Friday, January 21, 2011

Recyclable vs. Compostable = explaining coated and uncoated cardboard and paper

A facility manager recently asked me this question:
Can you please explain to me the difference between coated and uncoated cardboad and paper. I know you explained this to me during our meeting and it was a great simple explanation, but I can't seem to recall. Since we started our food collection program I've been getting a lot of questions from the tenants about how to identify the differences. Thanks.

Great question and one that is causing a lot of confusion these days!  I will start off with two simple tips, then explain them in detail:

1) Polycoated means plastic coated, polycoated items can often be recycled but never composted.
2) Waxed items can be composted, but never recycled.

Coated materials are typically poly-coated, poly means plastic, so essentially they are plastic coated materials that keep moisture in, or out, depending on the product. Think frozen food boxes, milk cartons, juice cartons and even cardboard boxes that need to keep the products inside of them dry. If these items were “paper only” without a coating they would leak, or allow moisture in as the case may be. Items like coffee cups and paper plates are often polycoated, to stop them from leaking onto our laps while driving or enjoying a picnic. Polycoated materials can frequently be recycled, but never composted, because the poly film doesn’t degrade, or disperse, in the composting process – and who wants poly (plastic) compost in their organic garden!

Items like the Chinet brand of paper plates are not polycoated, neither are the very thin, plain (not shiny) white paper plates. These items CAN be put into the compost bin – because they do not have a polycoat. Waxed items can be composted - Dixie cups and waxed paper are good examples. Wax is acceptable in the compost bin and breaks down in the system.

Further confusing most folks, waxed items can never be recycled because the wax comes off during the paper pulping process (pulping = think of a huge blender with paper and water swirling around at 100mph) and the wax adheres to the soon to be new paper/cardboard, making it impossible to print on these items.

When in doubt as to whether an item is polycoated or not, take a photo, or save the item, and ask your service provider to look at it and let you know for sure. Compost and/or Recycling service providers are very good at determining whether an item is polycoated, uncoated, waxed – or garbage!

Let me know if you have additional questions. I am always happy to help!


  1. It is great of you to post a good reference. This is a very informative guide.

  2. Wow, you have here very educative and informative blog. Nice idea!

  3. Hi Kim I need some advice we are trying to find somewhere to recycle our label backing wax paper we produce at least 3.6 tons per six weeks we have no where or don't know how we can recycle or compost it I need help to reduce waste.
    Thanks kathy

  4. Thanks for sharing this! This was exactly what I needed to know for a party we're throwing. I hate to use disposable goods but it's not feasible to do anything else with a large pay.