Is Food Packaging Really Recyclable?

In London, a study by the Local Government Association found that up to 40 percent of the packaging in grocery stores is not easily recyclable and that every ton of garbage that isn’t recycled costs £32 (about $46) in disposal costs for the council.

While no formal study on grocery packaging has been done in the U.S., the EPA says that packaging (mostly paper) makes up about 32 percent of household trash. This does not account for any paper that is being recycled or composted.

The report raises several questions about the recyclability of products, including what packaging is not recyclable at all and what packaging is not “easily recyclable.” In the case of paper, while over 80 percent of American homes have access to curbside recycling that collects paper, that doesn’t mean all paper packaging will be accepted.

As far as what is “not recyclable” from your food packaging, here are a few examples:

  • Individual candy wrappers or potato chip bags with a mylar lining
  • Any plastic bags that used to package food
  • Cardboard or paperboard with oil stains from food (e.g., pizza boxes)

One idea that has gained appeal in the U.S. is precycling, where a shopper thinks about the recyclability of packaging while at the store. You can use to find out if recycling options for specific packaging are available in your area.

Feature image courtesy of Miranda

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Trey Granger


  1. I contiue to be frustrated with our curbside recycling organiation (Waste Management)—they ban all materials (paper, plastic, etc) that are involved in food packaging. That seems ridiculous me. Could you give me some insight as to what IS recyclable with regard to food product packaging…I think they could be a little more accommodating.

    thanks and thank you for all you do to educate and promote.

  2. At our recycling facility in Waukesha, WI we take boxboard that is not waxed (so we accept cereal boxes and the box that aluminum cans come in but we cant take your ice cream container or the paper milk or juice boxes). Oil stained boxes (like the pizza box example) can be composted. The oils and the wax are not easily recyclable down the line… Precycling is a great option as well as reducing garbage via buying in bulk.

  3. Author

    A general rule is that any metals, plastic with a number inside a recycling symbol and non-food stained paper “is” recyclable. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be able to recycle it locally, as every program is different. The best way to find out what is accepted is to type the product in our recycling search engine:

  4. I have found one use for pizza boxes. First, scrape or pull off any food bits, then flatten boxes. I use them in my garden to kill weeds. Just cover ground area with layer or two of boxes, weight with rocks, and let nature take its course. The boxes will eventually compost in place and you can plant right over them. It’s similar to a technique called “lasagna gardening” I saw on a PBS show(I think it was The Victory Garden). I try to remove as much food first to keep away neighborhood pets.

  5. Thank you for the good idea on pizza box composting, i am always looking for a great way to use everything before getting rid of it. And now i also know not to throw the pizza boxes in with the recyclables….. our local curbside pickup doesn’t mention this on their website…

  6. I am so glad to have stumbled across this site. I look forward to following tips and feedback, and reading everything on the site.

  7. Hi,

    We ran across your site and i have some ideas to share about “Biodegradable Packaging” it offers eco friendly, non toxic and sustainable products. This products design to decompose quickly, completely and safe without leaving any residues. Its 100% no harm to human and enviroment.

    Thanks, we’ll come back often.

    Thanks again,

    Oceans Green

  8. The fact is that numbering on plastics/paper/cardboard etc is so damn small & unreadable that it all goes in the landfill. We now, in the UK, have a kwango called WRAP that is getting a fortune to replicate what Agenda21 / Wildlife Trusts/Greenpeace/150+ PlasticBagfree communitys across the UK and they only have 21 companies signed to some tenuous agreement.
    Yes,we are using plastic bags but hat was down to a smashing girl called Rebecca Hosking & the village of Modbury. The UK WILL be PBF [plasticbagfree] within TWO years.
    you saw it here first.
    Please note that SEPT 12th is being marked as a UK PBF Day and many of us hope it’ll be made into an International PBF Day. Mail the writer for more UK info. Please allow me to make my precious grandchildrens lives worth living for the next 75 years.

  9. In the Twin Cities, we have a program called its in the Bag ( that recycles many of the plastic bags used for food, as long as they are clean.

    Aveda (the cosmetics company) also recently had a program that recycled the plastic tops from bottles. The program was extended pasts its original April 2009 deadline, but I am unsure if it still continues (although I am still saving lids!)

  10. Regarding pizza boxes, usually the top of the box is not soiled, so I take that off and am able to recycle that at least.

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