Dear Eartha, could you help settle a friendly bet? I thought berry containers were trash, but my husband swears they are fine in our home recycling bin (where we mix paper, cans and plastic). Who’s right?
With apologies to your husband – I hope he owes you a nice dinner! – you are correct. Berry containers, also called clamshells, belong in the trash. And that’s true all across Summit County, whether you use single stream recycling like the mixed bin at your house, or the drop off recycling centers in Breckenridge, Frisco and Silverthorne.
Before I dive into details, keep this in mind: recycling is a business that’s based on demand. If companies aren’t manufacturing new products using old berry containers, there’s no point in collecting those berry containers for recycling. Putting clamshells and other non-recyclable items in your recycling bin means, at best, clamshells take the long road to the landfill. At worst, you undermine everyone’s hard work, and the entire truck of recycling could end up in the trash.
Why are clamshells such a headache? First, let’s look at the forms a clamshell can take. The name gives us a hint. A clamshell package has two shaped pieces that cradle a product – your sweet, juicy berries – connected by a hinge on one side. When you press those pieces together, voila! They snap together and seal. Cherry tomatoes and herbs are commonly packaged in clamshells.
Confusion happens because clamshells are typically marked #1 plastic. Number one plastics refer to PET, or PETE, which stands for polyethylene terephthalate. While practically unpronounceable, it’s very much recyclable in bottle form. However, #1s are not created equally.
PET plastic bottles are created by a process like glass blowing, which creates a hollow object – think sturdy juice bottle. PET bottles are great for recycling into new things like your favorite fleece pajamas. However, PET plastics like clamshells are created using a mold or form, and that can cause problems in the recycling process.
Consider thickness. Just try to squish a juice bottle and a berry container. Big difference, right? That difference is a big deal. Plastics are melted to live their next best life. When heated with sturdy PET bottles, those flimsy #1 plastics turn to ash. Too much ash, and it’s all going in the trash.
In addition to clamshells, many other types of plastic packaging are created by molding or forming. These include salad containers, plastic egg cartons, takeout containers and veggie trays. None of those things are recyclable in Summit County.
Focus on bottles, jugs, and tubs
When it comes to plastics, let shape guide what goes in your recycling bin. Recycle more bottles like juice and soda. Include plastic jugs like milk gallons and detergent. Those things are all accepted in single stream and at the recycling centers. In single stream, you can also recycle the dairy tubs that typically hold things like sour cream, yogurt, and ricotta cheese. Keep out the plastic packaging, the berry and salad containers, and the plastic bags.
What’s a berry-lover to do?
I still buy berries, but I do what I can to reduce my plastic use. For example, organic spinach purchased loose is often cheaper than organic spinach in a clamshell. Even better if you bring your own produce bags. Save some money by preparing your own veggie tray. Choose glass or aluminum packaging when possible – some things that come to mind are salad dressing, jelly, peanut butter, and all manner of delightful condiments. And don’t beat yourself up when you occasionally need the grab-and-go convenience of a salad or sandwich.
Consider what else you can do for our planet. A little meal planning can reduce both plastic use and food waste. When you opt for takeout, skip the plastic utensils. And, take your plastic passions to local government. Several towns are making major headway in the fight against single-use plastic bags. In both Breckenridge and Dillon, plastic bag conversations were shaped by elementary school students. If they can stand up in council, so can you.
Finally, if you’re a recycling superhero, consider volunteering as a Zero Waste Ambassador for the High Country Conservation Center. No matter what you do, eat those fruits and veggies, and remember – protecting our planet goes far beyond the berry display.