A lot of us have increased our takeout and delivery food consumption in 2020. Dining at a restaurant — especially indoors — poses a number of risks amid the coronavirus pandemic, so meal delivery services have reported record growth this year. But with increased takeout comes increased waste and questions about what goes in the recycling bin versus the trash can.
“The waste stream and recycling stream have shifted during COVID-19,” said Elizabeth Schussler, senior director of social change, behavior and impact at The Recycling Partnership. “There is more waste and recycling at home as restaurants and businesses are setting out less. Contamination in recycling is threatening local programs, so it is critical that even though you want to reduce waste, recycling the wrong way can jeopardize recycling.”
Everyone can do their part to make delivery less wasteful. Below, Schussler and other experts share the do’s and don’ts of recycling takeout containers.
Don’t: Assume it’s recyclable because it has a symbol on it
“One of the biggest misconceptions in recycling is that an item is recyclable if it has the recycle symbol on it,” said Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for Republic Services. “The acceptance of recyclable materials can vary from state to state and city to city. If you’re unsure if something can be recycled, throwing the wrong thing in your recycling bin can do more harm than good.”
Recycling is not necessarily the appropriate step for every item you don’t want to end up in a landfill.
“At the end of recycling lines, items are baled into a limited number of blocks of similar materials,” Schussler said. “Unlike items are wasteful and can be detrimental to workers and machinery.”
Do: Look up your local recycling guidelines
You should find out which takeout containers are recyclable in your specific area, Walters said.
Websites like How2Recycle make it easy to see what your local recycling program does and does not accept. Recycling information is often listed under “solid waste.” If the website is unclear, consider giving your local program a call and asking whatever questions you have. Once you know what they do recycle, you can make smarter choices about the disposable materials you use when there are no reusable alternatives.
“Containers that include multiple types of plastics or plastics and other materials are essentially impossible to recycle. They should be discarded as trash,” said Eric A. Goldstein, New York City environment director and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The best advice, other than using fewer throw-away plastic containers, is to check with your local solid waste agency or waste hauler to see what kinds of plastics, if any, are accepted for recycling in their community, and to inquire whether those materials are in fact really recycled.”
Don’t: Recycle containers soiled with food
People often recycle takeout containers soiled with food or liquid, but these can be problematic for two reasons.
“First, food and liquids have the potential to contaminate other fragile recyclable materials like office paper, cardboard and magazine,” Walters said. “If the container is a #1 or #2 plastic, it can be recycled, but it must be rinsed free of residual food and liquid.”
“Second, paper take-out containers (think Chinese food) are coated with a special material to ‘waterproof’ them which makes the container unrecyclable,” he added. “Add in food residue, and you run the risk of ruining perfectly good recyclable materials if you toss these containers in your recycling.”
Do: Empty and rinse packaging before recycling
If you determine a container is recyclable in your area, make sure there’s no food or drink residue, which can potentially contaminate other fragile recyclable materials like paper or cardboard.
“All packages in your recycling should be listed as accepted in your program and be empty and dry ― no food or liquid,” Shussler said. “Some restaurants offer drinks in jugs, bottles or cans, which are recyclable. Cup recycling is emerging, but some cups are still made with unrecyclable materials. If you are confident is recyclable, make sure to empty and throw lid away.”
Don’t: Try to recycle styrofoam
“Polystyrene (commonly referred to as styrofoam) containers have to be the number one offender,” Walters said. “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.”
Polystyrene tends to soak in oils, which can greatly increase the risk of contaminating fragile recyclables like paper and cardboard if it’s mistakenly placed in the recycling bin. Toss those foam containers in the trash and choose non-polystyrene food and beverage vessels whenever possible.
“Polystyrene foam food and beverage containers are among the worst materials to use for throw-away containers,” Goldstein said. “Their brittle composition means that often break up into tiny pieces when discarded. They are difficult to clean up, are flushed down storm drains and often end up in local rivers and streams, where they pose a threat to fish and other wildlife.”
Do: Recycle the standards
Paper, cardboard, metal cans and plastic containers labeled with a #1 or #2 are probably accepted no matter where you live, according to Walters.
Most programs accept clean, empty paper bags and boxes (not aluminum or wax papers), empty cans, empty glass bottles without lids, empty plastic cups and tubs without lids and clean aluminum trays, Schussler noted.
Still, it’s important to research your local guidelines for confirmation.
Don’t: Put your plastic utensils in the recycling bin
Plastic utensils generally can’t go in your recycling bin due to unique challenges involving the shapes and materials, so it’s best to just specify that you don’t want utensils included in your takeout order.
“Most municipal recycling programs don’t want them,” Goldstein said. “To cut back on throw-away plastic utensils, local governments are enacting laws that allow for plastic throw-away utensils from restaurants only on request. These laws should be adopted everywhere. They cut the amount of plastic garbage generated and they save money for restaurant owners who don’t have to provide unneeded utensils to every customer.”
Schussler noted that more and more disposable utensils are compostable, but that they still have to be disposed of in a certain way.
“If you live in a city that collects compost, you can compost items designed to degrade, but do not try to compost them in backyard composting and do not put compostable plastics in recycling,” she said.
Do: Invest in reusable chopsticks
Wooden chopsticks are another single-use product that generates waste, environmental damage and extra costs to restaurants and customers. They have to go in the trash because they are difficult to sort in recycling machinery and can clog up equipment, Walters said.
But there’s an even better solution.
“It’s easy to keep a reusable pair of chopsticks in a backpack, purse or desk drawer,” Goldstein said. “Most chopsticks are made in China, tens of billions a year, and are contributing to deforestation there. Reusable wooden or plastic chopsticks make much more sense.”
Don’t: Try to recycle those paper takeout containers
Paper takeout containers, like the classic oyster pails from Chinese restaurants or those brown containers, are not recyclable due to the aforementioned “waterproof” coating that prevents food from leaking all over the place.
“Throw them out,” Schussler advised. “This coated paper will do less harm in the landfill than it will do good in recycling.”
Do: Return plastic bags to special facilities
As for the plastic bags your takeout comes in, you’ll have to turn to special recycling programs at grocery stores and other establishments.
“Clean, empty plastic bags don’t belong in household recycling,” Schussler said. “But they can be taken to store take-back programs so they can be made into new bags, plastic lumber or decking, etc.”
Don’t: Assume recycling is the only answer
Recycling the accepted takeout containers in your community is a good step toward reducing waste. But it’s even better to cut back on our use of such containers by taking them only when necessary and opting for reusable containers whenever possible.
“While the plastics industry has gone to great expense in its efforts to convince Americans that recycling throw-away plastics is the best answer, in most instances that simply isn’t the case,” Goldstein said. “Indeed, the next generation will thank us if we take simple steps to cut back on the enormous amount of throw-away plastic junk we are using and discarding every day from coast to coast. That would result in less litter, reduced water and air pollution, and would deprive the climate-destroying fossil fuel industry of a major income stream ― the manufacturing of single-use plastics.”