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Recycling Mystery: Meat Packaging

Recycling Mystery: Meat Packaging

If you buy meat in a grocery store, it likely comes on top of a plastic pad in a plastic container that’s wrapped in plastic. That’s a lot of plastic waste. Can you recycle meat packaging? Not all of it, but let’s look at what you can do.

We know how you feel. Walking through the grocery store can be overwhelming when you are trying to make environmentally conscious choices. Aisle after aisle of plastic-wrapped items and boxes with plastic-wrapped treats inside abound. It can be hard to avoid excess plastic and non-recyclable packaging while picking the best product for your family and the environment.

There are some easy ways to reduce your waste when you shop, like bringing reusable shopping bags. However, it can be hard to know what to do with the packaging of some products you may buy regularly, like the tray of chicken or steak wrapped in plastic. Here are the items that are typically used to package meat in the U.S.

What Is Meat Packaging Made From?

In most grocery stores, meat packaging consists of three pieces: a plastic tray, an absorbent plastic pad, and clear plastic wrap. Each of these items requires different handling.


The meat tray is usually made of expanded polystyrene (EPS), which is a type of plastic you may know by the brand name “Styrofoam.” It’s unlikely that you can put it in your curbside bin because the material, although it is recyclable, is not widely recycled. However, there are other options for recycling this material. You can use the Earth911 Recycling Search to check for drop-off locations near you that will accept EPS. Note that it’s listed as “#6 Plastic – Expanded” in Recycling Search, as shown below:

Earth911 Recycling Search

Unfortunately, many facilities won’t accept food containers for recycling because of food contamination, so it’s important to confirm with the facility before you take your meat trays there. If you do find a location that accepts them, remember that raw meat can carry many bacteria, so it’s essential to clean and dry the trays well before you drop them off.

Absorbent Pad

If you have ever wondered why that chunk of non-edible material is under your packaged meat, you aren’t alone. The absorbent pad has an important job. It not only keeps liquid bacteria at bay but can also keep your meat fresher longer.

The absorbent pad is usually made of silica gel or cellulose coated in plastic. It is not accepted for recycling or composting in the U.S at this time, so you’ll need to dispose of it in the trash.

Cling Film

Unfortunately, a large amount of plastic film wraps the entire meat package. In most locations, you cannot put plastic bags or film in your curbside recycling bin. These thin plastics jam sorting machinery at the recycling facility. Recycling workers must shut down the sorting machines to clear out the plastic film, disrupting operations and endangering the workers.

Because this film has been in contact with raw meat, it is unlikely to be accepted for recycling. To avoid contaminating other recyclable items, dispose of meat-soiled plastic wrap in the garbage.

However, many kinds of plastic bags and film are recyclable if you are willing to take them to a collection location for recycling. Many grocers and larger retailers accept clean and dry plastic bags, wrap, and film for recycling. Look for a bin near the front of the store, or use Earth911 Recycling Search or PlasticFilmRecycling to find a location near you.

Can We Make Better Choices?

Many companies are working hard to develop materials that are more environmentally friendly. The grocery store is a great place to start looking for more of these options. Bringing your reusable bags from home , choosing plastic-free produce, and buying items in bulk using your reusable containers are excellent options.

The completely waste-free and most sustainable option is a resealable glass container that can be placed in the dishwasher after each use. However, your grocery store is unlikely to accommodate. Typically, traditional butchers or meat counters in grocery stores will wrap your meat in paper instead of plastic, but we encourage you to ask them to use your glass container. If they refuse, tell them you’ll find a butcher who will work with you to reduce waste.

Sometimes it requires some extra effort to change our shopping habits or drop off items for recycling, but our small changes can make a big difference to our earth’s wellbeing.

Originally published on January 12, 2021, this article was updated in February 2023.

About the Author

Creative director at Bazely Creative, Samantha Bazely has a passion for helping people. Creating articles that give actionable tips to the reader without the fluff is part of why she founded Bazely Creative. She specializes in helping small businesses craft content that produces results.

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