A crash course in take-out trash


One order of hundreds of bubble tea orders that get delivered to Concordia each week, all with single-use packaging and bags.

by Jacob R., Global Development Studies student

Over the past year, my group in global development has been working to reduce the amount of takeout that Concordia students order and to convince restaurants to use more sustainable materials in deliveries. Despite this, we know that many students still want to order food delivery. This article serves as a primer for those individuals who want to order food delivery, but also want to understand the materials that go into it so that they can make more educated decisions whilst ordering.

How do recycling centers work?

Recycling centers, contrary to popular belief, do not operate purely out of concern for the earth. At the end of the day, recycling centers are still businesses, and they need to make a profit in order to continue to operate. The way they do this is getting recyclable goods and creating new materials for manufacturing. This means that recycling centers tend to be extremely picky about the kinds of materials they accept, because issues such as contamination, lack of volume, or composite materials make it impossible for these centers to turn a profit. Instead, when they find these kinds of materials, they often sell them in bulk to landfills. This begs the question, what do recycling centers recycle, and how can we minimize our unrecycled waste?

With food delivery, the primary enemy is contamination. No container contaminated by substances such as the oil from your food can be recycled. This can be solved for some containers with a quick rinse, but often this step is neglected. The other non-material issue is that recycling centers are working with machines that often cannot deal with extremely thin objects such as plastic bags. As we will see later, this completely prevents thin plastics from being recycled.

What kinds of packages are used?

Firstly, we have the plastics. Plastics are used not only in the actual packages, but also in things like soda bottles and bags. Plastics are categorized by type for the purpose of recycling. This is denoted by a number on the package.

For delivery in Shanghai, the most important number is probably 5, polypropylene. These make up the clear plastic containers common amongst Sherpas restaurants, as pictured on the right, along with the packaging of a few other popular restaurants. These are used because they are durable, microwave safe, and have a high clarity. While polypropylene is recyclable, the high clarity poses a problem. In order to achieve that clarity, recycling centers have to be extra careful to avoid contamination. This means that unless these are clean, they will not be recycled.

The second most important number for food delivery in Shanghai is 1, or polyethylene terephthalate. This is what they make soda bottles out of, and it is the most commonly recycled plastic. Number 4, used in grocery bags, and 6, styrofoam, are also used to varying degrees, although for several reasons are usually not recyclable. In any event, all of these plastics have a huge environmental impact, regardless of whether or not they are recycled, and in most cases, contamination or other factors will prevent recycling.

Next, there is the matter of paper. When it comes to environmental impact, not all paper is created equal. Some paper is coated with plastic in order to allow for waterproofing. This paper is never recyclable. Non-coated paper materials, on the other hand, are recyclable, given a lack of contamination. In Concordia’s case, it is important to note that the juicebox-like containers used for ice tea, milk, and juice are not accepted by our recycling center.

Ultimately, the solution to the issue of delivery packaging is not necessarily recycling. Issues such as contamination make recycling very unlikely in most cases, so reducing the impact of our trash comes down to other factors, such as the ability to burn cleanly. One material which is superb in its low energy cost during production, biodegradability, recyclability, and ability to burn cleanly is bagasse. You have probably seen bagasse before and assumed it was a paper with some kind of strange ribbing. Bagasse is a byproduct of sugar cane production (made from the pulp after juicing), which is otherwise burned in order to fuel sugar cane farms. It’s fairly cheap and relatively uncommon, although it is used by places such as New York Pizza for smaller items. Ultimately, this material is probably the best solution for an environmentally minded consumer of takeout foods. 

Overall, takeout is a pretty unsustainable practice, but an informed consumer can make decisions which greatly reduce the harm of their actions. Avoiding plastics, which do not degrade, and seeking out more environmentally friendly options like bagasse can allow consumers to greatly lessen their impact while enjoying a meal. Hopefully, this short guide can serve to help such a consumer in choosing to order from more environmentally friendly restaurants.