Recycling To-Go Plastics

Burger and fries portion in foam takeout food box

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 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

Related articles
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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  1. This is a really good article, and I’m linking to it in my blog post (tomorrow) about plastic food containers. However, I thought your statement that most local recycling programs don’t accept plastic bags seemed a bit misleading. Perhaps the area where I live is the exception rather than the rule, but our local program does accept plastic bags. They even say on the county web site that if you have any doubt as to whether an item is recyclable, it’s better to put it in the recycling bin and let them sort it out than to just trash it. I would suggest that your readers check their local county recycling program details online (my county has lots of info on their web site) before deciding not to recycle certain items.

  2. It’s true that these kinds of take out materials are hard to avoid. You have a good breakdown here, but it would really benefit from some more information about what kinds of materials are or are not recycled regionally.

  3. I would like to throw out an idea, I have been writing a blog in which plastic and how to avoid it is a major part. I take issue with the statement that fast food containers are inevitable. No they are not.

    Bring your own container, it actually works. When the Subway guy is at the paper stage of the deal, tell them you don’t want a plastic bag. Bring an old metal fork, knife and spoon to work, and a set to keep in your car. Bring a container for leftovers when you eat out. Easy once you start to think about it. Actively refuse to take Styrofoam, and tell the business why. Write to companies, it couldn’t hurt.

  4. Personally, I return the plastic bags to the cashier or bagger when the items I just purchased are easy enough for me to carry or fit inside my wallet or bag. They give me that clueless look and I just smile and tell them I don’t need the plastic. Seriously, why do retailers need to bag tiny items like medicines?

    And this site is awesome. I can’t believe US has this kind of program – it’s educating its people about which types of plastics can be recycled! Here in the Philippines, there aren’t any recycling facilities open everyday where citizens can drop off their clean plastics (or even cardboards). They are collected together WITH the garbage and so even if we segregate our trash and tell them specifically that this bag is for recyclable materials, the collectors just throw everything into the pile still. And of course by that time our recyclable boxes and plastics become soiled with the rest of the garbage in the truck! Nevertheless, this site has given me inspiration to require our local government to provide recycling centers.

  5. This is a good article. Very informative.

    The best thing you can do for expanded polystyrene foam is to ask the restaurant or coffee-shop to stop carrying them. Suggest they consider using the biodegradable and/or compost-able alternatives.

    As for plastic bags, simply carry a reusable with you, on your bike or in your car at all times.

  6. Thanks Amanda for your informative article. I appreciate your knowledge, and was particularly interested in the fact that polystyrene packaging is 97% air. That means it’s only 3% solid matter! This, in turn, means we are getting a lot of use from a little bit of resource mass. Plus, given the fact that polystyrene can be upcycled/recycled into long term use products like house moldings and picture frames, it sounds like a good way to avoid cutting down trees for those building items. Cleaning the polystyrene is pretty easy compared to cardboard alternatives, so the planet’s lungs (trees) are left alone once again. I don’t feel guilty about polystyrene products, I just make sure that they are part of a loop, so that the small amount of natural resources (3%) that I do use in any polystyrene product is put into a stream of long term products for which there is demand in the market. Between my home and school, I have arranged for approximately 500-600 foodservice trays daily to be part a loop whose “end-product ” is currently on sale at Home Depot in the form of waterproof kitchen and bathroom molding. Since homes have a pretty long usage record, I can feel good about how I’ve used my 3%.

    The trouble that I see with some of the biodegradable alternatives is that their next step is as soil/compost. Is there actually big enough market/need for compost to offset the eco-cost (byproducts of manufacturing and transport) of these alternatives? It’s hard to know which way everything will go as we try to change our societal ways in order to keep a better balance with nature, but I will continue to use 97% air to hold my school lunch and to-go leftovers. It is just one weekly errand to upcycle it into another useful product. I even wonder, given the weight/mass of alternative products, does their transport use more petroleum than the polystyrene anyway. We may not be able to completely mimic nature and get down to 0% trash, but we can be sure that whatever we do use has another “life” in recycled or upcycled form. At this point, any new cardboard product looks more like an enemy to the environment than my foam lunch tray. I’m proud of the loop I’m in, and will continue to create and find recycling loops for any plastic that I buy or use.

  7. The last time I checked, styrofoam was not recyclable. It can be reduced to a noxious gunk which then must be stored forever unless it is illeagally dumped somewhere. I will not eat at a restaurant or get a fountain drink in a convenience store that has styro cups unless they will let me bring my own plastic cup. Most will. We use several billion styro cups every day in the US.

  8. This is a great article. However, I agree with Mary Jones, Mary and Louella.

    The hardest thing to do is clean something up. If we didn’t use crazy plastics or polystyrene foam in the first place there wouldn’t be a reason to go out of our way to recycle them. We should say no to those plastics and helping others to say no as well.

    Alone we can’t change much but together people can change the world.

    Nevertheless, awesome article Amanda. c:

  9. Check with the resturant,some let you bring in your own take out containers,others are now using other styles,like paper.Depending on what state you live in,most Walmarts amd Whole Foods take back plastic bags.I live in Austin,Texas and we can recycle all plastics from #1- #7,all meatls and all color of glass in one bin.It also takes all forms of paper and cardboard,but no foam or plastic bags.The local grocery store HEB takes plastic bags and even has a recyling program in the schools,so the schools can make money from plastic bags,they pay 10 cents per pound.I think that’s pretty good.
    The best thing to remember is it all starts with you a the store,THINK,if I buy this can I recycle this.

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