Is it Compostable? Recyclable?

Is this container compostable or recyclable?

Yes, sorting our trash is confusing. Is it recyclable? Is it compostable? Should we just throw it in the trash, off to the landfill?

Here are a few pointers, to help you “sort out” these reuse questions.

It’s important to note that, although these rules generally apply, your local recycling service provider is the best source of information on what can be recycled and what cannot, in your area. Since many people are too busy to reach out to their service providers, these guidelines should give you a good idea of what’s recyclable and/or compostable. And, as they say, if in doubt, throw it out.

First things first – is that plate or cup plastic-coated?

The first thing to consider is whether or not your container has a plastic coating. These coatings keep moisture in, or out, depending on the product.  Milk cartons and juice cartons have plastic coatings to keep their liquid contents from leaking through. Frozen food boxes have plastic coatings to keep the moisture in the freezer from damaging the boxes and possibly the food inside. Coffee cups and paper plates and bowls are often plastic coated (or “poly-coated”) to keep their contents from leaking all over us. (You’ve probably noticed that wax doesn’t work so well for hot foods and drinks, either.)

Generally speaking, polycoated containers cannot be recycled. They can’t be composted either, since the plastic won’t break down.

UPDATE: It turns out, many commercial recyclers can now accept frozen food boxes, despite the fact that they contain plastic. So, check with your recycling service provider! San Diego, in particular, accepts frozen food boxes in their recycling blue bins.

Uncoated paper containers generally can be composted, however. Even dirty, food-laden paper plates can go in the compost bin, as long as they’re not plastic coated. Chinet is a good example of non-polycoated plates, as are those thin, generic, non-shiny plates, although there have been concerns raised about whether they contain other chemicals, so check before buying.

Is wax paper compostable? Can wax paper be recycled?

Wax-coated cups and plates can also be composted (but not recycled). Wax breaks down just fine in the composting process. What’s confusing to many people is that, although wax-coated containers can be composted, they cannot be recycled. That’s because the wax comes off during the paper pulping process, and cannot be easily separated from the paper pulp, so gums up the machinery.

You can easily tell whether a cup or plate is wax-covered by dragging a finger nail across it. If wax comes off, it’s wax (and not plastic) coated.

If it’s paper and NOT lined with plastic, it’s compostable. That goes for paper towels, napkins, and tissues, too.

Here are some examples of compostable products:

  • Greasy pizza boxes
  • Paper-only plates (no plastic coating). Again: those thin, non-shiny paper plates.
  • Paper-only bowls (again, no plastic coating)
  • Paper towels (depending on what you soaked up with them, of course – food is fine!)
  • Wax paper
  • Wax-coated paper cups (but not plastic-coated cups)

Examples of NON-Compostable products:

  • Chinese take-out cartons
  • Plastic-coated paper plates and bowls
  • Plastic-coated “to go” coffee cups
  • Plastic-lined butcher paper
  • Plastic-coated “to go” soup and deli product cups/bowls

What about compostable plastic?

Yes, some plastics are actually compostable, because they’re made from plants, rather than petroleum.

There are a number of designations for certified compostable plastic containers, and often, they’re hard to tell apart. (We check the bottom of all our take-out food containers, and it can be very difficult to tell what’s compostable.)

Some of the symbols specifying that an item is certified compostable are:

PLA 7 logo

The (classic recycling emblem) “chasing arrows” – containing the number 7, and it must have the letters “PLA” (which stands for Polylactic Acid, but that doesn’t matter).

Sometimes, plastics are labeled “ASTM D6400” or “ASTM D6868”, which also indicate that they’re certified compostable.

A few words of warning: as in many of the labels slapped on consumer products, some of labels are not really meaningful. They don’t have a certified meaning (like the word “natural” on many foods). Some of the terminology that may be considered misleading, whether or not it’s intentional, are the following, which do not mean compostable:

  • Made from plants
  • Made from plant starch
  • Biodegradable
  • Oxo-Degradable
  • BIO
  • Eco-Friendly
  • Earth-Friendly
  • Made with Recycled Content
  • Green

None of those terms indicate that the product is compostable.

Not sure whether it’s recyclable or compostable?

If it isn’t clear that it’s certified compostable, treat it as if it’s not.

If you just can’t tell if it’s compostable, or recyclable, it goes in the landfill. As they say, “when in doubt, throw it out”.

More info

Did you know that some paper plates are compostable? Many are not. And, there are some very interesting paper alternative compostable plates. Check it out.

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