Melting myths about “wax-coated” food containers

If you’re like most recyclers, “wax-coated” paper food containers are a source of confusion for you. They’re obviously made of paper which you know is recyclable, but you’ve gotten mixed messages about their recyclability. Well, here’s the straight scoop: only one type is recyclable, and none are coated in wax.

The wax has waned

Most paper food containers that appear to be coated in wax are actually coated with polyethylene (PE) plastic. These containers are either made of fibers held together by a PE compound, or the container itself is lined with PE. The PE serves as a moisture and gas barrier. As a moisture barrier, it prevents transmission of liquids through the paper container. As a gas barrier, it prevents the absorption of gases in the air like oxygen and carbon dioxide, which can impact the freshness and quality of food products.

Types of containers

The most common types of PE-coated paper food containers you’re likely to come across are shown below. Cartons are the only type that are recyclable in your curbside bin or at your recycling center in the Kansas City metro area.

Image of group of five food products in cartons: Half-gallon of non-dairy drink, individual portion of soup in carton, small carton of egg nog, small protien drink in carton, quart-sized carton of broth.Cartons – These include milk, juice, soup, broth, and wine cartons, and drink boxes. These are 100 percent recyclable.

image of disposable paper coffee cup.Hot drinking cups – These are the disposable coffee cups used by all coffee shops. The only recyclable components are the plastic lids and cardboard sleeves.

Image of fast-food meal: fries in container, burger in box, and disposable, soft drink container.Fast food cups and containers – These are the containers in your average fast-food meal: soda cup, French fry holder, and sandwich box. (Only the plastic lid is recyclable. Straws are not.)

Image of stack of plastic-coated, paper platesTableware (plates, cups and bowls) – This is the classic disposable tableware often used at picnics and special events.

Image of two different types of restaurant-style, to-go/take-out boxes.Take-out containers – These can be anything from the Chinese takeout container to the takeout box used by your favorite restaurant.

Image of a group of frozen food containers: frozen, microwavable entree, frozen vegetable in freezer-safe box, pint-sized ice cream container, half-gallon ice cream container.Frozen food containers – This covers everything from frozen entrees to ice cream tubs.

Why aren’t they recyclable?

Paper that is going to be recycled is shipped to a paper mill where it is mixed with water in a giant blender called a hydropulper. The hydropulper processes the paper into a slurry suitable for making recycled paper products. If the paper has a PE coating, it is impossible to recycle in the standard pulp process because the container will not break apart and blend in with the slurry during recycling.

So, the burning question you may be asking: why are PE-coated cartons recyclable, but all the others aren’t? Cartons have a different fiber composition, and the PE-coating type decomposes enough to break apart during the pulping process.

Convenience vs. durability

So what can you do to reduce the amount of PE-coated paper products in your home? It comes down to opting for durability over convenience:

  • Coffee cups – Take a reusable mug with you to the coffee shop. Coffee shops usually give you a discount since you’re not using one of their cups.
  • Fast food containers – Avoid fast food for this reason, and for your health.
  • Tableware – Use durable tableware at your picnics and special events. This includes plates, bowls, cups, napkins, silverware, serving dishes and tablecloths.
  • Take-out containers – Take a plastic food storage container to the restaurant and box up your leftovers yourself.
  • Frozen food containers – Fresh food has little of the packaging waste associated with frozen food.

For more information on recycling, visit RecycleSpot.org.

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