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If you’re like me, you’ve been ordering more takeout than ever and, hopefully, wondering which takeout containers can be recycled and how to properly recycle pizza boxes, Chinese containers, and plastic clamshells. We talked to an expert in the field and got the skinny on takeout container recycling so you stay clean and green during quarantine.

It has been a big year for takeout, one of the few things keeping some of our favorite restaurants afloat. It’s also the ultimate saving grace on those evenings when cooking a meal feels about as possible as dragging a Dodge Stratus up Mount McKinley. While many of us are cooking more than ever in quarantine, ordering out is also on the rise. It’s been estimated that the food delivery sector could see an increase of more than $4 billion in 2020 from 2019. That’s a lot of seaweed salad, garlic knots, and, unfortunately, a lot of waste, too. 

team greenThe Biggest Recycling Mistake You're MakingWith all this extra takeout comes even bigger piles of containers which are already a scourge on the planet. Although some U.S. cities have implemented bans on types of materials and plastic bags that aren’t recyclable, most haven’t. Knowing how to properly dispose of these containers can help recycling operations run more smoothly.

Jeremy Walters is the sustainability ambassador for Republic Services, the second-largest recycling collector in the U.S. As a passionate environmentalist and advocate for recycling, he kindly shared some of his top tips to help you become a more efficient recycler of takeout and delivery containers.

First and foremost is knowing what you can and can’t recycle. This may vary slightly depending on where you live so check with your local sanitation department.  When recycling any takeout containers, make sure they are as clean as possible. Residual food waste, especially grease, can cause a material to become unrecyclable. 

What Can’t Be Recycled

Polystyrene foam containers: These foam containers (aka Styrofoam) are some of the most used for takeout and delivery, so it’s likely you’ve seen them. Unfortunately, they are NOT recyclable and must be thrown out.

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We all know it’s a tough time for restaurants, but it’s a tough time for the planet too. If you feel comfortable enough to tell your local takeout joint that you’d appreciate them using one of the many cheap, environmentally friendly alternatives to Styrofoam, you should. You could also send a polite, anonymous email saying how much you love the food while making one small request on behalf of planet Earth. 

Black Plastic Containers: These are another popular choice for restaurants, and while they are often made from recycled materials—making them at least somewhat eco-friendly—they can’t be recycled and must be tossed. Recycling plant sorting technology just hasn’t caught up to these materials yet.

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Plastic Utensils:Unfortunately, not everything made of plastic is recyclable, and recycling plastic utensils is completely dependent on your local facility, so check with your service provider. Even better, when you place your order let them know you don’t need any plastic silverware.

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Plastic Bags: Your food is often delivered in plastic bags, but they aren’t recyclable at all and can cause harm to your local recycling facilities. To dispose of plastic bags, return them to the store where you got them, or throw them in the trash. Better yet, don’t use them and request a paper bag instead.

Related Reading: Meal Prep Containers That Will Get You Excited to Make Lunch

Paper Plates and Napkins: These are not recyclable when soiled with food and liquid, so opt for reusable or biodegradable disposable serving ware instead.

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Pizza Boxes: In theory, corrugated cardboard can be recycled, but not when it’s soiled with oil and cheese. Happy medium: Take the top portion of the box if it’s free from oil and recycle that with your cardboard. The bottom half will most likely need to be trashed. 

Chinese Containers: This is another type of container that, in theory, could be recycled but because oil often seeps into the cardboard you are likely better off throwing them away.

What Can be Recycled

Plastic Clamshell Containers: These clear plastic takeout containers can be recycled and should be whenever possible. 

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Paper or Cardboard Containers and Clamshells: These are often made from recycled materials and can be recycled themselves. Some are even biodegradable and compostable as long as they are thoroughly cleaned and haven’t soaked up any grease. Even ones that aren’t recyclable are far less toxic than plastic or Styrofoam when being processed, burned, or buried. 

Related Reading: These Products Were All Made Using Recycled Water Bottles

Aluminum Containers: You know the ones you can never get to close as tightly as the restaurant did the first time no matter how much you pinch? Yeah, those are recyclable as long as they’re clean.

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Paper Bags: Many restaurants send their orders in large paper bags and those absolutely can and should be recycled or reused. Plastic bags, on the other hand, famously cannot be.

Header image courtesy of Mohamad Ridzuan Abdul Rashid / EyeEm / Getty Images.

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