Frequently Asked Questions
What is Foodservice Packaging?
When we talk about "foodservice packaging," we're referring to those cups, containers, wraps, boxes, bags, lids, cutlery, straws and stirrers, etc. used by restaurants and other foodservice establishments. These items are primarily made from a variety of paper and plastic materials, with a few items made from aluminum. Our recovery efforts are currently targeting paper and plastic cups, containers, and boxes, as well as paper bags.
How Much Foodservice Packaging is Out There?
The amount of foodservice packaging available to be recovered is often misunderstood. In fact, it is a much smaller amount than many expect. According to the Environmental Protection Agency and FPI’s own research, paper and plastic foodservice packaging accounts for less than 2 percent of municipal solid waste discards (additional details may be found here). Further study by FPI reveals that nearly two-thirds of the total foodservice packaging tonnage is cups, containers, boxes and paper bags. It’s also interesting to note that in terms of units, they are split pretty even between paper and plastic, but by weight, it's a different story: approximately one-quarter of the material is plastic and three-quarters is paper.
Where is Foodservice Packaging Found?
If you want to recover a material, you need to be able to collect it, right? This is a tricky question for foodservice packaging since so much of it is used (and disposed of) on the go. While foodservice packaging is found at work, at home, in foodservice establishments and public spaces, nearly half of all foodservice packaging used in restaurants and other eating establishments ends up in the home. It is for this reason that our recovery efforts are focused on residential collection programs.
Can Foodservice Packaging Be Recovered?
Yes – but perhaps not all (yet). Foodservice packaging like those cups, containers, boxes and paper bags that make up the majority of foodservice packaging should be considered a valuable material that can be successfully collected, processed and recovered. Why?
Fortunately these items lend themselves to recovery since…
they are made of paper and plastic materials that are often already recovered at MRFs;
their size enables them to successfully be recovered at a MRF facility; and
there are many recycling markets looking for new sources of feedstock.
Many foodservice packaging items also lend themselves to composting since...
they typically meet composting standards and/or are certified compostable;
they can contribute valuable carbon nutrients to a composter's "recipe;" and
they bring with them food scraps composters find valuable.
Is foodservice packaging accepted by MRFs?
Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) are a key link for successfully recycling materials from the home, the workplace and many businesses. Materials are often commingled in their collection at the home but before those cups, containers, boxes and paper bags can be turned into new products, they have to be sorted into bales of similar materials that recycling markets are interested in purchasing.
Many MRFs throughout the U.S. and Canada are successfully recovering foodservice packaging, although the specific material and packaging types recovered vary greatly. According to a study of 62 MRFs (making up about 25% of total US MRF volume), including nearly 50 of the largest MRFs in the U.S. and Canada, acceptance of foodservice packaging is widespread and varied greatly by type of packaging item. Nearly two-thirds of the MRFs surveyed accepted 10 or more of the 19 types of foodservice packaging included in the study. Pizza boxes and paper carry-out bags were the most widely accepted, followed by plastic cups and containers.
Are there markets for foodservice packaging?
Successful recovery requires markets that will buy the recovered material. In some cases, MRFs sell the bales of recovered material to a re-processor, and in other cases straight to an end market where a new product with recycled content is manufactured. The good news is that there are various markets in North America that will purchase recovered foodservice packaging as part of commonly traded commodities. Details on how MRF operators can market commodities containing foodservice packaging to end markets, and interactive map of end markets, can be found on our end markets page.
Isn't foodservice packaging too contaminated with food to be recycled?
No. Some MRFs and communities have expressed concern about adding foodservice packaging to a recycling program because of food residue. But, two studies have shown that foodservice packaging is no more contaminated with food than other commonly recycled food-contact items like bottles, jars or cans. Read more about the 2013 and 2014 studies here or watch the webinar on this topic here.
How does China's National Sword affect recycling?
China’s National Sword policy and scrap import restrictions affect cardboard and mixed paper, plastics, low grade metal scrap, and many other materials, including foodservice packaging. In 2018, China's recycled plastic imports fell by 99 percent compared with the previous year while paper imports fell by a third. Other countries in southeast Asia have announced import bans on paper and plastic as well as MRFs have scrambled to find alternative markets to sell their bales. The impact has been felt especially hard on the West coast of the US, where shipping economics have favored the export of recyclables to China. Eventually, new domestic mills and end markets will absorb the material, but they will take time to finance and construct.
Industry experts advise communities and MRFs not to panic or decrease program materials at this time, because once residents are told to stop recycling a material, it is a slow and difficult process to rebuild the education when that material is added again in the future.
