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Ice Cream Pints Don't Belong In The Recycling Bin — Until Now

Emma Loewe
February 24, 2021
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
By Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Overheads shot of cups of colorful ice cream
Image by TATJANA ZLATKOVIC / Stocksy
February 24, 2021
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It's all fun and games until you get to the bottom of the ice cream pint. It's then that, suddenly dessert-less, you're faced with the age-old question: To recycle or not to recycle?

The issue with "wishcycling" your ice cream pint.

Though it depends on where you live, most curbside programs in the U.S. do not accept ice cream pints—no matter how much they might resemble cardboard.

That's because in order to hold up in your freezer and keep ice cream from seeping into its packaging, pints are coated with a layer of polyethylene plastic. This moisture barrier makes the cartons more of a cardboard-plastic hybrid that's next to impossible to break down and reconstruct into new materials. And yet, a lot of people are still placing them in the blue bin.

The facility that ends up with these pints will then need to pull them out and send them off to landfill. The National Waste and Recycling Association estimates that nonrecyclable materials like this compose 25% of recycling hauls nationwide, making for headaches and delays in an already overtaxed waste industry.

We've been eating ice cream for hundreds of years ... how has nobody solved this problem already?

Developing a fully recyclable paperboard that can withstand the chill of the freezer is surprisingly difficult. Even polyethylene plastics that are made from plant materials like sugar cane instead of petroleum will still not be accepted by most facilities. Proving a material is fully recyclable is also an expensive and time-consuming process.

So, until now, the big-name scoopers have looked into other ways to reduce their packaging's environmental impact: Ben & Jerry's has reduced the amount of plastic coating on their paperboard pints; Magnum is rolling out ice cream tubs made from recycled plastic, and NadaMoo! just released a sugar-cane-based polyethylene pint. While these are all steps in the right direction, no 100% recyclable ice cream carton has existed—until now.

A new (recyclable, compostable, biodegradable) alternative.

This week, Sacred Serve, a small plant-based gelato company in Chicago, announced that it's cracked the sugary code with its new pint material.

Sacred Serve recyclable ice cream pints
Image by Sacred Serve

"It has a water-based moisture barrier that is 100% plastic-free, and it is recyclable, compostable, and biodegradable as well," Sacred Serve founder Kailey Donewald says on a call to mbg. It took eight years for sustainable packaging company Delipac to create the material and prove that it can, indeed, be recycled curbside across the country, break down in a compost pile (in both a backyard and industrial facility) and biodegrade in soil or water without leaving environmental contaminants behind.

"We're super excited to finally have this fully sustainable version," says Donewald, whose new pints will be rolling out starting this week at Whole Foods Market in the Midwest, Erewhon Market on the West Coast, and online. You'll be able to spot them by their unique shape: lidless (to further cut down on packaging material) with fold-over sides a la Chinese takeout boxes.

One small company making this change won't solve the larger contamination issue. But the fact that they've done so could signal sweeter days ahead for the rest of the ice cream and food storage space in general. "It can be used across categories and across industries, absolutely," says Donewald of the recyclable paperboard material.

So perhaps the day isn't too far when you can finish your ice cream and toss it into the blue bin with confidence. Until then (unless you're eating Sacred Serve, of course), when in doubt, throw it out.

Emma Loewe author page.
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.