Plastic Bags, Coffee Cups, Meal Kit Packaging: What To Do With Hard to Recycle Items

by Katherine Sacks

Published: 3/29/22, Last updated: 4/07/22

When it comes to recycling, most folks know to sort their plastic and paper, thanks to the blue and green plastic sorting bins given out by their municipal departments. But beyond the basics of cardboard boxes and plastic water bottles, there can be quite a lot of confusion about what goes where and whether or not certain items are even recyclable at all.

For instance, despite its cardboard-like appearance, biodegradable paper food packaging can’t go into the paper recycling stream. And things like plastic bags and plastic wrap shouldn’t be tossed into the curbside plastic bin. When they are put into the recycling stream, they junk up machinery and contaminate waste streams. Unfortunately, this is pretty common: one in four items tossed into the recycling bin isn’t actually recyclable.

And some items can stupify even the savviest recycler: things like paper coffee cups, bread bags, plastic wrap and freezer packs. While it might surprise you, these and many other items can be recycled, they just need to be brought to drop-off sites or are only recyclable in certain areas. Instead, they often get tossed into the garbage, eventually ending up in landfills where they break down into ever smaller pieces and where toxins leach into waterways and the soil. Microscopic pieces of plastic have been found in all corners of the Earth, from human feces and the bellies of marine animals to packaged grocery store ingredients like rice and beer.

On a household level, the best thing we can do to reduce plastic waste is to cut back on packaging (by shifting what we buy and how), then reuse the packaging we have as much as possible. (Get our tips for how to do this.) But when you do need to toss things out, taking the time to recycle these items properly helps clean up our waste streams and makes it easier for all recycling facilities to sort and process our trash. A labeling program called  “How2Recycle,” set up by Sustainable Packaging Coalition, breaks it all down into four helpful categories of items: those that are widely recycled, items that you need to check with your local municipality, items that are not currently recyclable and items you can drop-off at a special store collection site.

If an item doesn’t have the “How2Recycle” label, how can we know which of the four categories an item falls into? There are rules that govern these things, says Charlotte Dreizen, sustainability manager at The American Institute of Architects and former project manager at Sustainable Packaging Coalition.

“The Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides govern environmental marketing claims, including recyclability claims and 60 percent is the threshold that they have for unqualified recycling claims,” she says. “Something like a PET bottle [typical plastic water or soda bottle], that’s accepted basically ubiquitously. [For other items,] you need to have a qualified recycling claim because it doesn’t yet meet that 60 percent threshold. The company is supposed to say, ‘recyclable in some communities, check locally.’”

To be better recyclers takes more work. It means reading these labels, sorting separately at home, finding local drop-offs and in some cases, mailing items in. But most of us are making mistakes by throwing recyclable items into the trash or placing items in the recycling bin that need to be sorted separately. One way to reduce your foodprint, and help our waste management system improve, is by taking a few extra steps in these areas. Here are some tips to get you started:

Paper Coffee Cups

An item that causes a lot of confusion is the paper coffee cup. That’s because there isn’t a clear answer. Paper coffee cups fall into that qualified recycling area; they can be recycled in some places, but not all. The best thing you can do is check with your local municipality.

“If you run a pulper, do you want paper cups? No,” says Dr. Martin Mulvihill, chemist, green packaging expert and advisor on the FoodPrint of Food Packaging Report. Paper coffee cups are coated with a plastic liner that, if the system isn’t set up for them, gum up the recycling process, slowing things down and possibly reducing the quality of the recycled paper. And sometimes, says Mulvihill, if too many paper coffee cups or other plastic-lined items end up in the recyclable paper goods stream, the sorter or processer may send a whole batch of materials — including what can be recycled — to the landfill.

That being said, the recycling systems for this type of item are improving. Some facilities can now process paper coffee cups because they process other paper materials with one side of polyethylene (PLA) coating, says Driezen. “Coffee cups, paper coffee cups. [They are] good quality fiber. Totally recyclable in lots of places, not recyclable in all,” she says. “They’re kind of in that “check locally” category that’s what we consider between 20 and 60 percent acceptance in communities nationwide.”