Can Pizza Boxes be Recycled?
Yes! This continues to be a frequent question even though nearly all major end markets for recovered corrugated (OCC bales) now accept pizza boxes as part of those bales. Similar to any other items to be recycled, pizza boxes should be empty and reasonably clean and dry. Also, moderate grease staining is NOT a concern. More and more communities are now successfully recycling pizza boxes, but not all do.
What to do:
Consumers: Check with your local recycling program. If pizza boxes are accepted, be sure to remove any cheese, leftover pizza, and liners before you recycle your box. If a box is especially messy, you can remove the bottom and just recycle the clean top. (Also note: communities with curbside composting programs often accept food-soiled paper for composting, so if you have access to a composting program, check your local program instructions on what and where to include.)
Community programs: Check with your MRF and find out what their end markets will accept. You may discover that you can easily add pizza boxes to your program with the proper resident education to emphasize that recyclables should be empty, clean, and dry.
MRFs: Check your end market(s) to see if they will accept pizza boxes in OCC bales.
Can Paper Cups be Recycled?
Paper cups are made from fiber that is desirable to paper recycling mills. There are a growing number of mills that accept and process poly-coated cups when included in existing bales such as Sorted Office Paper (SOP), Residential Mixed Paper (RMP) and Cartons (Grade 52). However, not all mills are able to separate the plastic coating found on cups that is used to prevent liquid from leaking out or soaking through the paper. So, the industry is also working to develop coatings for cups that may be more easily processed by all mills.
What to do:
Consumers: Check with your local recycling program. If paper cups are accepted, be sure your cup is empty before placing in your recycling bin or cart.
Communities: Check with your MRF to find out if they will accept paper cups. You may discover that you can easily add them to your program. Be sure to educate your residents if you add them to your program. To hear from a community on how they successfully added cups to their program, listen to FPI's 2015 webinar "To Throw or Not to Thrown In: Paper Cup Recycling." You can also read case studies on communities that have added paper cups to their curbside programs and listen to FPI's 2018 webinar "Residue to Recovery: Increasing Recycling Opportunities for Foodservice Packaging" on our Community Partners Program page.
MRFs: Check with your end market(s) to see if the mills can accept paper cups in their bales. Explore the end markets map to see which mills are known to accept paper cups. Download a list of confirmed markets for paper cups. Click here to learn how cups flow through MRFs. You may also be interested to learn what adding paper cups will do to your existing bales. Click here for more details.
Are cups and take-out containers made from PET recyclable?
Yes! Companies have recycled bottles made from PET for decades, but PET thermoforms – an industry term that refers to some plastic cups and food containers –are now widely recycled in the growing number of communities that accept both bottles and other rigid plastic items.
What to do:
Consumers: Check with your local recycling program. If plastic cups and containers are accepted, be sure to empty of any leftover drink or food before placing them in your recycling bin or cart. If the program specifies that only certain plastics are accepted based on their resin identification code (that little number with the triangle around it typically found on the bottom of a cup or container), look for the code first before recycling.
Communities: Check with your MRF and find out if they will accept rigid plastic items like cups and food containers (most likely, they are already accepting plastic bottles). If you expand your recycling program to include these items, be sure to use images/descriptions of appropriate plastic cups and containers to encourage residents to recycle them. This can be more effective than asking residents to check a small number on the bottom of a package.
MRFs: Check with your PET end market to determine whether they will accept thermoforms, and whether there is any limit to the amount of thermoforms in the PET bale. Sort any thermoforms not accepted in the PET bale to mixed plastics. Click here for more information on non-bottle plastic end markets.
Can Foam Polystyrene be Recycled?
Yes, in a growing number of communities. In fact, forward-thinking cities have been adding it to their programs. Since foam products are over 90% air, special densifying equipment allows the material to be transported to end markets more cost-effectively. For communities interested in recovering foam, FPI’s Foam Recycling Coalition has an equipment grant program to help MRFs make the investment in densifying equipment.
What to do:
Consumers: Check with your local recycling program or visit this map to see where foam is being recycled at curbside or drop-off programs. Be sure your items are empty of food and drink before placing in your recycling bin or cart.
Communities: Check with your MRF and find out if it is currently accepting foam. If the MRF accepts foam, and you want to add it to your program, an educational campaign will be needed to inform residents of this new material being recycled.
MRFs: Check your end market(s) to see if they are accepting foam. If you’re looking for a market for recovered foam, check out this resource. For more information on recycling foam, visit www.fpi.org/recyclefoam.