How to Recycle: What You Probably Didn’t Know (Part One – Plastics)

How to Recycle: What You Probably Didn’t Know (Part One – Plastics)

Picture this: You’re driving down the road on a scenic byway listening to some tunes. You’ve got your shades on, the faint hum of the tires touching the road is just barely noticeable as your favorite song blares from the radio. You’re generally just minding your own business, enjoying your time as you travel along on your roadtrip.

Now, imagine that you round a bend and happen upon a vehicle up in the distance going down the road a little bit slower than you are. Eventually, as you come up behind the vehicle, you notice that they’re just out for a cruise, mostly minding their own business too.

And then, out of that vehicle’s window, an empty plastic bottle of some sports drink flies out and lands on the shoulder of the road, bouncing a bit and spinning until it finally comes to a halt.

You whiz by in your car.

What do you do? Is there really much that you can do?

If, by reading this, your blood starts to boil a little because it recalls times of when you’ve seen this in person, you’re probably like many others. Most of us generally have a positive mindset when it comes to environmental issues. We try not to pollute, we conserve energy, and most importantly, we recycle. But what really is recycling?

This is Part One of a series of articles intended to remove some of the mystery behind recycling. In these articles, we’ll explore some of the Do’s and Don’ts of recycling, while exploring the background of this plan for environmental resurgence. This particular article is about plastics.

Can you do us a favor real quick? Just one small favor? Look around the area you’re sitting in. Chances are, there’s at least one plastic object within arms reach of where you’re sitting. Pick up that plastic object you’re sitting by and look at the bottom. See that little triangle on the bottom; the one with the little arrows we’ve been acquainted with to identify the object as recyclable? What’s the number within that triangle?

The number should be between 1 and 7. If not, your either doing something wrong, or your plastic was manufactured by aliens. It should be noted too that not all plastic has this stamp on the bottom.

Additionally, just because you see that recycling symbol on some plastic products does not necessarily mean that it will be recycled. Sometimes it just means that theoretically an item “can” be recycled, although, it may be too cost-intensive to go through that process.

Numbers 3, 6 and 7 should generally be avoided if you intend on recycling your plastics. Numbers 2, 4 and 5 are the most optimized for creating the same type of good after the recycling process, and number 1 is the easiest to recycle.

Let’s take a look at how the numbers stack up:

  1. PET/PETE – soda bottles, water bottles, cooking oil bottles, fruit juice containers, and food packaging. Easy to recycle, but only intended for single use application. PET plastic is hard to decontaminate and repeated use increases the risk of bacterial growth. Often crushed and shredded into fibers to create carpet, fleece garments, and stuffing for life jackets.
  2. HDPE – detergent and bleach containers, hair product bottles, milk jugs, children’s toys, and some plastic bags. Considered the safest form of plastic and one of the most commonly recycled cost-effective plastics. Often used to recreate the items which they came from, or in certain instances HDPE is used to make plastic picnic tables, waste bins, park benches, or bed liners for trucks.
  3. PVC – (“the poison plastic”) clear food wrapping, cooking oil bottles, teething rings, children’s and pets’ toys, and blister packaging, sheathing material for cables, and plastic plumbing pipes, window frames, garden hoses, and other outdoor decorations. PVC is relatively impervious to sunlight, but it is also known to leach numerous toxins throughout its life cycle which pose health and environmental threats. *These products are not recyclable and should be avoided at all costs* especially so for items that come into contact with children, pets, food, water or soil*
  4. LDPE – shrink wraps, squeezable bottles, sandwich bags, most grocery bags, and some clothing and furniture. Considered less toxic than other plastics, and relatively safe for use. You’ll need to check to see if your community accepts this type of plastic, however. It is not commonly recycled, but more communities are gearing up to handle this type of plastic. Often used to recreate plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners and floor tiles.
  5. PP – cereal box liners, disposable diapers, pails, plastic bottle tops, margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape and rope. Polypropylene is lightweight, durable, heat-resistant and serves as an excellent moisture barrier. For this type as well, you’ll need to check with your community recycle center to see if they are currently accepting this number. Only about 3% of PP gets recycled in the US. These recycled products are usually used to be remade into bins, brooms and trays.
  6. PS – good old polystyrene (aka Styrofoam). Disposable drinking cups, clamshell food containers, egg cartons, plastic cutlery, packing peanuts, and rigid insulation materials. Polystyrene is structurally weak and breaks up into little bits, spreading into the natural environment, polluting beaches and killing wildlife. Polystyrene leaks a chemical known as styrene, a possible human carcinogen and cause of human reproductive dysfunction. The market for recycling this material is very small and when it is not broken up and dispersed into the environment, the majority of it ends up in landfills. *Avoid at all costs, and do not throw into recycle bin, as it may “contaminate” the bale* 
  7. PC – baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles, some food containers, and car parts. This is kind of a hodge-podge section, where all “other” plastics fit in. The primary concern with #7 plastics is that many of them contain BPA, a known endocrine disruptor. There has been considerable action to replace these BPA producing polycarbonates with bio-based polymers, like corn starch. If you do happen to see a #7 in the triangle, check to see if there is a “PLA” near it, or “Compostable” in order to find out if the material is BPA free. *These plastics are not reusable and should not be thrown into the recycle bin, especially if it is meant to hold food or water*

