Recycling To-Go Plastics

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What happens to this packaging after you’ve enjoyed the yummy food inside? Photo: Flickr/Indiewench

Even for the greenest recycling junkie, to-go plastics are sometimes unavoidable. From microwave dinners to Chinese takeout, single-use plastics are everywhere.

The trick is knowing what to do with that ketchup-covered foam clamshell once you’ve devoured your fries. Here’s your guide to recycling your common to-go plastics.

Expanded polystyrene foam

Coffee cups, to-go boxes, foam packaging peanuts, foam crates

Polystyrene foam is widely used because it’s lightweight, easy to ship and works well with both hot and cold food and beverages.

Made from plastic #6, polystyrene foam is comprised of 97 percent air. It is easily carried by wind and water currents to all reaches of our planet, and its unsinkable nature makes it a main component of marine debris.

The main reason curbside programs do not accept polystyrene foam is because after the material is placed in a commingled bin, scooped up on a recycling truck and transported to a facility, it becomes contaminated with dirt and other materials. Because most curbside programs do not wash the material, recyclers have a hard time with it.

There are several community programs that will recycle the material. But if there are no programs that fit your specific needs or are near your location, AFPR offers a mail-in program for consumers. Average shipping fees range from $1.50 to $9, based on the total packaging weight and volume. Since EPS is extremely lightweight, it can be economically shipped to a regional location.

Find local recycling for expanded polystyrene

Plastic #5 containers

Microwave trays, yogurt cups, hummus tubs, cottage cheese containers

Up until recently, most community curbside recycling programs didn’t accept #5 plastics. And while 28 of the 100 largest U.S. cities now collect plastic containers beyond bottles, many areas still do not.

Because #5 has a similar type resin to that of #2 (which is found in soda and water bottles), many reclaimers are starting to find ways to incorporate it into other products. Garbage and recycling bins, water filtration systems, shipping pallets, sheeting and automotive battery casings are just a few of the products that can be made out of recycled polypropylene.

If your community doesn’t have curbside #5 recycling, check out the Preserve Gimme 5 program.

You can either drop your #5 plastic containers off at designated Whole Foods locations or mail them directly to Preserve, where they will be remade into items such as razors, toothbrushes, cutlery and mixing bowls—all of which are fully recyclable.

Find local recycling for plastic #5

Bottle caps

Just by physical touch, you can tell the texture and durability of most plastic bottles is different from their caps. This is because bottles and caps are made from different types of plastics.

Plastic #1 PET, often comprises plastic bottles, while plastic #5 PP makes up the caps. So, what’s the big deal if the bottle is a #1 and the cap is a #5? They’re both plastic right?

It all comes down to the melting point, which has a difference of nearly 160 degrees Fahrenheit between the two. If a cap gets mixed in with bottles, the entire batch may be ruined because there is un-melted plastic in the mix.

To check if your city accepts caps for recycling call or visit the Public Works or Department of Sanitation section of its website. You can also search Earth911.com for plastic #5 or plastic bottle cap recycling locations.

If you’re still short on options, Aveda now accepts #5 plastic bottle caps for recycling at its stores and salons. Any Aveda network salon or store will accept the caps to be made into new Aveda caps.

Find local recycling for bottle caps

Disposable dinnerware

Plastic dishes, cups and cutlery

The average American office worker goes through around 500 disposable cups over the course of 12 months. Americans even toss out enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons every year to circle the equator 300 times.

Much of the common disposable dinnerware, such as plastic utensils, cups and plates, is made from plastic #6. It’s the same resin used to make polystyrene foam, but because these materials are not extremely lightweight, they are easier to recycle.

Find local recycling for plastic #6

Plastic bags

Due to their light weight, most curbside programs do not accept plastic bags. They can easily get stuck inside machinery when recycled as well. Most grocery stores throughout the U.S. now offer plastic bag recycling. The trick is actually remembering to take those excess bags with you next time you go to the store.

Although many consumers reuse plastic bags in their homes for daily tasks such as doggy duty or taking out the trash in the bathroom, recycling your plastic bag will ensure that it won’t eventually end up in the landfill.

Find local recycling for plastic bags

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Inside Plastic Bans
Fresh Tips for Reusing Plastic
Ditch Your Disposables

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. The American Chemistry Council is one of these partners.

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