Let's Talk about Plastic: Are My Take-Out Containers All Trash?

Dear Wicked Smart Recycler,
I just found out black plastic isn’t recyclable and my go-to restaurant uses black plastic take-out containers. I want to support local businesses during this critical time. Help! What do I do?
Eco-conscious Foodie

Dear Eco-conscious Foodie,

First off, kudos to you. It’s wonderful that you want to reduce your waste and support local businesses. The good news is, when it comes to more sustainable take-out options, this is not an either/or situation (i.e. either you don’t order take-out or you do and are doomed to a mountain of trash). Here, I’ll walk you through your options for navigating the take-out scene as an eco-conscious foodie.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room – black plastic. Many restaurants are using black plastic take-out containers and you are correct: these are NOT recyclable. The optical sorters at recycling facilities can’t “see” black plastic containers on the black conveyor belts. Even if it’s sorted properly, black plastic is tricky because it cannot be dyed other colors when making new products, limiting its recycling potential. That said, all other color plastic take-out containers –  clear, white, green, purple, orange, rainbow – ARE recyclable. It may be as simple as a conversation with your favorite restaurant to see if they would switch to a different color container.

Now, if we zoom out beyond your immediate concern about black plastic containers, your question touches on an important discussion around the role we all play in the “throw-away culture” which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19. In a recent piece in the Washington Post, food-critic Tom Sietsema shares his frustration with the “mountain of trash” that has gone hand-in-hand with his uptick in takeout and delivery orders since March.

As you are well aware, we are in the middle of a global pandemic. Sustainability may not be top-of-mind for your local restaurant owner who is understandably focused on the health and safety of their employees and customers while adapting to this huge disruption in their operations. However, this doesn’t mean we should just accept single-use disposable food serviceware as the “new normal.” So what should we do?

1.  Know what take-out items can be recycled.
Take-out food serviceware comes in many shapes and sizes (and colors too!). Here is a helpful <1 minute video that will guide you through what is and isn’t recyclable from your next carry out order. Still not sure? Check out the Recyclopedia. One of our amazing Recycle Smart PartnersBrandeis University, has a great Take-Out Guide you can reference as well.

2. Ask restaurants to skip the straws, disposable utensils and condiment packets.
To-go orders traditionally come with disposable utensils, straws, and individual condiment packets so you can eat on-the-go. But since you’re most likely eating at home, do you really need that flimsy plastic fork? Next time you order food to go, ask the restaurant to skip these single-use items.

Unfortunately, many restaurants are switching to disposable foodware even in dine-in settings. There’s a widespread misconception that single use items like disposable utensils and cups are safer than the real thing. Not only are single use plastics not inherently safer than washable dishware (see this statement signed by over 115 health experts), this lays the ground work for a disposable culture. Dr. Ben Locwin, an epidemiologist consulting for the Centers for Disease Control on COVID-19, went as far as to say that restaurants using disposable utensils and cups as a means to reduce transmission of COVID-19 is merely “symbolic theater just for customer ‘optics.’” See “Spread Facts, Not Germs: Businesses Can Do Their Part to Protect Employees, Customers, and The Planet” for more about why this misconception is so problematic.

3. Start up a conversation with your local restaurant owner about greener take-out packaging options.
Many restaurants are receptive to customers’ environmental concerns. We see this with more and more restaurants switching to compostable cups, plates, clamshells and cutlery. While we applaud this commitment to the environment, according to research from Oregon DEQ, compostable options are not always better for the environment, can contain toxic chemicals, and only break down if they are sent to an industrial composting facility.  Plus these compostable options are often more expensive for restaurant owners. On the other hand, only offering single-use items on request and adopting a system for reusable foodware can save the restaurant money. A win-win. ReThink Disposables has several great resources for restaurants including a cost-savings calculator, Reusable Foodware Guide and case studies of businesses who have already made the switch. Spark up a conversation with your favorite local eatery and see if they’d be open to some of these changes.

You can have your cake and eat it too
It is possible to disrupt the “take-out culture” AND help our local restaurants thrive. Just remember – consumers have more power than we think; and waste prevention is a journey.  


Wicked Smart Recycler

Note: This is Part 3 of 3 of the Recycle Smart series: “Let’s Talk About Plastic.” If you missed Parts 1 & 2 you can catch up on them here and  here.

Partner Spotlight: The Town of Tyngsborough

Lawn signs throughout the Town of Tyngsborough remind residents not to bag their recyclables. Plastic bags, wrap and bagged recyclables are the most problematic materials in our recycling system.

The Recycling IQ Kit team checks recycling carts in Tyngsborough to provide direct feedback to residents about what is and isn’t recyclable.

The Town of Tyngsborough is striving to keep their residents up-to-date on the latest recycling news in Massachusetts. This municipality pulls out all the stops – and Recycle Smart MA is impressed. From embedding the Recyclopedia, to encouraging resident discussion on Facebook, to ensuring new homeowners get the scoop on local trash and recycling basics, Tyngsborough is a recycling pro. Their trash and recycling webpage is a one-stop resource for residents, featuring links to Recycle Smart MA, other disposal guidance, plus an updated calendar with the Smart Recycling Guide.

The town is also in the midst of implementing MassDEP’s Recycling IQ Kit (a program that helps reduce contamination in curbside recycling). Ten weeks into the 16-week program, the number of contaminated recycling carts has gone from 59% to 9%, a dramatic improvement!  It’s testament to the time and care the Tyngsborough team has taken to engage with their residents in order to help them recycle correctly.  We recommend checking out the informative webpage they created to provide answers about the program. 

We appreciate the impressive actions Tyngsborough is taking to improve recycling in their community. Shout-out to the Tyngsborough Sustainability Committee, led by Liz Antanavica, for their hard work and dedication to making Tyngsborough a more sustainable town.

What We're Reading:

Keep calm and recycle on –

The Recycle Smart Team at MassDEP