarette Smoke Affect Paper’s Recyclability?

By Recyclebank |

Many factors go into an item’s recyclability, so how can we tell if we can recycle things like smokey paper? These tips will help you decide.

Dear Recyclebank: If liquid and grease make paper unrecyclable, do things like cigarette smoke make paper unrecyclable, too? –Jayne

Dear Jayne:
Great question! There are no clear-cut rules for less common contaminants like smoke, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make educated choices. When we think of things that make an item “unrecyclable,” we’re generally talking about one (or more) of the following five issues:

  1. The material itself may not be recyclable, or it can’t be handled by your particular facility. For example, electronics and ceramics are not always recyclable through curbside pickups because they require more sorting and manpower, or because there’s no local market for the recyclable material.
  2. The item may be in a form that the recycling facility’s machinery can’t process. For instance, plastic bags and films can get caught and cause costly shutdowns. When it comes to paper, some towns are not able to accept shredded paper scraps, so check with your local hauler before tossing those in the bin.
  3. The item may be contaminated with foreign materials that will degrade or possibly ruin the quality of the finished batch. This can be accidental, such as food remnants on packaging, or deliberate, like wax coating on paper or cardboard.
  4. The quality of the material itself may be below what’s needed to produce a usable recycled product. As we discussed in this article, paper can only be recycled so many times before its fibers are too short to use and it becomes better suited for the compost bin.
  5. The material may not guarantee a high profit. If a plant can’t get significant value out of something, they may decline to accept it. Thermal paper (the kind used in receipts) is an example — it’s coated with BPA, which not only makes it harder to recycle but has also raised health concerns in people who regularly handle it. This lowers its value as a commodity.

What does this mean for paper that’s been around cigarette smoke? Consider the paper’s contamination, quality, and profitability. It seems unlikely that a stray waft of smoke is going to damage your paper irreparably. However, repeated exposure to heavy smoke may cause discoloration and stray burns that are bad for the paper’s integrity. If the paper hasn’t sustained visible damage (indicating that it hasn’t picked up more than trace residue and chemicals), it’s likely to be alright. If you’re still unsure whether your paper is recyclable or not, contact your local facility directly!

American Chemical Society,



Are there materials that you worry may be contaminating your recyclables? Ask us about them in the comments.

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  • Barbara W. 3 months ago
    OK, it's Sunday EARLY and we are still here!
    Above it talks about smoking/paper recycling, do people still smoke? Thought that went out of syle years ago.
  • tommy b. 1 year ago
  • VIRGINIA L. 1 year ago
    Some of my bills get shredded along with medical bills and things with numbers of accounts. I save them and when the bag gets full place it in our recycling bin outside our home. Am I wasting my time doing this or should I just tear them and put them in the recycling bin?
  • Heather B. 1 year ago
    The pervasive smells of cigarette smoke (with its 3rd-hand smoke dangers), or chemical-laden dryer sheets or oily air fresheners or pesticides, seem to pervade everything these days. Bring home produce from the grocery or boxes of cereal and smell the containers...they often smell like they absorbed the odors from the store’s chemical aisle. Go for a walk in the evening in your neighborhood and you will often smell the overpowering scent of dryer sheets as dryers exhaust the unhealthy chemical oils to the outdoors. We have been conditioned to be a chemical unhealthy. Our paper for recycling probably contains a fair amount of these chemicals, not to mention the recycled-content products themselves having been exposed to even more chemicals during the recycling process. I never use recycled paper for any personal hygiene or near food, because it usually smells so much like toxic chemicals.
  • Randy F. 1 year ago
    Wow, the "Shamers" really crept out on this article. This is my time seeing soft-core cyber bullying on this site. 'I Feel' that we ALL use/ consume things that others may disapprove of. Since we ALL are adding carbon to our planet (whether we admit to it OR deny it with retroactive actions, planting trees, paying off some charity) it's great that ALL kinds of consumers are thinking, wishing, looking for alternatives. It's a start.
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