True or False – Containers Cleaned of Food Residue are Recycled More Consistently


  • Everyone’s busy these days and has a thousand things ‘on their plate’ as the expression goes. But when it comes to recycling the plastic containers that a lot of food comes in now, some people say it’s a good choice to do as much as you can to get the residue of what went onto your plate off of those containers. What we’re talking about here is the food residue that’s often left on the container insides and will remain there in the recycling box unless you take some time to wash it off.

It’s been said that if you’re a person who cares about plastic waste in the landfills and – perhaps more importantly – the extent of plastic pollution in the ocean – then this is something that you want to get behind. But is that actually true? There are people who insist that a lot of food containers that have food residue on them don’t get recycled because of that reason. They insist further that what happens then is that containers with food residue on them end up going into landfill and not getting recycled.

Considering how important recycling efforts are around the world to curb the explosion of manmade waste coming from nearly 8 billion people, no one’s going to debate that food container recycling IS very important. But should we actually be spending a lot of extra effort cleaning every last bit of food residue from containers our food comes in? Being a Trenton area waste disposal provider in Ontario, this is an issue we can take a real interest in, and we thought you might too.

Not As Big Deal as You Might Think

It turns out that while recycling clean food containers is best, it really doesn’t mean that it if it dirty with food residue that it will be tossed out of the recycling facilities. Some here in Ontario will be deemed to be unrecyclable due to being contaminated, but much of the time a container with residue is still processed by the recycling facility.

That said, here’s one tip – don’t put pizza boxes with food residue in your recycling. They’re nearly guaranteed to not be recycled the way regular cardboard boxing would be and here’s why:

When paper is recycled, it is mixed with water to form what’s called ‘slurry.’ Oil and fat from food residue don’t mix with water. 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 can and should go right into the trash.

But back to topic, the general consensus is that dirty food containers are nearly always recycled to the same extent as ones that remain clean. In 2014, there was a study that found that there was little correlation between the cleanliness of a container and whether it was recycled/.

Still Something You Should Do

With that said, it’s important to keep in mind that this seems to be changing, and there does appear to be some evidence that food residue contaminated containers are not getting recycled as often as they used to. A few years back several countries in Asia – China most notably – stopped purchasing recyclable waste from Canada.

While recycling is mostly coordinated by the municipality, there is also the issue of individual sort stations having different protocols and then there’s also the fact some of the regional district’s recycling program can involve private contractors in some areas of the country.

Now that much more of this recyclable waste is increasingly difficult to get processed (or purchased – as is often the case with clean recyclable packaging that has monetary value) more if it is backlogged for recycling and this may be leading to some facilities throwing food-residue containers into different bins if they know the stuff may start to stink later on.

There’s other reasons whey food packaging containers with food residue might not get recycled because of the food residue, so it is in fact a good idea to wash food residue off packaging before putting it in recycling.

The last thing we’ll say about this is related to the above link and the mention of clean plastic recyclables having $ value – many municipalities all over the world do sell plastics domestically (maybe not internationally the way they did before as we mentioned above too) and do make some money from that that goes into the ‘public coffers’ as the expression goes.

So if you’re the type who’s inclined to wash food containers clean before recycling, go right ahead and continue on with that.