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Sorting It Out: A Hands-On Look at FSP Food Residue in Boston

As Ive discussed in previous posts, FPIs Paper Recovery Alliance (PRA) and Plastics Recovery Group (PRG) are tackling perceived and real barriers that impact increased recovery of foodservice packaging (FSP). One of the most commonly mentioned barriers is food contamination. Here at FPI, we dont just talk the talk. Recently, FPI walked the walk and set out to determine how the levels of food residue on foodservice packaging in the recycling stream.


Our recent study in a Boston material recovery facility (MRF) was designed to determine whether foodservice packaging items, set out for recycling from selected areas around Beantown, were more contaminated with food residue than other food packaging items that have traditionally been accepted in residential recycling programs (for example, yogurt and ketchup containers). A reason some MRFs have given for not accepting FSP is the concern that it may have high levels of food residue that could negatively impact the sorting process or the value of the reclaimed material.


In September, consultants to the City of Boston and FPIs recovery projects sorted through approximately 2,000 pounds of recyclables set out at curbside. The consultants used a visual ranking system to show how much food residue was on the selected foodservice packaging and other food packaging, allowing them to see the correlation between residue levels for each category. Can you guess what they found?

  • The study concluded that there was no appreciable difference in the amount of contamination between foodservice packaging and broader types of food packaging.

  • The recycling samples were found to be exceptionally clean! According to the sorting team, much of the packaging was remarkably cleaner than they had experienced at previous waste sorts. Since this is the only study of this type to be conducted, its unknown whether this is atypical. To keep this in perspective, we must consider this sample as representative of the Boston area but acknowledge that this may not be truly representative of other cities.

  • In terms of contamination, the study found that because paper FSP recycling is not widely promoted in the city, there were relatively small quantities of paper FSP in our samples, which limits how we use this comparison. On the other hand, we found a meaningful comparison associated with plastic tubs, cups and clamshells. These items occurred in large quantities and had broad range of food residue levels. It would be interesting to see how publicity and promotion of FSP recycling in Boston would change these findings. Would the quantity of FSP in the stream increase? Would the FSP remain clean with an increase in quantity? And how would public education of FSP recycling affect the levels of contamination?

As with any first attempt, this was an early look at an ongoing analysis of the issue, and were interested in learning how the findings in Boston compare to other cities. Overall, this hands-on experience is very encouraging and gave us a great opportunity to gain initial data and real-world comparisons of FSP and non-FSP contamination.


Having these initial insights into the quality of FSP in the residential recycling stream, it is exciting to think that with the addition of FSP, many cities could probably easily divert more of their waste stream from the landfill! With such potential in increased recycling rates from FSP recycling, and the conclusions drawn from this study, this is an opportunity that merits continued attention.

Want more information on the study?  Please send your request to Natha Dempsey.

Posted By Natha Dempsey (Vice President) | 11/19/2013 9:08:12 AM