How to Recycle Old Pictures

Recycling old photos is commonly handled by most official recycling facilities. However, to truly practice this hobby with minimal impact on the environment, focus on choosing eco-friendly photography products from the get-go.

By Maryruth Belsey-Priebe

Fact checked by Sander Tamm

Recycling Old Photos
Recycling Old Photos / Sander Tamm / Ecolife

An Overview on Recycling Old Photos

A favorite pastime of many nature lovers, proud moms, and world hoppers, photography is a great way to capture those special moments in life. Choose eco-friendly ways to take your pictures is one thing, but using greener photographic supplies and recycling pictures is another challenge few amateur and professional photographers have ever thought about. But no more!

A snapshot of the photography waste facts

There are many chemicals used to make photo paper and put an image onto it, many of which can be toxic to the environment. These are the basics about photographic chemicals you should know:

  • Heavy metals: Things like mercury and selenium, which are toxic to birds, fish, and other wildlife, are found in photographic fixers, toners, stabilizers, photo paper, and film.
  • Silver content: Found in both film and photo paper, silver (a blend of silver chloride and silver bromide salts) makes the act of putting photographs in the trash environmentally hazardous. As such, they should be treated like hazardous waste (unless you know for sure they were processed without silver).
  • Printer cartridges: If you print your photos at home, your photo paper may contain silver, but your printer cartridges also should be recycled properly. See our article on recycling printer cartridges for information on this photo-related waste.
  • Camera batteries: Whether you use a digital or film-based camera, it likely uses batteries. Rechargeables are always preferred because they’ll save you money and result in less waste. Either way, be sure to recycle your used batteries to ensure the heavy metals in them are recovered and kept out of the environment.

Better photo paper choices

When looking for a paper on which to print your photographs, whether you work at a photography studio or are printing your images at home, look for photo paper with these eco-friendly qualities:

  • Print only what you need: When working with a professional photographer or taking your digital images and printing them at home or a photo shop, be sure to print only those that you require. Store the rest digitally and safely to avoid any unnecessary waste.
  • Alternative materials: Choose photo paper made from 100% cottonForest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood fiber, and bamboo fiber are all good choices.
  • Non-resin coated: Because photo paper is often finished with a resin coating (RC) which is usually a type of plastic made from petrochemical ingredients, it’s best to avoid these when possible. Metallic coatings as well as C-Prints, Duratrans, and other plastic materials are all things that make photo paper difficult, if not impossible to recycle. Look for selections without these coatings and finishes.
  • Chlorine-free: As with any other type of paper, look for processed chlorine-free (PCF) options to avoid the use of chlorine, a biocide that’s harmful to the environment and human health.
  • Green photographer: If you’re looking for a professional photographer that uses eco-friendly methods like greener photo paper and recycling practices.

How to recycle pictures and photo paper

Because of the silver content in many photo papers, they are considered hazardous waste and should be handled accordingly. While you should not simply throw them in the garbage, it is unlikely they can be processed by your local paper recycling system. They should therefore be sent to companies that accept silver from photographers as they will often accept negative and print scraps. You may also find that recyclers of dental waste (which includes silver) will also take photo paper. Search for “silver recycling” or “dental waste recycling” to see if there are any photo paper recyclers in your local area.