During the pandemic, we're all eating at restaurants a lot less and eating in—often via takeout and delivery—a lot more. So what do you do with all of those bags, bowls, and utensils from your meal? Some takeout containers can be recycled, but not all. We spoke to sustainability experts for their top takeout recycling tips.

By Karla Walsh
September 14, 2020
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Whether it was to eliminate the need for a babysitter or to enjoy a quiet night at home, even pre-pandemic, restaurant delivery rates were on the rise. More than one in three Americans surveyed in a May 2019 Gallup poll reported ordering food delivery in the previous 30 days at least once. And over the course of the past six months as restaurant dining rooms were closed (or we chose to limit our own visits to reduce exposure), there’s been a giant surge in delivery and takeout demand.

“While many restaurants have slowly started to reopen, sometimes it’s easier to avoid the outside anxieties of social distancing, and simply turn to food delivery to treat yourself. What’s also easy, is to toss all items in the recycling bin, but unfortunately, not all take out containers are recyclable,” says Jeremy Walters, the Las Vegas, Nevada-based sustainability ambassador and community relations manager for Republic Services (the second largest recycling collector in the U.S.).

To reduce your carbon footprint without mucking up the recycling stream—and causing more work for those who have to sort through the non-recyclables—read on for the dirty details about what can and can’t be recycled.

overhead shot of several white takeout containers with food
Credit: Kevin Trimmer/Getty Images

The Dos of Recycling Takeout Containers

The U.S. has one of the lowest overall recycling rates of any developed nation, according to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Start here to begin to shift that statistic.

Always Check Your Local Listings

“One of the biggest misconceptions in the world of recycling is that an item is recyclable if it has a recycle symbol on it,” Walters says, when in truth, this varies state by state and even city by city.

Most plastic takeout containers are actually not recyclable in most places, adds Aimee Lee, a senior national account director for the non-profit Recycle Across America in Minneapolis. That iconic triangular “chasing arrow” recycling symbol was never meant to indicate that something is recyclable, but rather, to identify what type of plastic the item is made from. 

“Most recycling processors prefer plastic bottles and jugs only, as those are materials they are able to process and for which they have an end-market. However, there are certain haulers who accept clear plastic takeout containers. You can generally learn which plastic materials are accepted in your community on your city’s website,” Lee says.

Or try a Google search for “recycling rules in _______ city” if your initial hunt for local recycling guidelines comes up empty. Online directories such as Earth911 can also help you determine how to reuse or recycle different items, says Mark Carpenter, the vice president of communications for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. in Washington, D.C.

Watch Your 1s and 2s

“As a rule of thumb, the following materials are accepted no matter where you live: paper, cardboard, metal cans and plastic containers labeled with a ‘#1’ or ‘#2,’” Walters says.

Cardboard drink carriers and paper sleeves—you know, those cozies that often come with your pumpkin spice latte—can all be recycled. As can aluminum drink cans as long as they’re empty, clean, and dry.

Keep It Clean

Pizza. Whether classic or cauliflower (the latter was actually the fastest-growing food delivery trend of 2019 on Grubhub’s “Year In Food” report), it’s one of the most beloved delivery orders.

“Pizza is my go-to for the nights I don’t feel like cooking, but that cardboard box isn’t fully recyclable. If the whole box is soiled with grease and cheese, it either needs to be thrown out or tossed in the compost bin (where available),” Walters says. “But, if half the pizza box is clean you can tear it in half, recycle the clean half and either trash or compost the dirty part.”

The same holds true for any food container, Carpenter continues, even those that do meet the above criteria as A-OK to recycle in your area. “Make sure any container is free of any remaining food otherwise the recycling stream becomes contaminated,” he says.

Opt-Out of Condiments and/or Utensils You Won't Use

Unfortunately, not everything made of plastic is recyclable, Walters explains, and recycling plastic utensils is completely dependent on your local facility. With that in mind, when you place your order, see if there’s a comment field or checkbox that you can request no utensils or condiment packets. Since you’re dining at home, you can use your regular dishware and large-scale condiments. (Bonus points for all the sriracha sauce you could ever want on those tacos!)

“If you’re picking up your takeout order, you can also ask the restaurant if they’re okay with you providing your own paper or reusable grocery bag to carry your order home rather than using a plastic bag,” Lee says.

The Don’ts of Recycling Takeout Containers

Now that we’ve covered what takeout containers can be recycled, here’s what you need to know about what’s gotta be tossed.

Don’t Try to Recycle Styrofoam

Polystyrene foam containers: Those foam takeout containers, are the most used when ordering takeout so it’s likely you’ve seen them before, but did you know they are NOT recyclable? All these items must be thrown out! Polystyrene (commonly referred to as Styrofoam) containers have to be the number one takeout trash offender. They are made from plastic and more often than not are stamped with the #6 recycling symbol. However, polystyrene is not broadly accepted in curbside recycling programs and should be thrown out. A close second is takeout containers soiled with food or liquid. There are two ways these soiled materials can pose challenges. First, if the container is a #1 or #2 plastic must be rinsed free of residual food and liquids because it has the potential to contaminate other fragile recyclable materials like office paper, cardboard, and magazines. Second, paper takeout containers (think Chinese food) are simply not recyclable to begin, then add in the food residue and you have a recipe for disaster. Paper take out containers are coated with a special material to “waterproof” them which makes the container unrecyclable and if you add in the food residue, you run the risk of ruining perfectly good recyclable materials.

Don’t Recycle the Plastic Bags

Many takeout orders are delivered in plastic bags similar to those at grocery stores. These are not recyclable in the typical bin and present a huge challenge for local recycling facilities, Walters says.

“Many plastic bags have printing that states they are recyclable, so consumers often believe they can be added to their residential curbside recycling bin. Unfortunately, plastic bags are very lightweight, and they present enormous challenges for recycling processors, as they become airborne and get stuck in the gears of the sorting machinery,” Lee says. 

This forces the processors to halt operations and shut down the huge machinery often so workers can climb into the machinery to free up and remove the plastic bags. “This is very costly to the facility and is extremely dangerous for the workers,” Lee says. To dispose of plastic bags, save them to return to a special bin at a supermarket or other retailer that accepts plastic bags, or throw them in the trash, Walters suggests. Better yet, don’t use them when you can make that choice.

Don’t Forget to Err on the Side of Caution

Rather than risk contaminating the good recyclables, if you’re unsure whether something is recyclable, Lee says the best rule of thumb is “when in doubt, throw it out.” 

“Recycling is the most important action society can do to simultaneously help the environment, the economy, manufacturing, and to prevent waste from going into oceans,” Lee says.

So while reducing your takeout waste can be a challenge, it isn’t impossible—and it’s certainly worth the effort. For additional resources, Walters recommends referencing recyclingsimplified.com to clean up your recycling routines.

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