Can You Recycle Chinese Takeout Containers? (Your Full Guide)

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Jean Richardson

Jean Richardson is a lover of knowledge, in all forms. He has spent over 15 years as a high school teacher, instructing students in history, geography, mathematics, and more.

Take-out is a great option for meals, but with the convenience comes an excess of containers. Additionally, there is a pesky dark side for those trying to do takeout with an eco-friendly approach: all that plastic and styrofoam packaging. 

Therefore this might make you wonder, are take-out containers recyclable? How can I dispose of them in an eco-friendly way? Well, continue reading for this answer and more in the article below! 

Can You Recycle Chinese Takeout Containers?

As with most of the cardboard packaging used for carryout and food delivery, used Chinese takeout containers are not recyclable. This is because takeout containers that are soiled with food residue become unrecyclable. Furthermore, many takeout containers are also coated with a waterproofing agent that prevents them from being broken down during the recycling process. 

This article will touch on what you can and cannot recycle, as well as provide tips for better habits to promote a cleaner and healthier environment so continue on reading!

Can You Recycle Takeout Containers?

There are many different materials and packaging that restaurants use to transport your dinner, some much more eco-friendly than others. 

Furthermore, here are four of the most common types of food container materials:

  • Styrofoam containers are…evil! Styrofoam (or polystyrene foam) is not recyclable and is, unfortunately, very common. While not only is it hard to dispose of, styrofoam is classified by the WHO as a “probable carcinogen,” which has led some states to ban the use of styrofoam packaging altogether. 
  • Plastic containers are less evil than styrofoam, but not by much. There are numerous kinds of plastic containers, so it’s important to look for the number in the recycling symbol to know what you’re working with. Containers with the #1 or #2 symbols are recyclable. Just make sure they are rinsed clean first! 
  • Aluminum containers are the most eco-friendly option. Like aluminum cans, aluminum containers make for reliable and easy recycling, so long as they are dry and clean. 
  • Cardboard containers are recyclable, but not if the cardboard is soiled with food. If your pizza box is sporting a pizza-sized grease stain, then it will have to be trashed. 
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You might be familiar with the cardboard takeout containers that are coated in a waxy substance. 

This is polyethylene, and it is used to keep your food hot and waterproof the container. 

Unfortunately, polyethylene interferes with the recycling process, sending most of the containers that are coated in it to the landfill. 

However, some restaurants are using biodegradable containers made from bioplastics, and cities like Seattle have required all restaurants to use compostable takeout containers. 

Also, there is a lot of experimenting going on with different materials, stuff as cocoa bean shells and pineapple husks, but finding a sustainable, zero-impact solution has remained elusive. 

Although, we do know that styrofoam and plastic containers are by far the most harmful to the environment because there is no real way to upcycle or reuse these materials. 

However, there are some practical steps that you can take when dealing with cardboard. 

How To Dispose Of Chinese Takeout Containers?

How To Dispose Of Chinese Takeout Containers?

Cardboard pizza boxes and Chinese takeout containers pose the same problem for eco-friendly disposal. 

Furthermore, grease, melted cheese, and other bits of food that get stuck on the cardboard will mess up the recycling process, meaning most of this packaging will end up in the landfill. 

However, if parts of the to-go containers are not soiled by food, cut or tear those pieces off and put those with your other cardboard recyclables.

This is usually the case for the top half of the pizza box or the flaps on top of Chinese food containers. So as long as it is free from grease stains, you are good to go! 

For the soiled portion, think about composting. Although not recyclable, soiled cardboard can be thrown in a compost pile or bin with other food scraps. 

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You can do this as the cardboard will naturally break down over time, and the food remnants will not impede the process.  

What Types Of Plastic Containers Are Recyclable? 

You must all be familiar with that small symbol on the bottoms of plastic bottles, the one that is a triangle made up of three curved arrows? That’s the universal sign for recycling. 

This symbol is used to discern the material something is made out of and whether or not the material is recyclable. 

However, just because something has the recycle symbol on it does not necessarily mean you can just toss it in your bin and move on. 

This is because two numbers correspond to materials that are widely accepted as recyclable: 

  • #1- PET or PETE: These are your common water bottles, soft drink bottles, and pretty much any single-use plastic bottle. These are covered in most cities’ recycling pickup programs.
  • #2- HDPE: This plastic is used more in packaging but is commonly used to make milk jugs and containers for household cleaners. These are also usually okay for curbside recycling pickup. 

Keep in mind that it is very important to clean out any plastic container you put in the recycling. 

Furthermore, if there is an abundance of residue or caked-on food, the chances for the plastic to end up in the landfill dramatically increases. 

How To Be More Eco-Friendly While Ordering Takeout?

The surplus of plastic forks, plastic bags, containers, and condiment packets makes ordering takeout less eco-friendly than eating at a restaurant or cooking at home.

Luckily, there are ways to mitigate some of the negative impacts of takeout that everyone can easily adopt. 

  • Skip the utensils and napkins that the restaurant provides, and use the ones at home. Apps like GrubHub include this as an option while ordering, making it easy to cut down on plasticware that will wind up in a landfill. 
  • Ask your favorite restaurants to use eco-friendly containers. If you regularly frequent a local restaurant, make a point to tell the owners that you value sustainability and want biodegradable or recyclable carryout containers. Owners will typically need some nudging but will hopefully share their concerns. 
  • Start composting. A compost bin is an easy and effective way to reduce the amount of stuff you throw away. Thanks to composting, old food scraps, coffee filters, and even soiled cardboard containers (like Chinese food boxes) can be naturally repurposed into fertilizer with little effort.  
  • Collect, reuse, and return. Almost every delivery food item comes in a plastic bag, and, you guessed it, they are not recyclable. But that doesn’t have to stop you from collecting the plastic bags, drink holders, and other items and returning them to the restaurant. It sounds like a small thing, but it can make a real difference over time. 
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Furthermore, these are eco-friendly solutions that reflect a broader need for our society to be less reliant on single-use, non-recyclable paper, and plastic packaging. 


The joys of ordering in are not going anywhere. And thanks to the recent pandemic, the business of carryout and delivery is booming, meaning the pressure is on to find innovative solutions to deal with the environmental impact of all that waste. 

In the short term, recycling is an easy and eco-friendly way to dispose of your Chinese takeout containers. However, remember that you can only recycle the parts of the cardboard containers that have not been contaminated with food and will have to trash the rest. 


  • Jean Richardson

    Jean Richardson is a lover of knowledge, in all forms. He has spent over 15 years as a high school teacher, instructing students in history, geography, mathematics, and more.

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