A typical takeout scenario: You buy a meal to go, eat every bite, rinse the container and toss it in the recycling bin, just like you’ve done many times before.
Wait. Don’t do that, not if the takeout container is black, even if the container has that little triangular-arrows logo on the bottom.
Few outside the recycling industry seem to know it, but black plastic was removed last year from the state’s list of items that are acceptable in home recycling bins collected weekly by towns.
“The summer of 2021 ... we reviewed the What’s In What’s Out (WIWO) list. That’s the only change that’s been made since the list was created in 2017,” said Sherill Baldwin, an environmental analyst for the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which regulates the consistency of recycling standards statewide.
The lack of public knowledge about black plastic led the town of West Hartford to send out an email recently telling people to never put black plastic in their recycling bins.
“In some parts of the country black plastic is allowed, but not in our region,” the email read. “Black plastic is considered trash. Yes, that means your takeout containers and even your flower pots.”
Baldwin said removing black plastic from the list was necessary and something that municipal recycling coordinators had requested for years.
She said single-stream recycling — when glass, plastic, aluminum and paper products are mingled together in the bin — requires machines to process the separation.
“You wind up with bales of cardboard, bales of mixed paper, bales of plastic resin, bales of aluminum,” Baldwin said. “But optical sorters can’t read black plastic as plastic. If [the sorters] don’t know what it is, the black plastic winds up in the wrong place. If they are in the wrong bale they are considered contaminants.”
The more contaminants there are in a bale, Baldwin said, the less likely the “end markets” that buy the recycled materials will want them.
“If something can’t be processed, sold or made new, it’s not really recycling,” Baldwin said.
Recycling is more successful, she said, with black plastics thrown into the trash — or better yet, reused until it falls apart — rather than being thrown into the recycling bin.
But informing the public of this change has been difficult, said Katherine Bruns, recycling coordinator of the town of West Hartford, who sent that email.
“It used to be allowed and there are recycling triangles on it ... so people immediately think it is still allowed in the recycling bin,” Bruns said.
Kim O’Rourke, recycling coordinator for Middletown, agreed that educating the public has been tough.
“It’s tricky to say we take plastic containers but not the black ones,” O’Rourke said. “It’s those little nuances that make it hard for us. I’ve been talking about it for a while, screaming it from the rooftops. We still need more to get the word out.”
Those little arrow logos, Baldwin said, confuse the issue.
“They were never meant as a guidance tool. They are a way for the plastic industry to identify the resin,” she said.
Bruns and Baldwin both said that the pandemic accelerated the black plastic problem, because most people switched from eating foods on-site at restaurants to getting takeout. A large percentage of plastic takeout dishes are black containers with clear lids.
In her email, Bruns wrote that people can ask restaurants to use non-black containers or ask if a container they bring from home can be filled. If that can’t be done, reusing the black container many times fulfills the “reuse” element of recycling. Bruns also suggested refusing black plastic altogether or deciding where to shop based on recyclability.
Rich Sin-Clair, who owns Smoke Public House in West Hartford, uses black plastic takeout containers. “They are stronger. Other ones may crack or leak. The black ones tend to be way sturdier,” he said.
He didn’t know they weren’t permitted in home recycling bins. “Maybe I won’t use them as much. We do try to be environmentally friendly,” he said.
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Sin-Clair said he thought most restaurateurs want to do the right thing, but many still struggle with pandemic and post-pandemic difficulties and are concentrating on staying afloat.
Scott Dolch, president and CEO of Connecticut Restaurant Association, said much the same.
“Sustainability and environmental issues are important to our industry. ... It’s also true that current challenges within the supply chain and skyrocketing costs of goods can make it hard for some operators to pivot on their choices of materials or the requests they can reasonably handle from customers,” Dolch said.
O’Rourke said that in the fall, she is planning a program for restaurant owners to possibly start a reusable-container takeout program or use more easily recyclable materials.
“Municipalities are trying as hard as we can with the resources that we have to deal with the problem,” she said.
In the meantime, people can go to recyclect.com and type an item in the search bar to find out if it goes into the trash bin or the recycling bin.
Susan Dunne can be reached at email@example.com.