Recycling Plastics: Myths, Facts, and Misconceptions
Posted: 09-20-2011 10:46 am by B. Buczynski
Plastic is present in almost every product in our homes, from toys and packaging to furniture and electronics. While plastic is cheap and often very convenient, it's quickly becoming one of the world's fastest-growing sources of pollution.
In 2009, the United States generated 13 million tons of plastics as disposable containers and packaging, almost 11 million tons as durable goods, such as appliances, and almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, for example plates and cups. Unfortunately, only 7 percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2009 was recovered for recycling, and much of it ends up in streets and sewer systems, which eventually wash into the ocean.
The best way to eliminate plastic waste in our landfills and oceans is to stop purchasing single use plastic products and recycle the plastics that we must use. However, rules about which plastics can and cannot be recycled in curbside programs is different for each community, and many have changed over the years, resulting in misconceptions about what's safe to put in the recycling bin.
Plastics containers aren't recycled into new plastic containers
Placing a plastic bottle into the recycling bin leads many to believe that it will eventually become a new plastic container, similar to the way glass and aluminum is recycled, but that's almost never the case. Many plastic recycling programs use the reclaimed material to manufacture secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber-all of which are non-recyclable. Why are plastics doomed to a short-life cycle?
Most of the difficulty in recycling plastics comes from the nature of the polymers themselves. Plastics must often be of nearly identical composition in order to mix efficiently. When different types of plastics are melted together they separate, like oil and water. The boundaries between these separate layers causes structural weakness in the resulting material, meaning that polymer blends are only useful in limited applications. The widespread use of dyes, fillers, and other additives in most plastic containers also makes it more difficult to process them for recycling. In many cases, polymers are easily damaged by many of the processes that could cheaply remove the added dyes. Additives are used less frequently in beverage containers, which is why they can be recycled more easily.
Just because you see a recycling symbol, doesn't mean a curbside program will accept it
It's the number inside the arrow symbol, not the symbol itself that determines a plastic's recyclability. Because plastics recycling can be an intensive and expensive process, not every community has the resources or technology to execute it effectively. The best way to know exactly what happens to the plastic containers placed in your recycling bin is to contact your municipal recycling program or curbside pick-up service. Ask for their most recent list of accepted plastics as well as details about where and how the plastic is recycled. You might learn that while a private curbside recycling service simply processes the plastic for down-cycling, a municipal drop off program prepares it for recycling elsewhere.
Plastics #1 (PET and PETE) and #2 (HDPE)
These are the most commonly used for bottled beverages, and are also the easiest to recycle. If you must purchase plastic containers, always opt for those made from this common grade of plastic.
Plastics with the number 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7
These are more difficult to recycle, and may not be accepted through your curbside program. In some communities, these plastics can be recycled at central drop-off centers.
Even though they may bear the #2 recycling symbol, plastic bags are almost never accepted by municipal or curbside recycling programs
If plastic bags are mixed in with other recyclables, it can contaminate the entire batch. This is why you should always place loose recyclables in appropriate bins, and not in plastic bags. However, many grocery and retail stores do have drop-off containers where plastic shopping bags can be returned for recycling.
Purchasing products with a high percentage of post-consumer recycled content
This is the best way to close the plastic recycling loop. The more consumers demand recycled packaging and products, the more likely manufacturers are to make the extra effort to make products that can be easily recycled.
Beth Buczynski is a freelance copy writer and environmental blogger. She holds a Master's in Public Communication and Technology with specialization in Environmental Communication from Colorado State University, and is passionate about leaving this planet in better shape than she found it.
Image Credit: Flickr - sparepartsstudio
To find out about curbside plastic recycling in your neighborhood: