The First (and Last) Thing You Should Do Before Recycling Any Food Container

published Dec 7, 2021
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I don’t need to tell you how important it is to properly recycle when you can; the calls to slow the worsening climate crisis are reminder enough. And while curbing consumption and emissions is certainly an issue that both corporations and individuals should prioritize, it’s worth it to do your part: The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the average person in the United States generates about 4.9 pounds of trash per day, which is pretty shocking to think about.

Recycling can help keep plastics out of the ocean, conserve resources, and help prevent pollution, but in order to keep your items flowing through the recycling process, you need to do your part — and that means more than just tossing those takeout containers or glass bottles in a bag or at the curb and hoping for the best. Before you recycle an empty jelly jar or ball of aluminum foil, here are the steps you should take and the important tips you should know.

First things first: It’s important to understand your area’s recycling rules and regulations before doing any recycling whatsoever. You may be able to recycle certain items in one zip code and not in another.

The First Thing You Should Do: Look Into Your Local Recycling Laws

“Recycling options will vary depending upon where you live and your local service provider,” explains Jared Pobre, the founder of Caldera + Lab. “What items are okay for curbside pick-up may differ significantly from items accepted at the recycling center.” You should be able to find more information regarding rules for your region online.

When you have a better understanding of what can be recycled in your area, put those learnings to work when you’re shopping. “Once you know which items are recyclable in your community, you can begin to be more conscious about the items you buy and the packaging surrounding those products,” Pobre says. “Then be sure to follow through with the second step of the recycling relay and dispose of the packaging appropriately.”

Because, sure, you can have the best of intentions with your recycling pile, but that doesn’t mean it’s all going from the curb to the facility and being transformed into something else. In fact, a lot of it doesn’t get recycled at all, so it’s important to know which plastics are easy to recycle — and which pose a challenge.

“Most plastic isn’t actually recycled. While the majority of paper and glass that go in your bin are repurposed, over 90 percent of plastic is not,” says Natalie Lennick, an environmental activist and the founder of Green Ablutions haircare. As Lennick explains, there are several different types of plastic that can be recycled, but your local plant may not be set up to or interested in recycling one or more of them. She cites black plastic, which is often used for takeout containers, as one that is “almost never recyclable” because it’s made from other “imperfect plastics” and then dyed.

“Optical sensors used to sort recycling often don’t recognize black pigments and these items ultimately end up in the landfill,” Lennick explains. If you can, wash and reuse these containers for leftovers or find other uses for them, like storing craft supplies or pet food on the go.

Even if your plastic items are recycled, it doesn’t mean they’ll continue to be used forever in an infinite loop of use and reuse. “Recycled plastics have a lower integrity than their virgin counterparts. Each time plastic is recycled it reduces the quality of the resulting material,” Lennick shares. “After one or two trips through this process the material is useless. This is why you don’t see a shampoo bottle becoming another shampoo bottle. Instead, it might become building materials like decking or a park bench.”

The Last Thing You Should Do: Clean Your Container Up

If you’re confident your item can be recycled, do your due diligence and make sure it’s in optimal condition for recycling. This usually means thoroughly washing out any food remnants and letting the item dry fully. 

“Materials that are sent for recycling should be clean and dry,” says Lennick. “Your provider may have other specific requirements regarding removal of lids or separation of materials that can aid in the recycling process.” If items are wet or dripping food residue when tossed in a bag or curbside bin, they can potentially impact paper and cardboard and render those items unable to be recycled as well. The oily residue from a greasy pizza box or peanut butter jar can easily soak through paper items, so be sure to separate these items from other recyclables.

Lennick recommends checking out Earth911 to learn how and where to drop hard-to-recycle materials such as foil bags and wrappers, especially after the holiday season. For example, your local grocery store or Target may accept plastic bags or padded plastic mailers for recycling — all you need to do is drop them off.

It may be painful to throw an item away if you’re unsure of its recyclability, but Lennick says that it can potentially save many other items in the stream. “When in doubt, throw it out. Not everything can be recycled,” she says. “Wish-cycling non-recyclable materials into the waste stream could possibly contaminate an entire batch of recycling down the line causing further harm.”

And remember: Use only what you need.

Another way to reduce the need to recycle is to reduce your consumption entirely. “Minimize the amount of packaging you bring into your home so you’ll have less waste to worry about,” says Lennick. Consider asking your go-to takeout spot to skip the napkins and plastic cutlery with your order. When you’re entertaining, opt for reusable or compostable dinnerware and cutlery. These small steps can make a difference.

This post originally appeared on Apartment Therapy. See it there: The First — and Last — Thing You Should Do Before Recycling Any Food Container