Can You Recycle Plastic Food Containers? [Inc. Take-Out Containers]

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If you eat a lot of take-out or have a bunch of old Tupperware laying around, it might be better for the environment if you recycle these containers. However, are they recyclable? We have researched the answer to this question as well as several others.

The short answer to this question is that yes, most plastic containers can be recycled. Look for the recycling symbol on the bottom of the container and a number. The number tells you where that item can be recycled. If that isn't present, it probably isn't recyclable.

If you would like a more in-depth explanation of the plastic numbering system, also called the material identification code, keep reading. We will also discuss how to know if the plastic is food-grade, what to do with old Tupperware, and more!

Wet plastic food container on drying rack, Can You Recycle Plastic Food Containers? (Inc. Take-out Containers)

Material Identification Code

On the bottom of plastic containers, there are numbers 1-7. These numbers are called the material identification code and inform you where each item can be recycled and what the item is made of. All containers should be cleaned and free of food before being put into recycling.

Curbside Recycling Only

Products that are considered numbers 1,2, and 5 shouldn't be thrown into general recycling. These products can usually only be recycled through curbside programs and special facilities.

Possibly Recyclable

If your container is a 3 or 4, it can only be recycled through special means. So, they usually are not recyclable. Number 4s might be recyclable through a store or specialty facility.

With 3 or 4, you can talk to your local council to see if your location has the special facilities or store return policy to recycle these containers.

Not Recyclable

Numbers 6 and 7 are not recyclable. This is because number 6 is a foam product and might be difficult to properly dispose of and number 7 has a very broad classification.

If a container is made of miscellaneous products, it is designated a number 7.  This number might refer to plastic film from the top of a container or a small portion of the packaging. Either way, the wide range of materials in it makes it unrecyclable.

Take-out Containers

Delivery man handing a slack of foam lunch box

Containers numbered with a 1 or 2 are recyclable. Cardboard and aluminum are also recyclable.

When recycling a container, it must be free of grease and food. The recycling center will throw out any items that are extremely dirty, even if they are recyclable. A pizza box, for example, is cardboard and can be recycled. However, recycling facilities will not accept a pizza box coated in grease and cheese.

You cannot recycle napkins, plant-based or plastic cutlery, or paper towels. Condiment wrappers, anything made of foam, and plastic bags aren't either. Neither are the brown, red, and white plastic take-out containers because they have a leak-proof coating.

What Types Of Plastic Are Food Grade?

There are several different types of food-grade plastic. These are PET, PP, HDPE, LDPE, and PC. Out of these, PC is potentially the least safe and is being investigated to find out if it should be considered food-grade.

PET (#1 Plastics)

PET, or Polyethylene Terephthalate, is used to make most single-serve water bottles and 2-liter soda bottles. It is stable and doesn't degrade when it comes into contact with food. It also resists corrosion and microorganism growth.

Because it has been extensively studied, we can say that polyethylene terephthalate is safe. It doesn't cause any problems if ingested, handled, or inhaled.

PP (#5 Plastics)

PP stands for Polypropylene. We use PP for a lot of things, including yogurt containers and reusable plastic containers. It has a high melting point and is, therefore, suitable to microwave. Due to its non-volatile properties, polypropylene is widely used for storage because it won't react with liquids, acids, or bases.

HDPE (#2 Plastics)

The most commonly used food-grade plastic is High-Density Polyethylene. Butter containers, juice containers, cereal box liners, and large food buckets are often manufactured with HDPE.

Recycled HDPE was approved for use over 20 years ago and is extremely safe. It is ideal for beverage storage because it is corrosion resistant and doesn't absorb moisture. It also doesn't leak chemicals into the container's contents.

LDPE (#4 Plastics)

Low-Density Polyethylene is similar to HDPE, but it is more rigid. Squeeze bottles, plastic films, and six-pack rings are often made of low-density polyethylene. It is chemically resistant, has high-impact strength, and won't leach chemicals into your food.

While some recycled blends of LDPE and PP have been approved for food contact, 100% PCR LDPE is not food safe.

PC (#7 Plastics)

Commonly used in reusable water containers, baby bottles, and water-cooler bottles, polycarbonate plastic is one of the strongest food-grade plastics.  It is used to make bullet-resistant glass and "unbreakable" water bottles because of its strength.

A lot of people try to avoid this kind of plastic because it has a risk of leaking BPA into your food. However, it is most likely safe to use BPA-containing products. Currently, the FDA says that bisphenol A, also known as BPA, is not hazardous to health in the small amounts present in a polycarbonate plastic.

They say that the average consumer gets a very small amount of BPA and that the chemical doesn't stay in your body. However, if you are nervous about BPA, you can get water bottles made with co-polyester that are BPA free.

How Can I Minimize BPA exposure?

While the FDA says BPA shouldn't harm you, there are ways to lower your exposure to it. You should limit the amount of canned food you consume, as canned foods may also contain the chemical.

You should avoid microwaving containers made with polycarbonate plastic and avoid leaving plastic containers sitting in the sun. Plastics with BPA can breakdown at high temperatures. Look for bottles that say they are BPA free, and use powdered baby formula instead of premixed formula.

When Should You Throw Out Plastic Food Containers?

Several plastic food containers with leftovers

It is always necessary to dispose of cracked or broken plastic containers. However, even if it's not obviously defective, there comes a time when you should get rid of it and get new ones.

If your containers are older than you can remember, it may be time to get new ones. Old plastics can be potentially unsafe as plastic breaks down over time and can start to release chemicals into your food.

Some plastics can last up to 10 years, and some need to be thrown out right away. Reusing TV dinner trays and take-out containers can potentially cause health concerns due to the quick breakdown of the plastic. Do not reuse these kinds of containers.

Another reason to throw them out is if you have no idea where the lid for it is and the container smells really bad. If they have a bunch of stains and the texture of the plastic changes, that's also a sign they need to be replaced.

Should You Throw Away Old Tupperware?

If you can help it, you should never just throw away old Tupperware. When it goes to a landfill, it can take over 1,000 years for it to completely break down. When it does breakdown, the chemicals it releases can hurt the environment.

In order to properly dispose of old Tupperware, you can send it back to the Tupperware company you bought it from so they can recycle it. Clean the containers out and send them back with the lid attached.

Most places that recycle Tupperware will also accept #5 plastics. Separate out your plastics by their number if you aren't sure if your facility takes that kind of item. You can also call the facility and ask what materials they accept.

Can You Recycle Ziplocs?

A ziplock bag full of baby carrots

If you care about the environment and use a lot of Ziploc bags for food storage, you are in luck! Ziploc bags are recyclable. You can recycle them along with shopping bags, dry-cleaning bags, and produce bags.

To find a facility that accepts Ziploc bags, you can ask your local grocery store. You can also click here to visit Plastic Film Recycling.org to search for a recycling facility near you.

If you want to, you can also wash and reuse Ziploc bags. To reuse, just use soap and water to clean them, then set them out to dry. For health reasons, it is best not to reuse bags that contained raw meat, greasy foods, or moldy foods.

Final Thoughts

In this post, we have discussed why you should recycle your plastic food containers and how to know if they're recyclable. You also now know how to tell if the plastic is recyclable based on the symbol or number on the bottom of the container.

In addition to that, we explained the material identification number system and what those numbers mean. We also talked about how and when to recycle old Tupperware and Ziploc bags.

If you enjoyed this post, check out the links below for more related posts.

Are Plastic Food Containers Dishwasher Safe?

13 Types Of Food Containers You Should Know About

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