In the interest of saving you some time, here is the answer to the question, “Can I recycle pictures?”
Except in very special circumstances, no.
Older pictures were printed on paper that was coated with small amounts of silver. As a result, they cannot be recycled. Photographs were also developed using very harsh chemicals. Those chemicals cannot be mixed in with normal paper.
If you live in an area where your curbside recycler accepts photographs printed on newer photo paper, you can toss them in the recycling bin when you no longer want them. Otherwise, reuse is your only eco-friendly option for recycling old pictures. Need ideas for doing that? We have them. We also have some advice about what to do with items like unused film, negatives and the plastic canisters that hold film.
When can I recycle pictures?
You can recycle pictures if your curbside recycling company specifically states that it can take them. Residents of Santa Cruz County can put photographs printed to photo paper in their recycling bins. But this is one of a very few places where pictures are acceptable.
Why is photo paper sometimes acceptable in recycling bins? There is no silver or developing chemicals on it. There is only the printer ink you use to create documents and homemade greeting cards, which are fine to put in recycling bins. Hewlett-Packard makes a photo paper that it claims is recyclable. Its Everyday Glossy Photo Paper is heavier than normal paper but not coated with any type of plastic or other residue.
Still, it is very important that you make sure your recycling company can accept any type of photo paper before putting it in the bin.
If you like to print pictures at home, you can make yourself feel a little more eco-friendly by using photo paper made with recycled materials. Red River Paper makes what it says is the only 100-percent, post-consumer recycled content photo paper in the world.
Can I recycle picture negatives or film?Green Disk is the only place that takes negatives and film for recycling. You can mail items to the company following the instructions on its website. It is important to note that it only accepts black and white film and negatives. Color negatives and film will have to go in the trash. However, Green Disk can take all kinds of black and white material: picture film, motion picture film, film reels and more. A detailed list of what it accepts is also on its website.
Film and camera manufacturer Kodak has two programs aimed at recycling some of the waste generated by taking pictures. It can accept one-time-use cameras (the little disposable ones you used to see at weddings) and the cylindrical plastic canisters that hold film. Check Kodak’s website for more details on both of these programs.
The one thing you can reliably recycle in a stack of old pictures is the paper envelopes they came in. If you have a bunch of them sitting around, feel free to place them in the recycling bin along with newspaper, junk mail, cardboard egg cartons and other types of paper. Just make sure you take the negatives and everything else out of them first.
Ideas for reusing pictures
There are all kinds of ideas for reusing old pictures. Some you can do yourself. Some involve artists or collectors.
Pinterest has dozens of ideas for repurposing pictures. Cut your favorite people out of pictures, attach the figures to binder clips and use them as board game pieces. Hang earrings from the tiny ears of people in photographs and use them to present gifts of jewelry.
Picture negatives can be used to make earrings, lamp shades, candle holders, bows or ribbons for gift-wrapped packages and woven baskets.
And what about your grandmother’s old slides? They can also get new life in craft projects. Try using them to make purses, room dividers, night lights, curtains or even very memorable business cards.
If old photographs in your collection depict interesting or important people or events, you might be able to donate them to an organization that will preserve them. Your local historical society might appreciate pictures that show how your town has changed over the years. Veterans groups may be able to take photographs of people who served in wars.
Old pictures may have value to crafters and creative types. You may be able to sell them at flea markets or on websites like eBay. You can also see if an organization that specializes in supplying recycled craft supplies to DIYers.
Even everyday snapshots may be meaningful to someone. NPR's Here and Now recently did a story on a new exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Art. Called “Unfinished Stories: Snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection.” The exhibit features 50,000 photographs the collector “rescued” from the trash can. Some are memorable: women with guns and other weapons, children portraying poignant childhood moments. Other are unremarkable; the photograph chosen for all the exhibit’s fliers and other materials shows a well-dressed couple whose heads are not visible because the photographer accidently cut them off.
The only thing they have in common is Cohen believes they reveal a little piece of Americana, and were once meaningful to someone for some reasons. He advocates printing out your favorite photographs just in case something happens to the digital storage commonly used for pictures today, and there’s definitely something to be said for that. But since you know someone is likely to place those pictures in the trash someday, refrain from printing every single one that catches your eye.