Now that was a lot, wasn’t it? And that was just touching on plastics! If you feel like all of that is going to be difficult to remember, or you’d like to take actions, here are some helpful links that should assist you further:

The Plastic Recycling Cheat Sheet to post near your recycling bin.
Check up-to-date info on what’s accepted in your community.
Learn what to do with the notorious polysterene.
A Michigan initiative to follow suit and ban polystyrene.

Since you’re an expert on how to check for the type of material that a plastic object is made of, let’s move on to some of the facts.

Have you ever heard that plastic does not degrade over time? Well, that’s not entirely true. Before you get your hopes up too much, it is true that plastic degrades, but only through photodegradation, which basically means that long-term exposure to sunlight breaks the plastic up into smaller and smaller bits.

This is good, right!?

Well, not so much. Plastic is molecularly complex, so it doesn’t break down into simpler compounds like most organic matter. Instead, it just turns into smaller versions of itself. To make matters worse, these little bits of plastic often end up in the oceans through our runoff and waterways. Not only do fish and birds choke on these little plastic pellets, but they also have the quality of absorbing toxins from the ocean water. Essentially, they become little poison pellets which are eaten by small aquatic animals, then bigger aquatic animals, and so on, until they reach you, the regular supermarket shopper in search of a nice seafood dinner.

These plastic pellets are known as micro-plastics, nurdles, or “mermaid’s tears.”

nurdles, mermaids tears
Photo Courtesy NOAA Marine Debris Program

The problem isn’t just with nurdles, either. According to the United Nations, in 2006 they estimated that for every square mile of ocean, there was at least 46,000 pieces of floating plastic. This is also assumed to be only about 30 percent of how much plastic is in the ocean. The rest, which may amount to an estimated 18 million tons, is either below the surface, or on the seafloor.

Are you ready for the real whopper?

No, we’re not talking about the sandwich. We’re talking about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch between Japan and California.

Basically, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (or Pacific trash vortex) is a swirling mass of garbage formed from two gyres in the Pacific Ocean, one off the coast of Japan, and the other off the coast of California. Each gyre is vortex of its own, with millions of tons of refuse in a slow and endless rotation. Depending on who you ask, it’s said that the Eastern Garbage Patch off the coast of California is the size of Texas (if not bigger).

Between either vortex is a 6-thousand mile long subtropical convergence zone where garbage floats back and forth in a dance of shrunken sun-baked rubbish. This entire mass is known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and while it doesn’t necessarily appear as a trash island, there are millions of tons of garbage in this huge vortex.

pacific garbage patch

What does this all have to do with plastic?

