How to Recycle Cookware & Old Pots and Pans

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James Miller
By 
James is an environmentalist, sustainability expert and senior editor at TheRoundup, specializing in testing non-toxic, organic and eco-friendly products. James, his wife and two daughters believe in chemical-free and zero-waste living. They aim to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, for future generations to enjoy.
James Miller
Updated: April 20, 2024

If you buy durable, non-toxic cookware you can often expect it to last a lifetime.

But old cheap pans can scratch or break, which can cause harmful PFOA, PFAS, or PTFE to leach into your food. At this point, they need to be replaced.

Because only around 5% of curbside recycling programs in the U.S. accept scrap metal like cookware, you need to know how to dispose of your old cookware responsibly, to stop it from ending up in a landfill

In this guide, I will explain the challenges caused by the materials used in some pots and pans, and explain the recycling options that are available in 2024.

The Challenges of Recycling Cookware

old pots and pans that need to be recycled or donated

Material Complexity

Old cookware comes in various different materials, and when the materials are mixed it makes them harder to process. For example, a frying pan might combine metal, non-stick coatings, and plastic handles.

This construction makes cookware hard to recycle because each material often needs a separate recycling process.

There are currently no technologies available to recycle the fluoropolymer coatings from cookware. The plastic fractions like handles are typically incinerated, landfilled, or thermally destructed during metal recycling.

Contamination

Throughout their life, pots and pans are frequently exposed to food, oils, and sometimes chemicals.

Any such residue can contaminate the recycling process, so they need cleaning before recycling which can be labor-intensive.

Lack of Facilities

Not all scrap metal recycling centers can handle cookware. This is due to the special equipment needed for different materials, and it means that many places might not accept them at all.

Economic Viability

Recycling cookware is not always economically viable. The cost of separating and processing materials often exceeds the value of the recycled materials.

Money talks, and the lack of profit potential often discourages recycling programs from accepting certain items.

Where Can You Recycle Old Cookware?

Despite the complexities, if you have old cookware that is no longer usable, you do have some options to recycle them.

TerraCycle Zero Waste Box Program

TerraCycle's Zero Waste Box program allows you to recycle old cookware of any type. This service involves purchasing a box, filling it with your old cookware, and returning it to TerraCycle for recycling.

You can get the Kitchen Zero Waste Box at Earth Hero, where it's usually cheaper.

Scrap Metal Facilities

Local scrap metal facilities may accept old cookware, especially if it's predominantly metal. Before taking your cookware there, contact the facility to confirm if they accept kitchen items, including those with non-metal components or coatings.

They may ask you to remove plastic components first.

You can use the Earth911 search facility to find local recycling programs in your area.

What Cookware Can Be Recycled?

Types of Pots and Pans You Can Recycle

  • Stainless Steel: Stainless steel is one of the most recycled materials in the U.S., with a recycling rate of around 88%. It can be melted down and reused without degradation
  • Cast Iron: Highly valued in scrap recycling (with an average price of $190 per gross ton) due to its durability and reuse potential in various applications.
  • Aluminum: The global recycling rate for aluminum is around 76%. It's lightweight and highly sought after by recyclers due to the ease of melting and reforming.
  • Copper: Relatively easy to recycle and highly sought after due to its high value and the ability to retain its quality through the recycling process.

Types of Pots and Pans You Can't Recycle

  • Non-stick Cookware: The Teflon or similar coatings found in most nonstick cookware cannot be recycled. The metal underneath can, but this rarely happens because the coating is difficult and costly to remove.
  • Ceramic Pans: Ceramic materials are recyclable, but most curbside recycling programs won't accept ceramic pans.
  • Pyrex: Don't confuse Pyrex with glass and don't put it in your glass recycling bin. Pyrex requires a higher temperature to melt than regular glass, so if it gets mixed up, the resulting substance will be unusable.
  • Pots with Mixed Materials: Any cookware that combines metal with plastic, wood, or other materials can be challenging to recycle unless you dismantle them first.

Ferrous vs Non-Ferrous Metals

Ferrous Metals

These contain iron, are typically magnetic, and are prone to rust. Examples include cast iron and carbon steel.

If you're unsure whether your cookware is made from ferrous metal, simply use a magnet. If it stick, it's ferrous.

Non-Ferrous Metals

These do not contain iron and are not magnetic. Examples include aluminum, copper, and brass. Non-ferrous metals are more resistant to corrosion and lighter, making them ideal for reuse in products like beverage cans, electrical wiring, and pipes.

Why Does it Matter?

The distinction affects recycling processes because non-ferrous metals generally have higher resale values due to their corrosion resistance and other desirable properties.

Recyclers often separate ferrous and non-ferrous because each has different uses, and some only accept one type or the other.

How to Prepare Your Pots and Pans for Recycling

  1. Clean the Cookware: Remove all food residue and grease. Wash thoroughly with soap and water.
  2. Remove Non-Metal Parts: If possible, dismantle your cookware to separate metal from non-metal components, like plastic handles or rubber grips.
  3. Sort by Material: Classify your cookware based on the material—stainless steel, aluminum, or coated metals. Different recyclers might accept different materials.
  4. Check Local Guidelines: Confirm with your local recycling facility which types of cookware materials they accept and if they require further sorting or preparation.
  5. Locate a Recycler: Find a recycling facility or scrap metal dealer that accepts cookware, especially if it includes mixed or specialty materials.

This preparation ensures that your cookware is properly recycled, minimizing contamination and improving recycling efficiency.

Non-Recycling Options: Reuse or Donate

If your old kitchenware is still usable, it probably doesn't need to be recycled. Why not donate it to a good cause or even sell it instead?

Goodwill

Goodwill accepts cookware to sell in its thrift and secondhand stores. Your donations help fund job training and community services.

You can easily locate the nearest donation center and find out their specific needs through their website: Goodwill Donation Site Locator.

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army supports rehabilitation programs through sales of donated items like cookware.

You can schedule a home pickup or find nearby drop-off locations through their donation page: Salvation Army Donation Page.

Habitat for Humanity ReStores

Habitat for Humanity ReStores sell donated cookware to finance housing projects for families in need.

They provide a locator tool to find your closest ReStore here: Habitat for Humanity ReStore Locator.

Freecycle Network

Freecycle promotes the reuse of items by enabling people to give away things like cookware locally.

This platform is excellent for environmentally conscious disposal. Join or browse your local group here: Freecycle Network.

Craigslist

Craigslist offers a flexible platform for selling or giving away cookware locally. You can list items under the "For Sale" or "Free" sections to connect directly with nearby buyers or recipients.

Visit Craigslist to post your cookware: Craigslist.

The Final Word

Most people simply don't know where to send their cookware for recycling. The sad result is that recyclable pans are often disposed of in mixed residential waste streams and lost to incineration or landfill.

This is a massive waste and can be avoided if we simply dispose of old kitchen items more responsibly.

Also, when you buy a new piece of cookware, make sure you consider what it's made from.

You've seen how synthetic polymer coatings like Teflon make recycling extremely difficult, and they can even leach harmful chemicals into your food.

If you need to buy new cookware for your new home or to replace old items, I recommend choosing non-toxic cookware brands.

They often come with a lifetime guarantee, so it's likely they'll never need to be recycled - and they're far better for your health.

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James Miller
James Miller
James is an environmentalist, sustainability expert and senior editor at TheRoundup, specializing in testing non-toxic, organic and eco-friendly products. James, his wife and two daughters believe in chemical-free and zero-waste living. They aim to leave the planet in a better state than we found it, for future generations to enjoy.
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