are food containers recyclable

There’s no denying the convenience of ordering food and having it brought to your door, but their containers can quickly add up to a mountain of trash. You may look at the bottom of your plastic or Styrofoam food container and see that happy little recycling symbol, but grease and food residue could make otherwise-recyclable materials unfit for recycling.

So, are food containers recyclable, and how exactly can we recycle them?

Are all food containers recyclable?

Although many types of take-out food containers are easily recyclable, others aren’t. What makes food containers recyclable may be because the container is not prepared appropriately for recycling, is too badly contaminated, or the material is not recyclable at all.

It’s important to know what kinds of food containers are recyclable, and what you need to do to make sure that they are. This will allow you to minimize the amount of waste you send to landfill.

Furthermore, knowing which kinds of food containers you can recycle means you can avoid using those which you’ll be forced to throw in the trash.

Food containers that generally can be recycled:

  • Paper and cardboard bags and boxes
  • Plastic food containers
  • Aluminum containers or components

Food containers that are hard or impossible to recycle:

  • Polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers
  • Disposable coffee cups
  • Pizza boxes
  • Any container with a plastic coating
  • Any container made of a mix of different materials that can’t be separated

However, keep in mind that rules can vary depending on where you live, so be sure to check the guidelines for curbside recycling in your local area. Just because it has a recycle symbol on it, doesn’t mean it can be recycled in your local curbside program, or even through a recycling center.

You may think you’re doing the right thing by tossing these containers in with your recycling. However, by putting something that shouldn’t be there with recyclable items you risk contaminating the entire load, meaning everything will be sent to landfill.

Even paper and cardboard cartons that appear readily recyclable or biodegradable could be unfit for the process, as they are usually soaked in grease or food residues. Other materials are simply too difficult to recycle, or not worth the time and effort involved for recycling facilities, so this poses even further problems.

In all cases, it’s essential to clean and prepare the containers properly before recycling them – we’ll walk you through how to do this in the following sections.

Which food containers are recyclable?

Whether you can recycle any given food container depends on various factors, including the materials the container is made from, what it contained, and the state it’s in. You can sometimes reuse food containers, though this is not always practical, and you only need so many containers!

We’ll take a closer look at those containers that can be recycled, and how to prepare them properly for recycling.

Plastic food containers

You can recycle many types of plastic food containers, but it depends on the type of plastic it is made of. The best thing to do is check the bottom of the container and look for a recycling symbol and number.

Although a recycling symbol doesn’t guarantee that it can be recycled, at least not in your local area, the number will tell you what type of plastic it is. You can then use this information to check with your local municipality to see if that type of plastic is accepted curbside.

plastic containers with takeout food
Not all types of plastic can be accepted by your local recycling center

If not, ask recycling centers in your area if they take that kind of plastic – you can find a facility in your area by using the Earth 911 online search tool. Recycling facilities sort plastics by type, before shredding, washing, melting, and pelletizing the material, and then finally shaping it into a new product.

Once you’ve determined that you can recycle the plastic container, clean it thoroughly with dish soap to remove any food residue and let it dry. Separate out any components made from different materials such as aluminum foil, plastic wrap, and plastic utensils, and recycle these separately.

Likewise, zip-top food storage bags can generally be recycled, as long as they’re are clean and dry. Again, check with your local sanitation department or recycling facility to see if they’ll accept them.

Cardboard and paper food containers

Cardboard and paper are widely accepted for curbside recycling, and this includes food containers made of these materials, from cardboard boxes to paper bags. However, the big caveat here is that you can only recycle items that are free from grease or food residue.

And to be clear, this means that the food containers cannot be even slightly soiled – otherwise they won’t be accepted for recycling. 

This is because food scraps like cheese and grease will interfere with the sorting process and may even damage recycling machinery. Pizza boxes are also problematic (we’ll talk about this more in the section at the end of the article).

fries and fried egg in a paper food container
Paper containers that stored greasy food cannot be recycled with the rest of the cardboard

Having said that, paper and cardboard containers are free of grease or any other food contamination can be recycled, especially items that didn’t come into direct contact with food. Separate out any containers that are contaminated and put them in your compost bin or, worst case, the trash.

This may include parts of containers – for example, if the bottom part of a paper bag is soaked in grease but the top is completely clean, tear off the oily part. The uncontaminated parts can then be recycled curbside.

Be sure to also check cardboard food containers for a waxy coating, lining, or glitter. This is typically made from polyethylene and will make the container unfit for recycling, so remove any such lining or covering before you dispose of it.

Aluminum food containers

Restaurants often use aluminum foil containers to keep your food warm during delivery. The advantage of this type of food container is that they can be easily recycled, but it’s important to make sure that the container is thoroughly cleaned first.

pasta in aluminum container
Aluminum containers need to be thoroughly cleaned before sending to a recycling center

To prepare aluminum food containers for recycling, clean them thoroughly and remove any food that may be left over. Once cleaned, scrunch up the container and put it with the rest of your curbside recycling.

