What to do About Takeout Food Containers

For those of us who take advantage of takeout food options in our area, but worry about the impact of the containers ending up in landfills, it can be daunting to know what to do. Even the co-owner of a local restau- rant complains that she knows some of their takeout containers are not recyclable, but she’s at a loss to find recyclable ones that are cost-effective and can hold the wet stuff. “It’s perplexing,” she says.

Recycling is perplexing. You may have read that very little of the plastic people put in their recycling bins ac- tually gets recycled. The National Academy of Science estimates that each person in the U.S. throws away on average 287 pounds of plastic waste each year, and a recent EPA estimate says that, at best, only about six percent of that gets recycled. Plastic takes centuries to degrade - if it does at all - and vast amounts of particulates end up in our oceans. So what’s a lover of takeout to do?

Don’t despair. Turns out Rockland County is in a better position than the national data might suggest. Jennifer Sheridan, Assistant Waste Educator at Rockland Green, the company that picks up recycling in Rockland County, says that all acceptable plastic collected in our county gets recycled. That includes heavier grade plastics such as the black bottom half of many takeout containers. Sheridan says these heavier grade plastics are purchased by com- panies that make PVC pipe, as well as composite deck- ing and building materials. She couldn’t name specific buyers, but Charlotte Pipe, a large PVC manufacturer with plants around the country does indeed sell PVC pipe made from recycled plastics.

Also, according to Sheridan, Rockland Green does not pay attention to the number system designating what grade of plastic a container is made from. (This is the triangle of arrows chasing each other with a number in the middle.) She says that once the plastic enters Rockland Green’s Hillburn Materials Recovery Facility human “pickers” separate out anything visibly dirty, wet, toxic, or too small to be processed such as bottle caps, lids and the like. The rest, we’re told, gets recycled. And, Sheridan is quick to add that no material is sold to China or other countries overseas.

So…here are some tips to ensure that takeout containers really do get recycled and don’t end up in landfills.

CLEAN IT: The recycling process starts with sorting out anything that’s contaminated by food. If a container is not well-rinsed and free of food residue, it goes to the landfill. This applies to take out containers in particular. Rinse them well!

DO NOT BAG IT: Items in plastic garbage bags, even clear ones, are not opened to be sorted. They go directly to the landfill.

SIZE IT: Items smaller than 2” x 2” can gum up the machinery. This applies to small plastic sauce cups frequently included with takeout orders. They are NOT recyclable.

BE INFORMED: Plastic cutlery, coffee cups, used chopsticks, coated paper food containers, and styrofoam of any kind are NOT recyclable. Containers described as compostable plastic are NOT recyclable. Compressed paper food containers described as biodegradable are NOT recyclable. Eco plastic; containers made from plastic that degrades faster than conventional plastic, are a conundrum. Sheridan says they are plastic and get recycled, other sources say they do not. This may be one instance where “wish-cycling” might apply. Rinse them and put them in the bin with the hope that Sheridan is correct.

And of course, how can we talk about takeout without mentioning pizza? According to Sheridan, Rocklanders can toss their pizza boxes into the recycling bin - even those with a small amount of grease! So, go ahead, order that takeout, but do the planet a favor - empty and rinse all takeout containers before you toss them in the bin.