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 for prepared foods and beverages.  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 just 1 to 3 percent of municipal solid waste (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 evenly 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, the largest portion (nearly half) of foodservice packaging 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? 

These items lend themselves to recycling since…

  • they are made of paper and plastic materials that are often already recovered at materials recovery facilities (MRFs);

  • their size enables them to successfully be recovered at a MRF; 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 in California?

Many California MRFs are already successfully recovering foodservice packaging, although the specific material and packaging types recovered vary greatly.  According to a 2016 Moore Recycling survey of California MRFs (in which respondents represented about 80% of total California MRF volumes processed), over half of responding MRFs accept paper cups and takeout containers, and over three-quarters of them accept pizza boxes, molded fiber, and plastic cups and containers.

For an overview of foodservice packaging recovery and how it could work for your MRF, download our go-to information sheet here.

Are there markets for foodservice packaging items in California?


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 many 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 can be found here.

An interactive map of end markets for a variety of foodservice packaging materials can be found here.

What is China’s National Sword? And how does it affect California?

Under China’s National Sword policy and scrap import ban, there are now very stringent contamination limits, and a program of close inspection and possible rejection of imported recyclable materials. China’s purpose in enacting this policy was to reduce the amount of waste entering their country as part of the scrap trade.

These import restrictions affect cardboard and mixed paper, recyclable 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 in California and other Western states, 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.

Isn’t foodservice packaging too contaminated 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.

Which composters are best suited to accept foodservice packaging?

A number of variables will determine successful composting of foodservice packaging. Generally speaking, a starting carbon-to-nitrogen recipe of 30:1, size reduction, longer residence times (the ASTM specification is 84 days for disintegration), thermophilic (50°-55°C or 122°-131°F) temperatures and maintenance of optimal operating conditions (such as sufficient aeration, moisture, pile porosity) increase the ability of a facility to process compostable packaging.

Another consideration is the ultimate end product being manufactured by the composter. If a composter sells a “certified organic” product, compostable plastics are not currently an allowable feedstock (this would also apply to paper items with a compostable polymer coating), based on the current USDA National Organic Program guidelines. This is critical, given California’s large agricultural markets.

Can pizza boxes be recycled?


This continues to be a frequent question even though nearly all major domestic 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.  Most California MRFs, 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 to include.)

Communities: According to a 2016 study by Moore Recycling, the vast majority of California MRFs accept pizza boxes. 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" at recyclefsp.org.

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.

Mills: If you are considering accepting bales with paper cups, click here for a list of frequently asked questions. Read more about mills that are recovering paper cups in "Promising Pathways".

Are PET cups and take-out containers (“clamshells” or “thermoforms”) recyclable?

PET cups and containers can be recovered in a “Pre-picked (#3-7)” bale. In California, the markets favor pure CRV bottle bales. However, innovative processors in the state are recovering PET thermoforms, and a new thermoform end market is expected to open in California in late 2018. As the recycling industry responds to challenging markets, FPI is working with industry leaders to advance end markets for PET cups and containers.

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 North American end markets for non-bottle plastics.

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. The city of Redding, CA is a past grant recipient; read more about their program here.

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.recyclefoam.org.