CNET logo Why You Can Trust CNET

Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

A Guide to Properly Recycling Takeout Containers

Recycling the right things makes the whole system work better. Here's what you can and can't put in the blue bin.

David Watsky Senior Editor / Home and Kitchen
David lives in Brooklyn where he's logged more than a decade writing about all things edible, including meal kits and meal delivery subscriptions, cooking, kitchen gear and commerce. Since earning a BA in English from Northeastern in Boston, he's toiled in nearly every aspect of the eats business from slicing and dicing as a sous-chef in Rhode Island to leading complex marketing campaigns for major food brands in Manhattan. These days, he's likely somewhere trying the latest this or tasting the latest that - and reporting back, of course. Anything with sesame is his all-time favorite food this week.
Expertise Kitchen tech, cookware, small appliances, food innovation, meal delivery and meal kits.
David Watsky
5 min read
pizza box and cheese pizza

Remove some of the guilt from your guilty pleasure.

Getty Images

If you take the occasional break from cooking with takeout, delivery or a prepared meal delivery service, you've probably got a steady supply of food containers coming in. You can and should recycle as many of those bags and boxes as possible, but recycling takeout containers isn't as simple as tossing them all in a plastic blue bin. If you're wondering which types of takeout and delivery containers can be recycled and how to properly discard them, we've devised a helpful guide that should help lower that pesky carbon footprint. 

Food that's delivered comes in a seemingly endless variety of packing containers made from different materials -- plastic, cardboard, aluminum, Styrofoam -- and it's admittedly tricky to know which go in the recycling bin and which belong in the trash. A lot of it depends on the specific recycling rules and regulations in your city or town, but there are general recycling rules to follow. 

For helpful hints and takeout container recycling know-how, 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 some critical tips that'll help all of us become more efficient recyclers of takeout containers and delivery boxes.

1. Do some recycling research: The most important thing you can do to streamline the process is to find out which 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 it can be recycled: Just because a takeout container has a recycling symbol on it doesn't mean it can be recycled where you live. Some cheaper producers of takeout containers will label something recyclable even if it's not.

3. Give 'em a good rinse: When recycling any takeout containers, make sure they're 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 can't be recycled and how best to recycle them.

Read moreAre Meal Kits More Expensive Than Buying the Groceries? I Did the Math

styrofoam container

Styrofoam containers are terrible for the environment. If you feel comfortable asking your local takeout spots to make a switch, you probably should.

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.

black plastic takeout containers

Most black plastic containers are nonrecyclable.

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.

green plastic bag

I don't care what American Beauty taught you, plastic bags are not a beautiful thing.

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.

Oil-stained pizza boxes: In theory, corrugated cardboard can be recycled, but not when it's soaked in oil or caked with 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 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. 

Chinese takeout container

Chinese takeout containers mostly can't be recycled. 

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're better off throwing them away. Also, many are coated with a sealant that makes them leak-proof and difficult to recycle.

aluminum takeout container

Aluminum containers are recyclable and easy to get clean.

Getty Images

Takeout containers that can be recycled

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 much 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, 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. 

For more green stuff, check out our list of the most environmentally friendly meal kits and find out how to properly recycle metal cans.