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How to recycle takeout containers properly

Knowing what to put in the bin -- and what not to -- makes the whole operation run more smoothly.

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Mohamad Ridzuan Abdul Rashid/EyeEm/Getty Images

Food delivery comes in packaging of all shapes, sizes and materials. If your home is anything like mine, it also comes often -- especially during these past 18 months. After you've finished that last slice of 'roni or roll of sushi, you may get to wondering whether or not those takeout containers can be recycled and, if so, how to properly recycle pizza boxes, Chinese takeout containers, plastic clamshells and the rest. I spoke to an expert and it turns out takeout container recycling takes some know-how, but that shouldn't stop you from supporting your favorite local food spots and outposts.

Speaking of which, it's been a long, strange year and a half for the restaurant industry navigating closures, mask mandates, impromptu outdoor dining and more, all while trying to keep staff and diners safe. Eateries have gotten creative in their pandemic hustles, but ordering takeout -- and not through the apps -- was and still is one of the best ways for you to help keep them afloat. It's also a true saving grace on nights when cooking a meal feels about as plausible as dragging a Ford F-150 up Mount McKinley.

The dark side to all that tasty and convenient takeout is a whole lot of trash headed towards landfills unless, of course, it's recycled. But doing it right is just as important as doing it at all. For some help, I turned to an expert on the subject. Jeremy Walters is the sustainability ambassador for Republic Services, the second-largest recycling collector in the US. As a passionate environmentalist and advocate for recycling, he shared a few critical tips that'll help all of us become more efficient recyclers of takeout and delivery containers.

1. Do some research: The most important thing you can do to streamline the process is finding out what containers can and can't be recycled in your specific area. This will likely vary depending on where you live, so you'll need to check with your local sanitation department, often via its website. 

2. Don't assume: Just because a takeout container has a recycling symbol on it doesn't mean it can be recycled where you live. 

3. Give 'em a good rinse: 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 follows are general rules and guidelines on which takeout containers can and cannot be recycled and how best to recycle them.

styrofoam

Styrofoam containers are about as bad as it gets. If you feel comfortable asking your local eatery to make a switch, you probably should.

Kbl Studio/EyeEm/Getty Images

Takeout containers that can't be recycled

Polystyrene foam containers: These foam containers are some of the most used for takeout and delivery, so it's likely you've seen them. Unfortunately, they aren't recyclable and must be thrown out.

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Most black plastic containers are nonrecyclable.

Image by Marie LaFauci/Getty Images

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. According to Walters, recycling plant sorting technology just hasn't caught up to these materials yet.

Plastic utensils:  Not everything made from plastic is recyclable, and recycling plastic utensils is usually dependent on your local facility, so check with your service provider. Even better, when you place your order let the restaurant know you don't need any plastic silverware.

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I don't care what American Beauty taught you, plastic bags are never a good or beautiful thing.

The Burtons/Getty Images

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

Soiled paper plates and napkins:  These are not recyclable when soiled with food and liquid, so look for reusable, biodegradable or true disposable products instead.

Soiled 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. 

Some cities -- Austin, Texas for example -- have curbside composting for food-coated paper products. A program like this may not be available in your community, but it doesn't hurt to check. And Block Bins, a shared-bin composting startup that launched in Chicago, provides a similar service even if your town or city doesn't. 

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Chinese takeout containers mostly can't be recycled. 

ATU Images/Getty Images

Chinese containers and clamshells: 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. Also, many are coated with a sealant that makes them leak-proof but also difficult to recycle.

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Aluminum containers are recyclable and easy to get clean.

MOAimage/Getty Images

You can recycle these takeout containers

Plastic clamshell containers: Clear plastic takeout containers with a recycling symbol can be recycled. If it's a plastic container labeled No. 1 or No. 2, you can recycle it and should whenever possible. 

Aluminum containers: You know the ones you can never 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.

Paper or cardboard containers: 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. 

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 can't be.

Clean paper products: Any paper plates, napkins or cardboard pizza boxes that are not heavily soiled with grease can generally be recycled.

What else can you do to help?

We all know it's a tough time for restaurants, but it's a tough time for the planet too. If you feel comfortable gently letting your local restaurant know you'd appreciate them using one of the many environmentally friendly alternatives to plastic and polystyrene, you should. You could also send a polite, anonymous email saying how much you love the food and service but that you have one small request on behalf of the Earth. 

A version of this story originally appeared on Chowhound.com.

Be an even better recycler in 2021