Recycling Mystery: Black-Colored Plastic

food packaging in black-colored plastic

Black-colored plastic gets its color from carbon black pigment and is commonly used in food containers like meat or produce trays and take-out, as well as for disposable coffee lids, plastic bags, and hard plastic items like DVD cases and planters. While plastic is one of the categories of things that we are encouraged to recycle — when we can’t reuse or repurpose it — not all black plastic items can be recycled.

Before we look at the do’s and don’ts of recycling black-colored plastic, here are a few general recycling reminders:

  • Always follow local recycling rules. Recycling programs vary by location.
  • If you have questions about local recycling rules, check with your town or wherever you take your recycling.
  • If you’re not sure if an item can be recycled, don’t put it in the recycling bin. Putting items in your bin that your local program doesn’t accept can cause significant harm and increase recycling costs.

What Makes Black-Colored Plastic Different?

  • Clear, white, and light-colored plastics are the most profitable to recyclers because they can be recycled into a variety of different colored plastics. Black plastic — which can only be recycled into other black plastic items — reduces a batch’s value.
  • Some black plastic is made using electronic waste, which contains toxic materials — not good if the recycled plastic is used to make food containers.
  • Optical sorting machines don’t see black items, which creates more work and expense for the recycler because black plastic items must be hand sorted.

Can You Put It In Your Curbside Bin?

  • DON’T put black plastics in your curbside recycling bin unless you have clear guidance that they are accepted. If you can’t reuse or repurpose these items, put them in the trash.
  • DO try to avoid buying items packaged in black plastic.

What About Black Plastic Bags and Film Wrap?

  • DO include black plastic bags, plastic film, and plastic wrap in the plastic-bag recycling you drop off at participating supermarkets and other locations. Because plastic bags and film can jam sorting machinery, they aren’t generally sorted by machine so the color isn’t a problem. (This is also why bags shouldn’t go in your curbside bin.)
  • But DON’T drop off black plastic bags unless they meet all of the plastic bag and film recycling requirements, which include “stretchy,” clean, and dry.

Deposit Plastic Beverage Containers

To date, I haven’t seen any black-colored plastic deposit containers (water, soda, etc.), but in case you run into some:

  • Liz Philpott, public relations and BottleDrop Give program coordinator for Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, says, “All our machines and equipment can handle black plastic containers, although there aren’t many for beverages. What we probably see most of is black plastic bottle caps — which, on the plastic bottles, we can take.”
  • If you are using deposit-bottle “reverse vending machines” to return plastic bottles, the machines will take what they take, and reject what they don’t take.

General Advice and Looking Ahead

There’s work on better sorters, new black and alternative-color dyes, and different materials. For now, your strategy should be to avoid using black-colored plastics. Let businesses know that you would prefer that they use plastic that you can recycle locally. Try to shop at places that don’t use black plastic, but instead:

  • Use non-black plastic, like white coffee lids.
  • Use compostable/biodegradable plastics for food trays, etc. But note that these items often require the high temperature of commercial composting facilities and won’t compost in your backyard compost pile. If you do have curbside compost pickup, confirm that your program accepts these items before you put them in your compost bin.
  • Offer/support reusable alternatives, such as mugs and bags.
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