What Can You Recycle? To-Go Food Containers

Some materials are easier to recycle than others.

Takeaway food and hot coffee.

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Most to-go containers are recyclable, but whether or not you can toss them in your recycling bin will depend on what they're made from, what materials your local recycler accepts, and if they're soiled with food waste like grease and cheese.

In general, clean and dry cardboard, paper, aluminum, and plastic containers are recyclable throughout the United States—but double-check to see if the container has a recycling symbol before tossing it in the bin. 

Chinese Food Containers

Two Chinese food takeout pail boxes.

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Chinese food takeout generally comes in an oyster pail, also known as a paper pail. It’s a folded paperboard box coated in plastic, usually polyethylene. The coating prevents your food from leaking and sticking to the paperboard, but it makes these containers difficult to recycle.

Some municipalities have the capacity to recycle these containers as long as they're free of food waste and rinsed, so check your local recycling rules to determine the next steps. For the most part, though, these food containers belong in the trash.

Plastic Takeout Containers

Person wearing black gloves handling takeout.

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If you grab a salad or sandwich to go, you’ll likely get it in a plastic takeout container. Most plastic food containers are made of low-density polyethylene or polypropylene thermoplastics. They can be melted down and molded into new shapes fairly easily, making them recyclable and accepted by most household recycling programs in the United States.

In order to prevent food waste or sticky residues from interfering with recycling machinery, you should rinse, clean, and shake dry your plastic takeout container before putting it in a recycling bin.

Styrofoam Containers and Cups

Styrofoam containers piled up.

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Expanded polystyrene (EPS) food containers—commonly referred to as Styrofoam food containers—are great insulators, keeping soup piping hot and milkshakes cool. Restaurant owners like them because they’re affordable to buy in bulk and they come in a variety of sizes. Unfortunately, though, EPS is a petroleum-based product known to be harmful to the environment on many levels—its production, for example, releases nasty pollutants into the air. And when these foam containers end up in a landfill, they can leach harmful chemicals and contaminate the soil and water.

Although containers made with this material may have a recycling symbol with the number six, not many facilities process them. Some specialty recyclers may accept EPS, but you’ll have to do your research. Use an online tool to find a recycler near you.

Can You Recycle Plastic Straws?

The plastic straw you get in your smoothie or iced coffee is not recyclable, despite being made from a widely recyclable material. Plastic straws are too lightweight for recycling machines to sort them properly, which poses a major recycling challenge. Curbside recycling programs do not accept plastic straws, so they end up in the landfill, or worse, the environment. 

Paper Containers and Wrappers

Sandwich in a paper food wrapper.

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If paper containers and wrappers are free of grease and other food contamination, municipal recycling programs will likely accept them. Paper that does not come into direct contact with food is welcome in your recycling bin.

Cardboard Food Containers

Supply of cardboard takeout containers.

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Like paper to-go containers, cardboard food containers are recyclable as long as they aren’t contaminated with food waste. Things like cheese and grease will mess with the sorting process and damage recycling machinery, often ruining entire batches of recycling. 

Watch out for cardboard food containers that have a waxy coating, which is typically made from polyethylene. Retailers often use waxed cardboard to package pre-made meals as the waxy layer prevents leaks and sogginess. However, the waxy coating makes the box difficult to recycle and many recyclers won’t accept them.

Check with your municipality or search for waxed cardboard recycling programs near you to determine your options.

Waxed Paper Cups

Person holding a paper cup.

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The waxy coating inside a paper cup ensures that your beverage doesn’t leak or taste like paper, but it also renders it non-recyclable because recycling machinery can’t easily separate the two materials. The lining is made from a fossil-based plastic, like polystyrene or polypropylene, but it can also be made from straight wax.

Cafés use waxed paper cups to serve coffee to go. While you can’t recycle your waxed paper cup, you may be able to compost it if it’s made from bio-based polylactic acid. Otherwise, your most eco-friendly option is to bring your own reusable cup when you grab your morning brew.

Ice Cream Cartons

Ice cream pints in the freezer.

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Browsing the freezer section at the grocery store, you’ll notice most ice cream cartons are made from the same material. The base material is paperboard, but it isn’t just regular paperboard—ice cream containers are made from wet-strength paperboard. Wet-strength paperboard includes a plastic polyethylene lining that ensures it can stand up to uber cold temperatures. 

Packaging with plastic linings is not generally recyclable because the coating makes it difficult to process. However, some regions do accept ice cream cartons in curbside recycling programs. It varies tremendously. For example, Seattle accepts them but Portland doesn’t. 

Check with your city to find out if you can toss your ice cream containers in the bin. If you can, make sure your container is empty and clean of food waste before you recycle it. If you recycle a carton that still has ice cream inside, it can contaminate your other recyclables.

Juice Boxes

A child at the beach with a juice box.

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Like Chinese takeout containers, juice boxes are coated with a thin layer of plastic on the inside, even though they can look like they’re just made from cardboard. In reality, though, they’re made up of multiple materials layered together, including paper, polyethylene plastic, and aluminum. 

Individually, these components are recyclable. But it’s difficult to separate them when they’re smashed together like they are in juice boxes. Therefore, most juice boxes should be tossed in the trash as they aren’t easily recyclable. You may, however, be able to find a specific juice box recycling program through a specialty recycler like TerraCyle.

Foil Containers

Two stacked aluminum food containers.

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Foil food containers are made from aluminum, which is accepted in virtually all curbside pickup recycling programs in the United States. But in order to prevent contamination, make sure you rinse them off and rid of excess food waste before recycling them.

Can You Compost Takeout Containers?

Food packaging is an environmental concern. It’s often made of non-biodegradable materials that are difficult to recycle. But green-minded developers have made headway in creating biodegradable packaging that you can compost. And some raw materials are already suitable for the compost pile.

In general, you can compost food-soiled take-out packaging that’s made from paper or cardboard. Some food retailers use compostable cups and flatware, too. To determine if the packaging is compostable, look for labels or symbols. Compostable materials are labeled “Compostable” or “PLA.” PLA is a compostable bioplastic that will break down naturally in a compost pile.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can you recycled cardboard with food on it?

    No, cardboard cannot be recycled if it's soiled with food or grease. Unfortunately, greasy cardboard can clog up recycling machinery, so putting a pizza box in your blue bin could actually ruin an entire batch of recycling.

  • Are black plastic food containers recyclable?

    Black plastic containers that have been cleaned can go in most curbside recycling bins as they're made of the same type of plastic as clear and white containers. Clear and white containers, however, might be more desirable to recycling companies because they can be dyed different colors.

  • Are bamboo food containers recyclable?

    Bamboo products are not accepted by most curbside recycling services, but if they're 100% natural—i.e., not mixed with or coated in plastic—they can be composted at home.

  • What can you do with old food storage containers?

    Plastic and foil containers can be washed out and reused indefinitely. When they're too worn for food storage, you can retire them to the garage for organizing small objects or turn them into a DIY project. Styrofoam containers are best avoided altogether because they lose their form easily but take the longest to decompose.

View Article Sources
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