By Kara DiCamillo on March 05, 2012

All of those frozen dinners and cases of soda create a lot of packaging waste, but how recyclable is it?

According to Livestrong, food packaging accounts for nearly 32% of all household waste in the U.S. Unfortunately, one of the biggest culprits in that figure is frozen food boxes and packaging, which, as we have mentioned previously, cannot be recycled in many communities. This can consist of anything from ice cream containers and frozen vegetables packaging to your favorite TV dinner box.

frozen food packaging recycling

Over the past few years, we have noticed a rise in both recycled and compostable food packaging. Back in 2008, Associated Packaging Technologies partnered with food giant ConAgra to develop a North America’s first recycled PET frozen food trays. Amy’s Kitchen, known for its organic and all-natural foods, also has gone to great lengths to use recycled packaging for its frozen food products. But does it really matter? We are sorry to report that in most cases, no, it does not.

First, let us explain why frozen food boxes are difficult to recycle. The cardboard is sprayed with wax-like chemical coating that is designed to withstand moisture in order to protect the food that is inside. (Sidenote: this goes for beer and soda packaging as well.) Cardboard and paper are recycled by using water to create a pulp. This means that when it is mixed with the paper that has been sprayed with wax it won’t break down and is thus contaminated.

So, why doesn’t it matter if companies use recycled packaging? Mostly because when it comes to sorting, the employees who work the sorting line don’t differentiate because it is time consuming and they are trained to pull all of it. Many recyclers ask us to keep all frozen food packaging out of our recycling bins for of this reason.

“There is no way we would know, which is why we ask that it all be kept out,” explains Sarah Kite, Director of Recycling Services at the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation. “It is the same situation with the ‘biodegradable’ plastics. We can’t tell a regular PET bottle from one that has had an additive mixed in, but the additive-containing bottle is considered a contaminant. I think in time the optical sorters will be able to distinguish between the two, but for now they shouldn’t be mixed together.”

If you and your family purchase a lot of frozen foods, you might be wondering how to recycle them rather than sending them to the landfill. eHow has some creative ideas on how to recycle and reuse your empty boxes.

Municipalities are all different and there is a chance that yours will accept frozen food packaging, but unfortunately, that is still not the majority. Tell us, does your local facility recycle frozen food and beer/soda packaging?

About the author

In her Newport, RI, community, Kara is the organizer of Green Drinks Newport and a member of Newport's Energy & Environment Commission. Kara volunteers at Norman Bird Sanctuary, and has also volunteered as a panelist for Rhode Island Farmways, speaking to farmers from around the state about how they can better market and promote their businesses.

Beyond the moat that surrounds her island home, Kara has backpacked Mt. Washington in New Hampshire too many times to count, is a member of the Appalachian Mountain Club, a graduate of the Colorado Outward Bound School and, in real life, she is a public relations director. Kara began her writing career with TreeHugger.com in January 2005 and is currently a contributing writer for TriplePundit, Ecorazzi, EcoSalon and her local Newport Patch.


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