Recycling Q&A: 'AARGH! I'm Surrounded By Plastic!'

Recycling Q&A: ‘AARGH! I’m Surrounded By Plastic!’

  • Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of recycling tips from Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland. Got a question or idea for a recycling tip? Contact Jarland at 630-208-3841 or

I know I repeat myself, but hey, welcome to the world of recycling education! So this week I am going to talk about CUPS and PLASTIC … again!

Why Can’t We Recycle Those McDonald’s Drink Cups?

From: Trish
Sent: Thursday, February 22, 2018 8:25 AM
To: Recycle Email Address <>
Subject: Can I recycle these?

Hi Jennifer,

I have a couple of recycling questions. First, I was surprised to read that I can’t recycle the white plastic drink cups that I get from someplace like McDonald’s. Why is that? They are coded as a 5.

But is it OK to recycle the clear plastic cups I get from somewhere like Buona Beef that are coded as a 1?

Second, I’ve been cleaning and recycling plastic containers for take-out food such as soup containers from places like Fresh Market and Trader Joe’s that are coded as 5’s although the lids are 4’s. Are both of these recyclable?

And how about black plastic food take out containers from places like Buona, Portillo’s and Kabob’s? Some are coded 5, some 6. I can’t find any information about these in the newsletter.

Aughhhh! I’m surrounded by plastic!

Thanks for your help!

— Trish

NO CUPS! And Those Numbers Can Be Misleading

Hi Trish,

The sorting facilities have said, “NO CUPS.” Period.

The numbers only tell us what kind of plastic it is and do not necessarily mean that they are recyclable in any given program. The chasing arrows were co-opted by the plastic manufacturing industry, unfortunately.

The main reason cups are not recyclable is because they are mostly made from low-grade plastic that has no value on the commodities market, rendering it an undesirable material to the for-profit waste industry.

Tubs such as you describe are recyclable, but the lids are not, because they are thin and flat and will be misidentified as paper by the sorting machinery — thus ending up as a contaminant in the paper stream. So lids should be put in the trash.

Black plastic of any kind is NOT recyclable because sorting facilities are unable to identify it by the laser scanner. And so it must go in the trash.

I recently wrote a bunch of articles on these topics. If you are interested, check out the “not easy being green” series:

My plastic recycling rule is to forget the numbers and go by the shapes. That is why you do not see number references in the new 2018 Green Guide.

On the bright side, bottles, tubs, jugs, and jars are recyclable. Any other shape is not, like cups, straws, lids, plastic bags, trays and plastic toys. Plastic bags can be recycled if clean, dry and empty — but only at grocery store drop-off locations. Plastic bags CANNOT go in your curbside recycling bin.

Please refer to this new Guidelines Poster.

Yes, we are all surrounded by plastic, that’s why I promote reuse of containers and minimizing waste. I consciously avoid bringing any plastic object/packaging home wherever possible.

Thanks for your care and commitment to recycling right!

— Jennifer Jarland, Kane County Recycling Program coordinator

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