Taking a Deeper Dive
Image credit: Plastics News/Rich Williams
Plastic Recycling and Wish-Cycling: Myths and Facts
Plastic is omnipresent. From packaging and construction materials to household and consumer items, it’s impossible to go an hour without encountering some form of plastic. Misconceptions surrounding plastic recycling abound. Below, we explore some of these myths and answer wish-cycling conundrums.
Image credit: Amterral Refuse
In the 1980s, it became clear that plastic waste was a problem. The three Rs: reduce, reuse, and recycle were promoted to solve the problem. Over time, two more actions have emerged, making a total of five (The 5Rs of Recycling). They are prioritized and visualized in an inverted pyramid. What is significant about this new view is that recycling has been prioritized as the last, but still important, action before disposal as waste.
1. Refuse (new). The first step is to prevent plastic waste from entering your home. Choose to refuse products you know cannot be recycled, like those listed by your waste department, and mindfully refuse plastic products you do not need, such as utensils, produce bags, shopping bags, ketchup packets, etc.
2. Reduce. Before buying new items, consider whether you need the item and whether you will get a lot of use out of it. Reduce plastic consumption by purchasing items in bulk using refillable containers, trying products in alternative packaging like bar shampoo or detergent sheets, and carrying a refillable water bottle.
3. Reuse. Throwaway culture has become the norm. We can break over-consumption habits when we reuse and extend the life of the products that we already own. For example, choose well-made clothing in natural fibers, even if they are more expensive, over a closet of cheap polypropylene imports that will contribute microplastic to the environment.
4. Repurpose & Repair (new). Many products in landfills could have easily been donated, repurposed, or repaired.
5. Recycle. With anything that cannot be refused, reduced, reused, repaired, or repurposed, determine whether it can be recycled and then recycle correctly. It’s important to research what your curbside recyclers accept, as variations can exist within a single region.
Test your Recycling IQ: take the Recycling Raccoons Quiz.
More Recycling Tips and Tricks: from Republic Services.
Understanding plastic recycling symbols: from Sustainable Pathways.
Image Credit: Meet Frank the Recycling Raccoon.
Myths about plastic recycling
If recycling is the only remaining choice before sending plastic waste to the landfill, be aware of some common myths about the process.
Myth 1: All Plastics Are Created Equal. Know your numbers. One of the most common myths about plastic recycling is that all plastics can be recycled. In reality, the recyclability of plastic items largely depends on the capabilities of local recycling programs and the plastic resin type, as indicated by the resin identification code (RIC) stamped on most plastic products. Each has distinct properties.
Image credit: Sustainable Pathways
- Always recycle: #1 and #2. Items made from PET (#1 - polyethylene terephthalate) and HDPE (#2 - high-density polyethylene), such as plastic bottles, jars, and containers, can be readily collected and recycled into new products like textiles, bottles, and packaging.
- Maybe recycle, better check: #4 and #5. LDPE (#4 - low-density polyethylene) and PP (#5 - polypropylene) are also relatively recyclable, though their recycling rates may vary depending on local recycling programs and facilities.
- Problematic: #3, #6, #7. Recycling other plastics is problematic. Due to their chemical composition, PVC (#3 - polyvinyl chloride) and PS (#6 - polystyrene) are less recyclable. Recycling PVC is problematic because it contains chlorine and other hazardous additives, and recycling can release harmful chemicals into the environment. Styrofoam, also known as expanded polystyrene (EPS), is lightweight, difficult to recycle, and not accepted for recycling everywhere. Other plastic materials (#7) pose significant challenges due to their complexity, low density, and fragility. Similarly, multi-layered plastics, like those used in chip bags and pouches, are problematic because they are challenging to separate and recycle effectively.
Researching what items your local recycling services accept is essential for effective recycling.
Myth 2: Recycled Plastics Are Inferior. Advances in recycling technology have significantly improved the quality of recycled plastics. Many everyday products, including furniture, clothing, and packaging materials, are made from high-quality recycled plastics and are on par with their virgin counterparts.
Myth 3: Recycling Is Not Worth the Effort. Another common myth is that recycling plastic has minimal environmental benefits. In reality, recycling conserves energy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and conserves valuable resources. For instance, recycling one ton of PET plastic saves approximately 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space and conserves over 7,000 gallons of water.
WISH-CYCLING, it’s a thing. Can You Recycle Plastic Utensils, Plastic Bags, To-Go Coffee Cups, and Dad’s Bowling Balls?
Probably not. The recyclability of items like plastic utensils and to-go coffee cups varies by location and material. Plastic utensils are challenging to recycle due to their low-quality plastic and small size. To-go coffee cups pose challenges because they are often lined with a thin plastic film to prevent leakage. Plastic bags get caught in recycling machinery and must be manually removed. Even “compostable“ plastic bags should stay out of the recycling bin. Many compostable plastic products need a special process to be composted effectively. Although some regions have specialized recycling programs, a good rule of thumb is "when in doubt, throw them out."
What Happens to Contaminated Recycled Materials?
Contaminated recycled materials can disrupt the recycling process and reduce the quality of recycled products. Contaminated items are often rejected at recycling facilities or require additional sorting and cleaning, which can be costly and energy-intensive. Ensure that recyclables are clean, dry, and free of contaminants like food.
How Can Plastic Waste Be Disposed of?
When recycling is not possible, plastic waste should be placed in the waste bin. Depending on your waste provider, this trash will typically be sent to a landfill or incineration facilities. These methods are far from ideal, as they contribute to environmental pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Use the 5 Rs to make sure you generate as little plastic waste as possible.
What are the Global Goals for Plastic Recycling?
On a global scale, there is a growing commitment to addressing plastic waste. The United Nations has set ambitious goals for plastic recycling through its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. The target is to substantially reduce plastic waste generation by 2030 and promote recycling and sustainable use of plastics. In addition, an international plastic treaty is being developed.
Plastic recycling remains an integral part of mitigating plastic pollution and conserving resources. Dispelling myths about plastic recycling, investing in infrastructure, and recycling education are critical. Because there is no national recycling program in the U.S. and 22,000 municipal programs, consumers need to research their local waste and recycling services to determine what can be recycled in their area.