How to Recycle Takeout Containers in Toronto the Right Way

A quick guide to what goes in your blue bin.

Do you remember the plastic straws debate? It was a big thing in the months leading up to COVID. Restaurants stopped using them, straw-shaming was rampant and a new industry sprouted up that produced reusable straws out of hard plastic, steel, even silver.

Though we’re not talking about it much these days, I did find myself thinking about it again recently as I got my fifth restaurant delivery of the week and holding up yet another plastic straw, wondered why I couldn’t just toss it in the blue bin with the rest of my plastic.

So I called Annette Synowiec, director of policy, planning, and outreach for the city’s recycling department.

“They’re just too small,” she told me. The city uses optical sorters, which are able to identify shapes and materials. Straws just show up, if they show up at all, as two-dimensional lines, and they get ignored.

Optical sorting is also one of the reasons we can’t recycle black plastic. “The belts are black,” she says, speaking of the conveyor belts our 95,000 tonnes of blue bin recycling is carried along on each year, “and the optical sorters can’t tell the difference.”

As many of us are dealing with several multiples, if not an order of magnitude more single-use waste in our homes as the result of deliveries and take-outs, I thought it might be a good time to go over what and how we should be doing with our blue bins (not much has changed for our green bins).

Pizza boxes

This was a surprise for me. Greasy paper cannot be recycled, and what’s worse, grease being grease, one piece of greasy paper can contaminate everything around it. So if you are still ordering pizza, cut or tear the top off, blue bin it, and put the greasy bottom in the garbage.

Rice and noodle bowls

If you’re ordering from some of the higher-end places, you may have noticed the cardboard or recycled paper shell containers your rice and noodles come in are matte on the outside, and glossy on the inside. This means they’re coated with plastic, and cannot be recycled. Into the garbage with them (and maybe consider ordering from someplace else).

Black plastic

See above, though here are two things to consider: reuse is always preferable to recycling, so maybe keep some of these black plastic containers for leftovers or even desk organizing. Once you’re done with them, though, you can recycle the clear plastic tops they often come with, so don’t throw the whole thing away.

Plastic knives and forks

All trash, so maybe add a note to whatever service you’re using to not include them.

Paper napkins

In the past, we were told to put both clean and dirty paper napkins in the green bins. These days, however, with various COVID exigencies at play, the folks over at Solid Waste are asking us to put them all in the garbage.

Wooden chopsticks

Just because wood becomes paper and paper is recyclable does not mean you can recycle wooden chopsticks. They are garbage.

Foil containers

Especially popular with restaurants serving East and Southeast Asian food, these silver bottoms are recyclable once rinsed, but those circular paper tops with the silver linings are not, so please throw those away.

Styrofoam

For some reason, I’ve spent most of my recycling life thinking these were unrecyclable. I was wrong. Rinse and recycle.

High-end paper bags

As some restaurants that wouldn’t usually sully themselves with takeout and delivery are getting into the game, they are trying to distinguish themselves with various fancies. If one of these is a bag with handles made of something other than what the bag itself is made of (thick plastic, string, or rope), you either need to tear them off before recycling the rest of the bag, or keep them to re-use as gift bags (or something).

Plastic gloves

If you’re putting on a pair to pick up your takeout or delivery order, you’ll need to throw these in the trash. All gloves, whether they’re latex or nitrile or whatever, are unrecyclable.

Why rinse?

Isn’t one of the benefits of takeout and delivery that you don’t have to do the dishes? Alas, if you’re going to recycle plastic, you need to clean it, because food residue can contaminate the paper in the blue bin and make it unrecyclable. The good news is you don’t have to get it spotless. Just rinse it to get rid of anything that would easily drop off or leak out.

More recycling than your blue bin can handle?

Put the excess in clear plastic bags beside the bins. If the bags aren’t clear, the folks responsible can’t tell what’s inside and so they’re going to the landfill.

Need more details? See these other digital resources.

About the Author

Bert Archer lives in Toronto, writes about travel and cities and things that tourists like him like, and teaches food writing at George Brown College. Follow him on Instagram, on Twitter, and read stories he’s written about places he doesn’t live in the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, CNN, the BBC, and about a dozen others.

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