Plastic utensils are not recyclable. If you’re considering buying any “disposable” with the intention of recycling it, it’s better to choose a reusable or compostable alternative. It’s time to move on from plastic utensils, plates, cups, and bowls — and in some nations, provinces, and states, single use plastics are being phased out through new bans on selling them.

But let’s assume for a minute that you have plastic utensils from take-out restaurants, office lunch parties or numerous other scenarios and want to keep them out of landfills. In theory, these utensils should be recyclable, but several issues likely prevent your local program from accepting them.

1. Inconsistent Materials

In a perfect world, all plastic utensils would be made from the same plastic resin, but that’s simply not the case. The majority of plastic utensils are made of polystyrene (#6 plastic), a plastic most commonly recognized in its expanded, foam form as Styrofoam. Other plastic utensils are made of PET (#1 plastic) or polypropylene (#5 plastic), which have a larger recycling market than polystyrene.

Unfortunately, individual utensils are typically not labelled with a plastic resin number, so you’ll have no way of knowing which plastic you have unless you can refer to the original packaging. Unless your curbside program says it accepts all plastics, leave them out of the recycling bin.

2. Unorthodox Shape

Plastic forks and knives can jam machinery in the MRF and are often considered a top source of contamination.

Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are designed to take everything from your blue bin and sort it by material, then bale and send it off to a recycling company. Baling is much easier for materials that collapse, like aluminum cans, plastic bottles and newspaper.

3. The China Conundrum

Plastic utensils are classified as rigid plastics, just like clamshell packaging, blister packs and yogurt containers. Until 2018, most U.S. curbside programs exported scrap plastics, like utensils and cups, to China. However, China cracked down on the import of plastics, which changed rigid plastic recycling across the United States.

Replace Single-Use With Compostable and Reusable Alternatives

The easiest way to avoid seeking recycling solutions is to change your shopping habits. Look for compostable fiber-based utensils and tableware, or opt for reusable metal utensils and take the time to wash them instead of spending the time in search of recycling — besides they will perform better than plastic forks for your guests. Consider these alternatives.

Earth911 teams up with affiliate marketing partners to help fund our Recycling Directory. If you purchase an item through one of the affiliate links in this post, we will receive a small commission.

250-Piece Compostable Paper Plates Set with Biodegradable Cups, Spoons, and Forks, on Amazon for $24.99.

300-Piece Wooden Compostable Utensils, on Amazon for $21.99.

200-Piece Matana Bamboo Utensils, on Amazon for $12.99

Start your guests on their reuse journey by sharing a reusable set of utensils at your party. Try these TROUSKAIG Reusable Utensil Sets, including chipsticks, which come in packs of four for $7.99.

Whether or not you can recycle plastic utensils will depend on your city, and there are lots of factors that limit the recycling market. If you’re buying plant-based cutlery thinking it can be composted, the jury is still out on whether these products actually break down even under the highest temperatures. Your best bet: Stick to reusable utensils.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article was published on May 25, 2018. It was comprehensively updated in March 2024. 

By Earth911

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