Knowing when it's time for a new cookware set is easy: Usually, outward signs of wear and tear are quite obvious, and in the case of nonstick cookware, surface coatings have usually all but vanished. But knowing what to do with that old set of cookware isn't as simple. Unlike many of the other items in our kitchens, we can't simply break down pots and pans to be recycled and picked up on the curb—and, in most cases, these items can't even be recycled to begin with.
Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says you have to know what your piece of cookware is made out of before recycling it. Then, whether or not you can recycle it depends on where you live. "Our recycling system in the United States is very localized; the first thing that everyone should do is check with their municipality," Hoover says. Each area in the country has different recycling protocols based on the materials found in each product, not based on the actual product itself—you won't find universal rules about recycles pots and pans, but rather rules around recycling the materials they're made from. Most modern cookware items have a blend of plastic and metal, and special chemical coatings that can't be recycled; some municipalities have additional rules on ferrous metals (those that are magnetic).
"Cast iron is straight up scrap metal with value and can be reused," Hoover says, adding that the same goes for aluminum, stainless steel, and copper. "Metal has market value, but if you have a newer pan that's coated with Teflon or another non-stick treatment, that starts to get a bit trickier, since it may or may not be accepted in city recycling." In some cases, however, the brand that you purchased the cookware from may accept the item as a return and recycle it. "Calphalon does recycle any damaged Calphalon cookware received when consumers send it in as part of our extensive warranty program," says Brent Reams, a representative for Newell Brands.
If cookware is coated, most recycling agencies will have to remove outward layers before it can be recycled, but only a select few localities will remove these coatings (New York City and Maryland's Montgomery County are examples in the Northeast). The best chance of ensuring your cookware doesn't end up in the trash is to head to a local scrap yard. "Metal dealers are often receptive to dropoffs, and if you can cut out the recycling center, they'll accept the pieces they can actually use from you," Hoover says. In addition to recycling at local centers or via metal dealers, here are three other ways you can make sure used cookware stays out of landfills and finds a new home.
Craigslist and Other Online Communities
"Do you have something that's useable, but it's something that you just don't want anymore? If it could be donated to a new home, there are so many ways to let your neighbors know you'd like to part with the item," says Hoover, who is a big fan of turning to social media or other online marketplaces, like Facebook Marketplace, to post free items. Regardless of whether or not you recycle or simply give away your cookware, items should be cleaned and sanitized properly.
Goodwill and the Salvation Army
Nearly any second-hand store, including national retailers like Goodwill, will accept donations. Goodwill stores accept pots, pans, plates, silverware, and other cooking items that are in usable condition, says Savanna Mickens, a public relations specialist for Goodwill Industries. "Generally, cookware should be clean and in good, useable condition. However, local autonomous organizations have their own specific donation policies," Mickens explains. "For example, Goodwill Industries of Greater New York and Northern New Jersey has four main components on its checklist: no broken items, it must be in working condition, no recalled items, and no gas-powered equipment." If there's a reason donated cookware won't be sold in stores, Mickens says that local employees will make efforts to recycle metals that can be recycled.
If you're unable to find a metal scrap yard or donate the item, Hoover says there's one last option for you, and it happens to be the most convenient. "TerraCycle is an organization that specializes in accepting and repurposing hard to recycle materials; things like potato chip bags and sandwich bags, things that are not normally accepted for recycling at the community level," she says. "They accept many things and are able to make them into something entirely new." They offer a Kitchen Separation Zero Waste Box that will be shipped to your door and can be filled with almost any kitchen item you wish to recycle. Prices start at $109 and that cost includes return shipping and processing of whatever you send to be recycled (they do not accept electronics). And Hoover says that TerraCycle really does upcycle—materials are sorted and repurposed into everyday products, like benches and watering cans, instead of being sent to landfills.