Plastic Wrap and Food Bags

Most everyone knows you can recycle a plastic water bottle. But what about plastic bags or cling wrap? While we prefer to avoid using those things when possible (here are some tips for doing that), they aren’t always avoidable, and there is a lot of plastic that ends up in our kitchens that is recyclable, you just may not know it. In fact, 91 percent of the plastic we produce is never recycled!

In general, things like bread bags, water bottle case plastic, produce bags, Ziploc and other food storage bags, product wrap and other plastics (specifically plastic bags and film labeled with #2 or #4) — things that often end up in the trash — can be taken to drop-off collection bins, found at many grocery, pharmacy and convenience stores. This plastic is recycled and used for items like composite lumber, often turned into outdoor lawn furniture and other landscaping items. “ These plastics definitely make up a huge portion of the total plastic we produce, so if someone isn’t recycling their plastic film at a store drop-off I don’t think, you know, one could consider themselves to be managing their own plastic waste responsibly.”

Check out our plastics code graphic for more information on what plastics are recyclable and which aren’t, and get our tips for reducing this type of plastic in your kitchen in general.

Compostable Plastic

For the most part, “compostable” plastic, aka plant-based plastic, is PET. Usually made of corn or sugarcane, these plastic lookalikes break down similarly to plastic and can be recycled in the same way. Unfortunately, adding confusion, there are some bio-based plastics that are PLA, often used in sealable bags, cutlery and the lining in paper cups. PLA bio-plastics look and feel like regular plastic or other bio-plastic, so they often end up in the recycling stream, slowing down the process and contaminating the end product.

“Because they’re similar chemical structures, PLA can absolutely contaminate PET recycling streams and lower the quality of PET,” says Mulvihill. Also, PLA sent to landfills produces more methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than items that are not made from plant-based materials. It’s also important to note that “compostable” plastic items will not compost in a backyard composter — they need to be broken down under high temperatures — and must be brought to municipal or commercial composters

To recycle these materials properly, check the label. PET items can go into plastic recycling, PLA cannot. And avoid purchasing items with PLA packaging, when possible. For take-out or to-go food served in PLA packaging labeled compostable, find a composting drop-off that accepts these items. 

"If someone isn't recycling their plastic film at a store drop-off I don't think one could consider themselves to be managing their own plastic waste responsibly.”

Charlotte Dreizen

Sustainability Manager at The American Institute of Architects

Compostable Serving Ware

Similarly, compostable bowls, plates and other dining containers, usually made of recycled paper and lined or coated for food use, are also a no-no for recycling bins. “Customers that might buy a [dish] in a molded fiber salad bowl need to take it to a composting facility that can handle it,” says Dreizen. If you buy something that comes in a compostable molded fiber salad bowl, and the restaurant has an onsite compost collection, that’s great. But if the customer takes the dish to-go (which is often the case for items served in molded fiber packaging), you can only compost it if your neighborhood has curbside compost collection.

If you don’t have curbside compost pick-up, or the municipal compost doesn’t accept these containers, they should be processed at a commercial composting facility. This includes takeout containers, coffee cup holders, and other items you may purchase on-the-go, which can turn a convenience purchase into something inconvenient. And unfortunately, when compostable food packaging winds up in landfills, it emits methane as it breaks down, contributing to climate change. “I would never recommend that a restaurant buy and distribute compostable packaging if they didn’t provide collection for it on-site,” says Dreizen. “We see a ton of people doing that and I think it’s crazy. I think there’s no environmental benefit to it. I would rather have a recyclable item.” 

As a consumer, bringing reusable silverware, a reusable coffee cup and choosing to dine-in, when possible, is a greener choice. You can also let restaurants and other outlets know that it’s important to you that they offer a proper collection for these materials.      

