Can You Compost Take Out Containers?

For many people, take-out is one of the staples in the United States. How many times have you been on your way home from a soccer game or football game and had to stop to grab a bite to eat? I sure know take-out has come in handy on more than one occasion for me.

The real question is, can you throw those containers into your compost bin? The answer is probably not. Now, don’t get disappointed and quit reading; there are a few things you can compost, but you need to know exactly what to look for!

How Do You Know If A Container Is Compostable?

Most containers will have some form of identification that will let you know what you can do with it. There are several different ways to dispose of take-out containers; they can either be composted, recycled, or thrown away. You must put the containers in the appropriate place.

Products that are marked “PLA” are made from plant-based materials like wheat straw, corn, or grasses and are compostable. PLA, polylactic acid, is unlike traditional petroleum-based plastics, which do not break down during the composting process. Even if the PLA product is coated with a shiny coating, you are still in the clear to compost it.

Now, if the take-out containers have a shiny coating without the PLA symbol or are rigid plastic containers, you cannot throw those in the compost. The best place for these guys is in the recycle bin. However, make sure you rinse them out before you toss them into the recycle bin!

Since this didn’t seem complicated enough, there are things you can compost but can’t recycle. If by chance, you get a PLA container that is clear plastic, you can compost it, but you can’t recycle it.

If you have read any previous articles on our site, you may have read ‘Can You Compost Burnt Food?’. That article breaks down a few things you should avoid tossing into the compost bucket. One of the things on that list is meat or seafood products, which is still applicable to the take-out containers too.

Some say that you can compost the foam meat trays that are made of PLA. However, I’d highly suggest you think about whether you want your compost to smell like rotting meat or seafood…

Are Compostable Containers Really Compostable?

Chinese Take Out Food

This is another great question… Depending on who you talk to, you will get different answers! For our purpose here today, let’s stay on the side of how things work in science versus what people think.

Basically, all packaging that is labeled as compostable means that it has to be biodegradable. The catch with that is it doesn’t require them to give a time frame on how long it will take to break down or if it will break down in the time of your compost bin’s lifetime. Plastic will even break down over time, but it’s going to take hundreds of years.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, compostable containers might not even be compostable in your compost bin. Now that I have you properly confused by that statement, let me clarify.

To properly break down compostable containers in your home compost bin, you must have the perfect ratio of browns, greens, air, soil, water, and temperature. If your compost bin isn’t perfect on these ratios, which, let’s be honest, most of ours won’t be, the breakdown won’t happen in the way we would think.

The place that these compostable containers were meant for was legitimate composting facilities, not our backyard compost bins. The reason why is that composting facilities can create the perfect ratios of browns, greens, air, soil, water, and temperature. They can also accelerate the process of composting because they can control the temperature and other factors that we can’t at home.

To help give you a clear answer or guideline on what take-out container you should toss into your compost bin, let’s separate this information into a more straightforward way.

Home Compost Bin

You can toss in paper-based or wood-based compostable containers that don’t have meat or seafood residue. Make sure these have the PLA symbol on them and they aren’t clear plastic.

Commercial Compost Facility

Basically, anything that is that clear plastic container with the PLA symbol on it. It does not matter if there is meat or seafood residue on these ones, as they won’t be sitting in your backyard attracting wild critters. This would be a great place for those foam meat or produce trays with the PLA symbol on them!

Recycle Bin

Alright, the recycle bin is the place for shiny coated paper plates, take-out containers, or boxes of food (think of the frozen pizza boxes that have that glossy coating on them). It is also the place for plastic take-out containers, like the clamshell ones.