Which types of food containers can’t be recycled?

Most restaurants and takeaway joints use plastic food containers as they don’t react with food, and so help to preserve food safety. However, these containers, along with other non-recyclable materials, can be very damaging to the environment.

Food containers made from the following materials cannot be recycled, so it’s important to avoid them if you want to care for the environment.

Food containers with plastic coating

The general rule of thumb when it comes to food containers is that as long as they are not lined with plastic film, they can be recycled. Plastic coating is often used to make flexible, durable, and heat- or stain-resistant packaging, but such containers are problematic for recycling facilities as they include a mix of different types of materials that aren’t easy to separate.

PE-coated paper container with cooked food inside
Some paper containers have a thin PE-coating which makes them waterproof

This is true not only for other materials that are coated or lined with a plastic film, like paper, but also plastic. This is because the coating is usually a different type of plastic from the container itself, and each kind of plastic reacts differently when it is reprocessed so you can’t recycle in the same way because they melt at different temperatures.

Therefore, if you include a plastic-lined food container with your recycling, it will contaminate the whole load, making all other items non-recyclable.

Polystyrene (styrofoam) food containers

Polystyrene is technically recyclable – in fact, you’ll probably see a number six recycling symbol on the bottom of your styrofoam food container. This material is generally more than 90% air, making it lightweight and bulky, so ideal for packaging and transporting all kinds of items, including food.

a person holding styrofoam container with cooked food
Styrofoam food containers are difficult to recycle, so it’s best to avoid them at all

However, because of its bulk, polystyrene is not desirable for recycling centers and most curbside programs, as well as recycling facilities won’t accept it. It’s worth checking with your local authority or recycling center to see if they’ll take this material for recycling, but otherwise, it’s best to avoid it entirely.

However, you can recycle some types of styrofoam, though it’s not always easy: see this guide for more.

Mixed material food containers

Mixed material containers are not easy to recycle as it’s hard to know which materials are recyclable and which are not. Furthermore, most recycling facilities won’t accept such items unless they’ve been separated into their different materials.

paper food container with a plastic lid
If you have a paper container with a plastic lid, make sure to recycle them separately

Recycling facilities can only operate if the revenue they receive for recovered materials covers the cost needed to process it. Expensive manual or chemical processes are necessary to separate blended materials into single valuable waste streams, making the whole concept not cost-effective for recyclers, and so they usually won’t accept mixed material items.

Therefore, unless you can pull the container apart into different, recyclable materials – for example, tearing an aluminum lid off a cardboard box – it’s better to skip these kinds of containers.

Disposable coffee cups

You may love a convenient, to-go coffee as your morning pick-me-up, but these single-use cups are notoriously unsustainable. Even though disposable coffee cups are mostly made of paper, they usually have a polymer plastic lining and so can’t be recycled.

disposable coffee cups with plastic lids
Similar to food containers, coffee cups have a thin waterproof coating inside which makes them hard to recycle

Though the paper component is technically recyclable, because of the plastic lining, they have to be sent to landfill.

Some take away coffee cups are labeled as compostable or biodegradable – these typically have an electric acid lining that can be composted, just not at home. So, you’ll need to send this off to a commercial composting facility, and they can be difficult to find.

Better option: invest in a sustainable, reusable cup and have your favorite coffee shop fill that instead!

Microwave meal containers

Microwave meal containers are usually made from certain kinds of non-biodegradable plastic that cannot be recycled easily. This is because a certain type of plastic is used that is safe for microwaving, but not easily recycled.

rice and fried chicken in a microwave meal container
Most microwave meal containers are made of a hard-to-recycle type of plastic

Furthermore, even microwavable meal containers made from recyclable plastic are often rendered non-recyclable by food contamination. Even if you clean them thoroughly, oil and grease from the food can penetrate the plastic during microwaving.

Takeaway pizza boxes

You may assume that pizza boxes can be recycled as they’re made from corrugated cardboard, and in theory, corrugated cardboard is recyclable. However, when the material is soiled with cheese and oil, it can’t be recycled.

empty pizza boxes on a picnic blanket
You can still recycle the top part of the pizza box as long as it had no contact with food

If the top part of the box has had zero contact with grease and cheese, it can be recycled, but you will have to throw the bottom half in the trash.

Having said that, check with your local authority if they can accept pizza boxes, because some facilities accept them even when they are stained or greasy, though you have to make sure that they are empty.

Final thoughts

It’s understandable that food take-away and deliveries have become a common part of our busy, modern lives, and this makes it even more essential to understand how to properly dispose of packaging, single-use items and food containers

However, it’s important to make sure you recycle the food containers properly, and avoid non-recyclable ones wherever possible. Educating ourselves on these subjects will go a long way to ensuring that we limit our waste, and our impact on the environment.

If you’ve found this post on are food containers recyclable, take a look at our guides to recycling other single-use and household items, such as styrofoam, cardboard boxes, and packaging peanuts.

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