Scientists believe that 99.9 percent of all the refuse in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of plastic!

While there are five main gyres in the oceans around the world, this is by far the largest. Thousands of pieces of plastic wash up on the shores of Hawaiian beaches, often in the form of nurdles. Sometimes however, certain areas along the Hawaiian shoreline can accumulate 5 to 10 feet of water bottles, buckets, fishing nets, and detergent containers among other things spread out across the sand.

Even if we wanted to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, it’s said that it would take 67 trawlers a full year to clean up just 1 percent of the total amount of refuse. And then there’s the problem of figuring out where to put it after the plastic has been scooped up, because it’s already a mixture of multiple types of plastic, and most of it is full of accumulated toxins.

So, what can you do?

First and foremost, when it comes to recycling plastics, know what can be recycled. Always check the bottom of the plastic item or label to see what kind of material it is. Remember, 3, 6, and 7 (PVC, polystyrene, and BPA containing materials respectively) should generally be avoided. If there is less of a demand for these types of materials, then the supply should steadily decrease. This will also help you determine which items can go in the recycling bin, and which can not. I know it’s a little bit painful knowing that styrofoam cannot be recycled, but if there is nothing else that you decide to do with it, then it’s truly best to just throw it away.

Second, always give a thorough cleaning to those items that can be recycled. The sorting facility does not want your peanut butter jars with half a sandwich’s worth of old peanut butter left on the inside. They also do not want your detergent containers with inches of detergent left at the bottom. There are machines to clean some of the items at the recycling facility, but only to a very nominal extent compared to what you can do at home. Be sure to clean your plastics in an environmentally friendly way.

Third, if you neglect to clean your plastic containers, or you throw non-recyclable plastics into the bin, you risk the potential of contaminating the whole bale. The sorting facility screens each bale before processing the materials. If they find a high enough percentage of dirty or non-recyclable plastics in the bale, they will opt instead to send it to the landfill to save on time and effort. Keep in mind, a bale is not just the little tub kept in your garage or laundry room, it could very well mean a combination of the recyclables of the entire community. Don’t be that person that contaminates the batch for everyone.

Fourth, try to opt toward using reusable water bottles, such as Hydro Flask, Contigo, Nalgene, or CamelBak. These will save you money, and will help the environment. If you are going to drink out of the standard bulk water bottle, be sure to screw the cap on tight when you throw it in the recycling bin. The plastic reprocessors at the sorting facility measure density. Therefore, if you are taking off the cap when you throw it in the bin, you could be risking that water bottle to be sorted out and instead thrown into the landfill.

Fifth, be sure to check what your local community recycling plant is accepting. Sometimes they will not accept a certain type of material. Also, be mindful of where you can take those non-recyclable items. Generally there are specified days or locations where you can take you non-recyclable or hard-to-recycle items such as PVC, electronics, batteries, and more.

As always, the best method is to reduce, reuse, and then recycle. We live in an economy where businesses are producing and people are consuming. Most of this production and consumption is based on the interchange of goods, and as it turns out, plastic is incredibly cheap to produce. So, most of the goods we have circulating in the world are made out of some type of plastic material. Plastic is an incredible commodity, but the effects that plastic has had on the environment since their popularization in the 1960’s has been incredibly detrimental.

If you can find ways to reduce the amount of plastic you need, and then, out of those that you do need, find methods of reusing them, then we can cut the amount of items we recycle significantly. For ideas on how you can reduce and reuse plastics, check out TreeHugger.com.

Have something to say on the global commodity of plastic? Or a useful tip on reducing, reusing, or recycling plastic? Or even just a shout-out to your local Great Pacific Garbage Patch?

Be sure to drop a comment in the box below and you could be entered in a sweepstakes to save a whale.

Thanks for reading.

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