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Because You Asked

Why Can’t I Recycle Stuff with Food On It?

By Recyclebank |

Compared to food residue, paper labels are a benign contaminant.

Dear Recyclebank,

If high heat disposes of paper labels during the recycling process, why is a little pizza grease or food residue a no-no?

-Gerald B.

Dear Gerald,

Last week, we explained that, for the most part, you don’t have to remove labels from containers before tossing them into the recycling bin. The heat applied during the glass, metal, and plastic recycling processes removes labels and their adhesives, plus other contaminants like food residue. However, there are still a few reasons why grease and food residue should be strictly kept out of the bin.

  1. While food residue gets burned away during the recycling process for plastic, glass, and metal, the same can’t be said for paper. When paper is recycled, it is mixed with water to form slurry. Oil and fat from food residue don’t mix with water; instead, they float on top of the slurry and mingle with the paper pulp. Oily pulp makes very poor quality paper and is, in effect, unusable. Paper products with grease or food residue, such as pizza boxes, should not be put in the recycling bin. Instead, compost it or just throw it in the trash.
  2. In single-stream recycling communities, all accepted materials go in the same recycling bin together. This creates the risk of grease or food residue transferring from a plastic, metal, or glass container (which is technically fine to recycle even if it has residue on it) to paper materials (which cannot be recycled if it has residue on it). It’s best to avoid any possible cross-contamination by rinsing soiled recyclables and keeping all food residues out of the bin.
  3. The biggest reason to keep grease and food residue out of the recycling technically isn’t a recycling issue at all! It’s a sanitary one. Food residue spoils, which can create unsafe conditions for workers in recycling facilities. Prevent mold and bacteria from growing on your recyclables by rinsing them before you put them in the bin.

Do you make an effort to prevent food from contaminating your recyclables?

Share with Your Friends & Family
  • Phoenix B. 2 years ago
    I'm in an apartment complex and the recycling bin is routinely used as a second trash bin by most of the residents and is always contaminated by food waste and all kinds of things. Is there anything that can be done about this, like a number to report a need for more education needing to be sent out to this address or something? I feel like all our bins must be getting rejected at the recycle bank, despite all my household's efforts to do what's best for the planet.
  • beverly a. 3 years ago
    I make sure the inner bag in the box do not go in recycling
  • Jenny C. 4 years ago
    For pizza boxes: I often notice that the lid will be spotless while the bottom has the grease stains. I rip the lid off and recycle it and trash the greasy bottom half. Likewise, sometimes the bottom only has one or two areas of grease and those areas can be ripped off and the rest of the bottom recycled. The point: you don't have to trash a whole pizza box just because one or two areas have grease stains.
  • Marie S. 4 years ago
  • Sue C. 4 years ago
    I rinse all items for curbside recycling before putting them into a clear recycling bag for recycling. I have a separate bag I use for card board, newspaper, and other loose papers so there is no cross contamination from food containers even though I wash everything before putting them out. Pizza boxes which are prone to grease are set out separately since they probably won't be recycled due to the grease on them from the pizza.
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