Recycling Q&A: Why Can't Clean Take-Out Containers Be Recycled?

Recycling Q&A: Why Can’t Clean Take-Out Containers Be Recycled?

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

Hey, Jennifer!

Why can’t clean take-out containers be recycled?

I eat a lot of take-out (way too much, actually), and it bothers me to throw the plastic cups, lids, and straws away, not to mention the fancy clear-and-black containers from restaurants like Friday’s and Chili’s.

I assume it’s a cleanliness issue, since most of these are made of normally recyclable materials (No. 1-5), but I am more than happy to rinse them clean.


— R.L., Aurora

Hi R.L.!

I understand your desire to recycle these items — Trust me, I do.

But unfortunately they are just not acceptable in the recycling stream, either because they are not able to be efficiently or accurately sorted from the flood of materials at the sorting facilities OR they are low-grade plastic that is of no value on the commodities market OR both.

Like black plastic, which contaminates the plastic because of the dye used (like washing a red T-shirt with your whites) there is just no one using it to make new products. Therefore, it has nowhere to go.

Also, there has been a sea change in recycling in the last couple of years that has not improved the situation. See the three part series below.

Please do not put the items you mention in the recycling container, clean or otherwise, as that just gives the facilities more sorting to do and the materials inevitably and unavoidably end up in the landfill anyway.

Or worse, they slip through and end up as a “contaminate” in the recyclable plastics lowering the quality of the material in the bale. This makes it harder to market and is a major detriment to the recycling industry as a whole.

The thing is, we have to recycle as much as we can of the recyclable materials, and let the other stuff go, so as not to let “perfection become the enemy of the good!”

As I say again and again: It is up to us as individuals to change our consumerist habits to stop the avalanche of plastics coming down the stream.

Thank you for your care and concern, and feel free to call if you like. Any time.

— Kane County Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Jarland

Read More Recycling Q&A Stories

Read The Sea Change Series

Read More on Plastics Recycling