Takeout and delivery are one of the highest forms of self-care and a spoil we would never dream of giving up. But all that delicious restaurant food has to be transported in something, which can cause a lot of waste. If you fancy the occasional delivery of sushi, Thai or Italian, it’s good to know which takeout containers can and can’t be recycled.
The same goes for prepared meal delivery service containers and those that house premade food from your local supermarket’s hot buffet. The more you recycle properly, the better the recycling system in your town or city will operate. In other words: knowing what you can’t recycle is as important as knowing what you can.
For helpful hints and takeout container recycling know-how, I asked Jeremy Walters, the sustainability ambassador for the second-largest recycling collector in the US, Republic Services. A passionate environmental advocate, Walters shared important tips for recycling takeout containers that can have a big impact on lessening your carbon footprint.
Tips for properly recycling takeout containers
1. Do some recycling research: The most important thing you can do to streamline the process is to find out which containers can and can’t be recycled in your specific area. This will likely vary depending on where you live, so you’ll need to check with your local sanitation department, often via its website.
2. Don’t assume it can be recycled: Just because a takeout container has a recycling symbol on it doesn’t mean it can be recycled where you live. Some cheaper producers of takeout containers will label something recyclable even if it’s not.
3. Give ’em a good rinse: When recycling any takeout containers, make sure they’re as clean as possible. Residual food waste, especially grease, can cause a material to become unrecyclable.
What follows are general rules and guidelines on which takeout containers can and can’t be recycled and how best to recycle them.
Takeout containers that can’t be recycled
Polystyrene foam containers: These foam containers are some of the most used for takeout and delivery, so it’s likely you’ve seen them. Unfortunately, they aren’t recyclable and must be thrown out.
Black plastic containers: These are another popular choice for restaurants, and while they are often made from recycled materials — making them at least somewhat eco-friendly — they can’t be recycled and must be tossed. According to Walters, recycling plant sorting technology just hasn’t caught up to these materials yet.
Plastic utensils: Not everything made from plastic is recyclable, and recycling plastic utensils is usually dependent on your local facility, so check with your service provider. Even better, when you place your order let the restaurant know you don’t need any plastic silverware.
Plastic bags: Your food is often delivered in plastic bags, but they aren’t recyclable and can cause serious harm to your local recycling facilities. To dispose of plastic bags, return them to the store where you got them or reuse them. Better yet, don’t use them at all and request a paper bag instead.
Soiled paper plates and napkins: These are not recyclable when soiled with food and liquid, so look for reusable, biodegradable or true disposable products instead.
Oil-stained pizza boxes: In theory, corrugated cardboard can be recycled, but not when it’s soaked in oil or caked with cheese. Happy medium: Take the top portion of the box if it’s free from oil and recycle that with your cardboard. The bottom half will likely need to be trashed.
Some cities — Austin, Texas for example — have curbside composting for food-coated paper products. A program like this may not be available in your community, but it doesn’t hurt to check. And Block Bins, a shared-bin composting startup that launched in Chicago, provides a similar service even if your town or city doesn’t.
Chinese containers and clamshells: This is another type of container that in theory could be recycled, but because oil often seeps into the cardboard, you’re better off throwing them away. Also, many are coated with a sealant that makes them leak-proof and difficult to recycle.
Takeout containers that can be recycled
Plastic clamshell containers: Clear plastic takeout containers with a recycling symbol can be recycled. If it’s a plastic container labeled No. 1 or No. 2, you can recycle it and should whenever possible.
Aluminum containers: You know the ones you can never close as tightly as the restaurant did the first time no matter how much you pinch? Yeah, those are recyclable as long as they’re clean.
Paper or cardboard containers: These are often made from recycled materials and can be recycled themselves. Some are even biodegradable and compostable as long as they are thoroughly cleaned and haven’t soaked up much grease. Even ones that aren’t recyclable are far less toxic than plastic or Styrofoam when being processed, burned or buried.
Paper bags: Many restaurants send their orders in large paper bags and those absolutely can and should be recycled or reused. Plastic bags, on the other hand, can’t be.
Clean paper products: Any paper plates, napkins or cardboard pizza boxes that are not heavily soiled with grease can generally be recycled.
What else can you do to help?
We all know it’s a tough time for restaurants, but it’s a tough time for the planet, too. If you feel comfortable gently letting your local restaurant know you’d appreciate them using one of the many environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic and polystyrene, you should. You could also send a polite, anonymous email saying how much you love the food and service, but that you have one small request on behalf of the Earth.