By Kathryn Sukalich on May 28, 2013

Recycling Mystery: Frozen Food Boxes


recycle, wet-strength paperboard

Photo: Alexandra Vietti, Earth911

When you think about recycling frozen food boxes like those used to hold single-serving dinners, you may wonder what the mystery is. They’re a paper product, right? So shouldn’t they just go into the recycling bin along with other paper, paperboard and cardboard?

As it turns out, recycling frozen food boxes – also known as wet-strength paperboard – may not be quite as straightforward as it seems. Because of their components, some municipalities accept them for recycling, while others do not, and depending on where you live, you might have to make a special trip to recycle them. Keep reading to learn more about frozen food boxes and their recyclability.

Why can’t frozen food boxes always be recycled?

Frozen food boxes are made from paperboard lined with polyethylene, a type of plastic that helps maintain the structure of the container when it’s exposed to cold temperatures.

Box manufacturers put “plastic within the matrix of the paper to make it water repellant or keep its insulative properties,” Terry Gellenbeck, solid waste administrative analyst for the Public Works Department in Phoenix, told Earth911.

This added plastic helps protect food from freezer burn and ensures that the paper container won’t get soggy. This type of packaging is used not only for frozen food boxes, but also for things like soda and beer cartons that you wouldn’t want falling apart if they were to get wet.

While good for packaging food, this plastic can make recycling frozen food boxes more difficult because it is impossible to remove the plastic from the paperboard, and some municipalities cannot accept this plastic into their recycling stream. Portland, Ore., for example, does not accept frozen food boxes; nor does Oklahoma City or Minneapolis.

What a recycling facility accepts depends largely on what a material can be made into. In many places where paper products are recycled, there may not be buyers interested in using a lower grade of paper (that includes small amounts of polyethylene). Some paper mills do make adjustments to their recycling processes to accommodate these materials, though, according to The Recycling Association of Minnesota.

One city that accepts frozen food boxes for recycling is Phoenix. Once the city determined that there was a recycling market for used frozen food boxes and that their paper waste stream wouldn’t be contaminated by the amount of plastic in the boxes, the city began allowing residents to put frozen food boxes in their curbside bins, Gellenbeck explained.

Another city that accepts the boxes is San Diego. The city wants to keep its recycling message simple for residents, and allowing frozen food boxes to be recycled along with other paper products helps achieve this.

“San Diego has one of the least contaminated curbside recycling streams in California, according to industry feedback we have received, so we feel we have struck a good balance between simplicity of message and clean recycling streams that return maximum revenues to help support the program,” Ken Prue, recycling program manager for the city of San Diego, told Earth911.

Other cities sort frozen food boxes from the recycling stream at their Materials Recovery Facilities, while some municipalities choose not to accept frozen food boxes at all, so it’s important to check your local regulations.


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      • rebecca gaertner

        My sister’s neighborhood has compost pick-up, and I bring my frozen food boxes over there to be composted.

        • Lisa Ammann

          It can’t be composted because there is plastic mixed in with the paper fiber.