Michael Tanguay

By: Michael Tanguay on January 22nd, 2020

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Which Common Food Packaging Products are Recyclable: A Business’ Guide

When it comes to product disposal, understanding what foodservice packaging products are recyclable can play a big role in satisfying your customers and lowering your environmental footprint.

It is important to understand the disposal options of the materials you are purchasing so your business can meet your sustainability goals and exceed customer demands. 

For many, recycling begins with looking for a product’s recycling symbol and ends with putting the product in the recycling bin. But, just because a plastic or paper product can be recycled doesn’t mean it is widely accepted by your commercial hauler.

Below, we will review the common types of disposable foodservice products and whether they can be recycled.

Can I Recycle Plastic Utensils?

Loose CutleryIt depends. Cutlery can be made from a variety of different materials.

Today, most disposable plastic utensils are made from either polypropylene or hard polystyrene, also known as plastic number 5 and 6, respectively.

In general, polystyrene and polypropylene are recyclable, but you should check your local commercial hauler to see if they accept plastic utensils.

Even if the specific plastic number or Resin Identification Code (RIC) is accepted, the size of plastic utensils makes them difficult for recycling machinery to handle.

Because of that, most plastic utensils are either placed in a landfill or are incinerated.

Are Straws Recyclable?

Single-use straws are commonly made from plastic, paper, or PLA.

StrawsSingle-Use Plastic Straws

Plastic straws are made of polystyrene or polypropylene. Although these plastics are recyclable, plastic straws made from polypropylene or polystyrene are not typically accepted by curbside recycling programs.

Pro Tip: Municipalities that do accept plastic straws for recycling likely have a hard time separating them due to sorting inefficiencies. Plastic straws are too small and lightweight, which can cause damage to the machine or contaminate other recycling loads. Therefore, in most cases, single-use plastic straws are not accepted for recycling. 

Always check with your commercial hauler to see if they are currently accepting plastic straws before discarding.

Paper Straws

Paper straws are recyclable. Always check with your commercial hauler to see if they are currently accepting paper straws in your area.

Compostable StrawPLA Straws

These straws are often confused with plastic straws. PLA straws look, feel, and perform similar to plastic straws, but they are not recyclable. 

PLA or polylactic acid is made from corn resin. Corn is a renewable resource that helps make PLA more sustainable than plastic, which is made from petroleum.

 

Are Plastic Cups Recyclable?

Plastic cups are generally made from foam, polyethylene, polystyrene, or polypropylene.

Polyethylene (PET)

PET is made from plastic number one. It is widely accepted for recycling.

Polypropylene (PP)

PP plastics, or plastic number five, are becoming increasingly accepted by curbside recycling programs.

Pro Tip: All plastic cups must be empty, rinsed, and dried before recycling.

Foam

Foam cups are made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), a type of polystyrene (plastic #6).

Styrofoam cups are not recyclable.

Polystyrene (PS)

Hard polystyrene cups, similar to foam (expanded polystyrene) are not recyclable.

Are Drink Lids Recyclable?

Juice with Paper StrawsMost cup lids are made from plastic, but the type of plastic will determine if it can be recycled or not.

Lids made from polystyrene, plastic number 6, will not be accepted. 

Lids can also be made from PET or PLA. 

PET lids are recyclable, but due to their size may not be accepted in all curbside recycling programs. Check with your local commercial hauler. 

Cup lids made from PLA, polylactic acid, are not recyclable but they are compostable.

Are Paper Cups Recyclable?

Paper cups are not typically accepted for curbside recycling.

Why Can’t You Recycle Paper Coffee Cups?

Although paper is recyclable, most single-use paper cups are coated with polyethylene to create an impermeable liner that keeps it from leaking. This liner is difficult and expensive to reprocess because the materials have to be separated from the cup, so most facilities will not accept paper cups.

Keep in mind that not all paper cups are coated in plastic. Some can be lined with wax to create the same barrier so that the liquid or beverage doesn't leak or seep through the paper. If your cup is coated in wax, you might be able to compost it, through a commercial composting facility.

Pro Tip: Coffee cup sleeves are recyclable. Even though paper cups are generally not recyclable, the coffee cup sleeve likely is.

Are Take Out Containers Recyclable?

Plastic to-go containers are a staple in many restaurants and other foodservice operations today. Take-out containers are made from a wide-variety of materials.

PET

Clear, hard to-go food containers are commonly made out of plastic number 1. PET is widely accepted for recycling. Rinse the container before discarding.

Aluminum Pan LasagnaAluminum

Aluminum containers are recyclable after being washed.

Polypropylene

These containers are durable and are typically reusable. Most facilities accept polypropylene for recycling.

Foam or Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)

Takeout boxes can be made from styrofoam. Styrofoam containers are not accepted for curbside recycling.

What About Other Take Out Containers?

Other disposable takeout containers can be made from compostable materials.

Do not recycle containers labeled “compostable” because they will be sorted out of recycling.

Common compostable materials include:

  • Molded Fiber
  • Bagasse
  • PLA

Are Trays Recyclable?

Food trays can be made from several different types of recyclable materials including aluminum, PET, or high density polyethylene (plastic #2).

Trays are not recyclable if they are made from molded fiber, polystyrene, or coated paper.

Can Plastic Bags Be Recycled?

Trinity Plastics Reusable Plastic T-Sack Bag 11.5 x 7 x 21 2.25mil

Plastic grocery bags or single-use plastic bags are typically made from high-density polyethylene (plastic number 2) or low-density polyethylene (plastic number 4). 

Both types of plastic are recyclable, but plastic bags are typically not accepted in curbside recycling bins.

Plastic bags are not usually accepted because they are not easily separated when placed in curbside bins. Additionally, they can damage the equipment in recycling facilities.

Pro Tip: How To Recycle Plastic Bags?

Single-use plastic bags should be deposited at recycling facilities or special drop-off locations like grocery stores, where the bags will be collected and recycled separately.

Plastic bags must be clean and dry before recycling.

Check out this website to find a location to recycle your plastic bags.

Can You Recycle Plastic Wrap?

CERTO Foodservice Film Wrap Plastic wrap also known as foodservice film or plastic cling wrap, is a thin, widely used plastic film. It is commonly used in restaurants, catering businesses, and supermarkets, for wrapping and sealing food in containers to protect the food product from contamination and to delay spoilage.

Plastic wrap can be made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC) categorized as plastic number 3 or low-density polyethylene (LDPE, plastic number 4).

Although some municipalities may accept these plastics, wraps are not accepted curbside. Like plastic bags, plastic wrap will likely jam the machinery.


Final Thoughts

Understanding the proper disposal of the single-use products in your foodservice operation will allow you to reduce your environmental footprint, meet rising sustainability concerns from consumers, and lower your disposal costs.

Our Foodservice Specialists are experts in helping customers understand the full product lifecycle. Contact an EBP Specialist to review your current foodservice program today.

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About Michael Tanguay

Michael Tanguay is a Sales Representative for EBP Supply Solutions, with over 25 years of experience in helping customers tackle their foodservice packaging and commercial cleaning challenges. Since 2012, he has specialized in sustainable foodservice packaging alternatives to help customers increase their food and beverage sales while being more environmentally conscious, and customizing cleaning and sanitation programs using green cleaning products to help lessen their company’s environmental footprint.