Paper Napkins, Plates and More

Clean paper goods like napkins, paper plates, paper bags and pizza boxes, can all be recycled. But once they have food, oils and grease on them, it’s another story. As TFC Recycling discusses in this post, tossing soiled materials into the paper waste stream is a major contaminant, a big no-no. But if you are a die-hard recycler, you can likely cut off the soiled part of a pizza box or lunch bag, and recycle the remaining materials. You can place the soiled parts, such as that messy napkin, into the compost, where the food and paper will break down.

Liquid Cartons

How can Tetra Paks hold oat milk, stock or coconut water without leaking? The soft, shelf-stable boxes are made of numerous layers of different types of materials — 75 percent paper, 20 percent plastic and 5 percent aluminum foil —keeping the liquids safe inside, but also making the packaging hard to process post-use.

“This is a really good example of a package whose recyclability has changed dramatically in recent years,” says Charlotte Dreizen. “Something like an aluminum can, we’ve kind of always been able to recycle from the get-go when recycling programs were first started, but something like a carton was not considered recyclable. In fact, you could really recycle it nowhere.”

Fortunately, this is changing. Eventually, explains Dreizen, sorting and processing infrastructure was established in many cities and facilities, so that Tetra Paks and gable tops (aka milk cartons) can be collected and processed. “It’s not everywhere that you can recycle a Tetra Pak or a carton today, but the majority of places you can,” she says. Research whether your municipality recycles them and/or find carton recycling locations near you.

But if you have a choice between plastic, aluminum or Tetra Pak, Dreizen suggests choosing the plastic or aluminum. “There is higher loss in that process than, let’s say, a normal plastic bottle or a normal paper item or a normal aluminum item,” she explains. “I tend to recommend the plastic bottle or the aluminum can since the circularity is better [guaranteed] than a carton. There’s less loss in that process.”

Meal Kit and Grocery Delivery Packaging

In an effort to be more environmentally friendly, meal kit companies are using all sorts of non-plastic packing materials to cushion their boxes. Sun Basket, a San Francisco-based company that’s working to use 100 percent recyclable or compostable packaging, uses denim insulation for packaging, which they suggest using around the house (yoga bolster, dog bed and sound-absorbing acoustic panels are some suggestions they give. In truth, there are only so many of those items you can have in your house). Otherwise, the items need to be recycled through a fabric recycling program.

Another common food delivery item is freezer packs. Saving a few to reuse is a good idea, but when your freezer is already full of them, they can usually be thawed and the gel inside can either be put down the drain or be used as mulch for the garden or be put into the compost. Make sure to read the instructions properly before disposing of the gel and plastic bag, as each company uses different materials. Take the emptied bags to a drop-off that accepts plastic bags, wrap and film. 

Black Plastic

Recycling enthusiast Moana Mai Sato and Westside Compost, an environmental initiative aimed at educating younger generations on the benefits of composting, teamed up to produce this informative post discussing how recycling scanners work. In general, plastic recycling streams are sorted using infrared sensors, which determine plastic type and then eject what is deemed “not recyclable.” Plastics wrapped in labels, black take-out containers and other colored plastics are often mislabeled and rejected.

“Black plastic really can’t be sorted at recycling facilities because the near-infrared optical sorters at recycling facilities can’t read black plastic,” explains Dreizen. “So they can’t tell what kind of plastic it is from another when they go to sort PET versus HDPE versus polypropylene, that kind of thing. Moana suggests removing wrapper labels before recycling and trying to reuse (or avoid) take-out containers instead of recycling them.

Take Action

The only thing that’s really clear is that recycling is a murky area, one that leaves a lot of responsibility with you, the consumer, to figure it all out. This is, of course, not an ideal system, and it’s why Charlotte Dreizen spends time on Twitter, answering all kinds of questions that people have. Concrete steps for making it easier: learn more about what is recyclable in your area, and figure out where you can drop off harder-to-recycle items.

More than anything, the biggest step you can take is to reduce the amount of plastic in your day-to-day life. While it might not be possible to eliminate plastic entirely, there are simple swaps you can make — including, in some cases just declaring a polite ”no thanks!” We invite you to take the pledge and to be a part of a future of recycling that is better for people and better for the planet.

Top photo by MegWallacePhoto/ Adobe Stock.

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