Can You Recycle Used Paper Plates? (Don’t Make These Mistakes)

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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.

Paper plates are a convenience item. Therefore, they are great for large gatherings, camping trips, and occasions where having enough dishes is a concern. 

Furthermore, since paper plates are one-use items, what is the best way to dispose of used paper plates? Can they be recycled? Continue reading for this answer and more!

Can You Recycle Used Paper Plates?

Used paper plates cannot be recycled if they are covered with grease, sauces, or other food matter. Furthermore, food waste cannot be separated in the recycling process and food-soiled plates can contaminate an entire load of paper recyclables. However, paper plates that are clean can be recycled. 

Read on to gather the key takeaways on how to properly recycling paper plates!

If The Paper Plate Is Dirty, Do Not Recycle It

If a paper plate was used for a meal that left grease, sauces, or other wet contaminants on the plate, then it cannot be recycled under any circumstances. 

Furthermore, food containers that are recyclable must be clean and dry. This is because of how recycling is separated and processed in a recycling plant.

  • First, recycling is separated. Some plants separate items by hand. Other plants use automated sorting systems that are supplemented by human workers. 
  • Items that are not recyclable are sorted into bins that are destined for the landfill. This includes used paper plates, cups, dirty food containers, greasy pizza boxes, paper towels, pulp-based egg cartons, and other contaminated items that are not clean and dry.
  • Dirty food items that slip by the sorters can be mixed into the clean recycling load and cause problems later as will be described later.
  • The collection center sells the recyclables to a recycling company. This company makes money by buying recyclable waste and turning it into reusable materials such as paper and plastics. Some companies also take mixed-quality paper. Others take only premium paper for recycling. It depends on what they produce.
  • Paper waste is moistened and shredded into a fine pulp.
  • The fine pulp is subjected to high heat and a mixture of chemicals that help to separate paper additives back out of the paper fibers. 
  • The pulp is screened through increasingly fine screens that catch contaminants such as staples, polyethylene films, and tape, reclaiming the clean paper fibers.
  • Food waste and grease cannot be separated during this process. If food-contaminated paper ends up in a batch of pulp, it will ruin the entire batch of pulp for recycling.
  • The screened pulp is de-inked and sometimes bleached or treated with other additives to achieve the color finish desired for the paper being produced. 
  • The pulp is now passed through paper rollers that press out excess water and ultimately deliver a paper product that is suitable for reuse in many different ways such as paper towels, newspapers, and printer paper.
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It is clear to see why wishfully adding food-soiled paper plates into the recycling bin does not keep them out of the waste stream. 

In fact, this action can cause tons of clean, recyclable materials to be put in the landfill instead of being recycled. 

Therefore, it is less harmful to the environment to put those dirty paper plates in the landfill rather than contaminating the recycling process with them.

If The Paper Plate Is Clean, You Can Recycle It

If The Paper Plate Is Clean, You Can Recycle It

During the recycling process, the paper pulp is agitated and screened. 

Then, chemicals are added that separate the paper pulp from additives. 

These additives include the polypropylene (plastic) film that is used to make leak-proof paper plates.

Furthermore, the ability to reclaim this treated paper is a newer development in recycling.

It allows the reclamation of paper products such as leak-proof plates and clean, dry milk cartons which were once destined for landfills. 

  • If the paper plate was used for crafting and has things such as tape or staples on it, then it can be recycled.
  • If the paper plate was used for food that is very dry and did not leave any residue on the paper, then it can be recycled with paper.
  • If the paper plate was used to cover a bowl or dish and did not get any greasy food residue on it, then it can be recycled with other paper.
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Additionally, this guidance also includes leak-proof paper plates. 

This is because these paper plates are created with layers of polypropylene that make the paper more rigid as well as keep fluids from leaking through. 

Furthermore, this polypropylene can be separated out during the screening process, making the plates recyclable.

However, not all recycling facilities accept polypropylene paper, so call before recycling them.

Compost Used Paper Plates

Many cities have programs for composting food waste and soiled paper products such as paper plates and cups.

Therefore, a quick call can confirm that soiled paper plates can be included in the composting bin for city pickup.

Furthermore, industrial composting involves heating the materials up to speed up the composting process. 

This also allows for the composting of items such as bioplastics that are not backyard compostable.

However, many homeowners have backyard composting bins to take care of this kind of waste on their own. 

Understand that bioplastics made from corn and other materials must be industrially composted as they will not break down in natural composting processes. 

To compost acceptable paper plates, follow these steps:

  • Shred the paper plates. This will greatly speed up the rate of composting in the backyard composting bin. Whole paper plates will take much longer to break down. The microorganisms and worms that are composting will make much better use of the increased surface area that shredding provides.
  • Do not compost paper plates that contain polyethylene layers. This includes plates that are “leak-proof” or ultra heavy-duty. These are made with multiple layers of plastics that will contaminate your compost bin.
  • Soiled leak-proof paper plates need to go to the landfill unless the local municipality will take them for industrial composting.
  • Everyday-use paper plates that are either uncoated paper or have a thin wax coating on the surface to slow liquid leakage will break down in the compost bin. Most companies, such as Dixie, have information on the website about which of their products can be recycled or composted. 
  • Add in green materials. The organisms in the compost bin or pile will break down the paper, but they also need green materials such as vegetable scraps to keep them going. Add the plates into the middle of the compost pile, which is the hottest area. 
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If your goal is to compost your used paper plates at home, the best option is to buy paper plates that are specifically made for composting. 

Then, shred them like normal and place them in the compost bin.

To learn more, you can also read our posts on whether you can recycle Chinese takeout containers, whether you can recycle cup of noodles, and whether you can recycle yogurt cups and lids.

Conclusion

Paper plates that have been soiled with food are not recyclable. They must be either composted or put into landfills. However, soiled paper plates that make it into the recycling stream can contaminate entire batches of paper pulp, causing it to be dumped into the landfill. 

Also, paper plates that do not include plastic films that make them leak-proof can be shredded and composted in backyard compost piles. Furthermore, Paper plates that have plastic coatings or plastic layers can be composted at industrial composters if the service is available 

Author

  • 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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