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Report says used food-service is surprisingly clean and recyclable

By: Jim Johnson

December 5, 2013

Move over chowder, Boston now also can be known for its wicked clean recycling stream.

One trade group is hoping that the results of a recent survey of recyclables, plucked from the curbsides of different city neighborhoods, will prove that food-service packaging is a candidate for recycling not just in Boston, but around the country.

Long considered a problematic source of material for recycling because of the dangers of food contamination, food-service items like plastic lids and tubs and clamshells are not routinely recycled.

The small Boston study also examined other food-service packaging such as corrugated and mixed paper, aluminum cans, foils and pans. A ton of food-service packaging material was randomly selected around town and examined piece by piece to determine contamination levels.

Using a rating scale of 1 to 5, depending on the level of food waste on each item, the study found what has been described as an exceptionally clean steam of food-service packaging.

And that gives the folks at the Foodservice Packaging Institute, a trade group that sponsored the study, hope. But the Falls Church, Va.-based group also cautioned there is more work to do beyond this initial examination.

The recent survey comes following the creation of two independent working groups within FPI to work on voluntary efforts to increase the recovery of food-service packaging, one focusing on plastics and one focusing on paper.

Of particular interest in the food-service packaging mix are cups, containers, boxes and bags as they represent more than 65 percent of those materials.

A key focus, said senior consultant Keefe Harrison of Resource Recycling Systems, “is really engaging the marketplace to accept more of these materials.” Her organization worked with FPI on the study, and Harrison lead a webinar on the results last week.

Ted Siegler is a resource economist with DSM Environmental Services Inc., a Windsor, Vt.-based company that helped conduct the food-service packaging inspection.

Results showed that there was no appreciable difference between the contamination levels of plastic food-service packaging and food contact packaging, Siegler said. Food-service packaging comes from places like restaurants and delis while food contact packaging comes from places like grocery stores.

Packaging was pulled from four different areas of Boston and examined over a four-day period that yielded consistent results, according to Siegler. For example, a sort of plastic food service packaging collected in South Boston showed that 89 percent of that packaging evaluated for the day was considered very clean. That compared to 83 percent of the food contact packaging that also received the highest ranking.

Trend lines, across the four days, show “no appreciable difference” in the level of contamination between food-service and food contact packaging, he said.

FPI calls the results very encouraging with trade group President Lynn M. Dyer indicating contamination might end up being a perceived barrier to recycling.

Those involved in the survey also offered some words of caution.

“However, and this is a really big however, all recyclables that we sorted from all of the areas of the city were exceptionally clean when compared to other cities that we have sorted in,” Siegler said. “So the results may not be representative of cities other than Boston.”

While those involved in the study do not have definite answers regarding why the food-service packaging stream was so clean, there were a couple of possible reasons mentioned during the webinar.

Education through long-standing recycling programs in Boston and surrounding communities could be one potential factor.

“Another reason may be that because a lot of dwelling units are small and tight and there’s not a lot of storage room, that most of the recycling storage is done in the home and, therefore, people are pretty careful about keeping it pretty clean. But that’s just pure speculation. I don’t know why it was so clean,” Siegler said.