Why Can’t you Recycle Plastic Cups or To-Go Containers?

Recycling Rules

One of the biggest problem items we see at Millennium are plastic cups and clamshell to-go containers. People think these are recyclable, but they are not.

These “low-melt” #1’s or polystyrene cups and clamshells are commonly used for food items like solo cups, to-go, takeout, berries, salad, to-go lids, plastic straws, plastic plates, plastic bowls, bakery goods, muffins, brownies, cookies, and donuts. Most recycling facilities don’t accept cups or clamshell containers because they flatten easily when crushed and machines can’t correctly sort them out (they often end up with paper).

They also melt at a different temperature than other plastics which creates an ash that can ruin an entire batch of good plastic. These are also often coated with food and adhesive stickers or labels which can lead to contamination issues. And finally, there’s just no good reuse market for them right now, especially with China’s crackdown.

The tiny numbers on the bottom of plastic containers do NOT mean they are recyclable. These numbers (resin identification codes) are used to tell manufacturers what types of plastics were used to produce an item, but it could be a mix of many different types of additives and chemicals, which makes recycling nearly impossible. This is why we say bottles, tubs and jugs only- as these containers are usually recyclable (no matter what the number says). Learn more about what plastics we DO accept here.

Along with being “low-melt” plastics that contaminate bottles, tubs and jugs, plastic lids and straws are very small and easily fall through or get stuck in our recycling equipment. This means we have to either clean them out when they get jammed and throw them in the trash, or they fall through our equipment and end up as a contaminant with the glass bottles and jars that are cleaned in a furnace at the glass processor. Avoid plastic straws if you can and use paper instead! Paper will decompose in the landfill when you through them away (they’re still too small to be captured in the recycling process).

The lack of recycling options for these plastics means that billions of single use plastic and foam items are sent to the landfill each year. This means that a plate, cup or container you used for 5 minutes will be hanging around in the ground or waterways essentially forever. A solution would be for manufactures to communicate with recyclers to make sure their products are in fact recyclable and make economic sense for companies to collect and process. However, it’s a chicken and egg dilemma. Does it start with the producers changing their products? Or consumers demanding the change? More and more people are asking for a circular economy and demanding producer responsibility when it comes to mountains of non-recyclable waste. We are hopeful a change will come, but in the meantime, keep recycling what you can and avoiding buying what you can’t. By supporting your local recycling facilities and putting the right things in the bin, you make sure we can continue recycling as much as possible!

Please help recycling be successful in our community and KEEP TO-GO CONTAINERS OUT. We appreciate your help!