Recycling Plastic: What You Need to know
By Barbara Kessler
Many years ago the plastics industry, composed of people flush with science degrees, had the foresight to catalog and track their products by assigning numbers to different “resins” or plastics. They stamped those numbers on the bottom of plastic containers and surrounded them with the ubiquitous triangle of “chasing arrows” to signify the plastic’s potential to be recycled.
And that is where the confusion began — with those arrows, and those numbers. While the numbers show that the plastics are different. The arrows suggest that they’re all the same.
Soon, consumers applied their own reductionist equation: Triangle + Number = Recyclable. This led to trouble. Non-recyclable polystyrene cups were tossed into the recycle bin with recyclable milk jugs, and low-density polyethylene frozen food trays sidled in alongside high-density polyethylene juice bottles – a mismatch akin to sticking Mitt Romney on the same campaign bus as Dennis Kucinich. Order turned to chaos. And the result is that less than one-quarter of even the most easily recycled plastic — that used to make soda and juice bottles — gets recycled in the United States.
“The public sees that soft drink and milk bottles are sought for recycling and cannot imagine all other applications will not be equally in demand,” explains David Cornell, technical director for the Association of Post-Consumer Plastic Recyclers (APR). “This mistake leads to one of our problems – folks who ‘help’ by adding more plastic items to the bins than requested. Those added items must be isolated and disposed of unless we can find a use for them.”
Blame potato salad tubs, for starters. It seems like they should be recyclable. But in most cases, they’re made of #5 plastic, which is not in great demand by recyclers because the supply for recapturing #5 plastic has not reached critical mass and therefore it’s not that profitable. And you can’t just toss these plastics together with other grades of plastic and hocus-pocus, the result is useable.
Then there’s the problem of different types of the “same” plastic. Take your Smart Balance butter container. It’s a #2 HDPE plastic, but it’s made a different way from the highly sought-after milk jug, which is also a #2 HDPE plastic. But one is “injection grade” and the other, “blow mold” grade. The upshot? When you toss the butter tub into your recycling bin along with your milk jug, you’re as likely to muck up the recycling cycle as to help it.
The two plastics have different sensitivities. The butter tub melts into a watery substance whereas the milk jug melts into a more moldable viscous mass. So if there two versions of HDPE plastic are mixed together, bad things — as in gooey messes — start to happen at the reclamation plant.
“It’s like pancake mix and biscuit mix, they’re both made out of the same ingredients but it’s got a different blend of those components,” says Tamsin Ettefagh, an APR board member and vice president of Envision Plastics, the second largest recycler of #2 plastics in North America.
Think consumers aren’t confused? Ettefagh says she’s seen garden hoses, plastic lawn furniture and Halloween masks appear at her plant, given by eager beaver recyclers sending what they perceive as “plastics” to the great recycling beyond.
If this undesirable plastic isn’t sorted out ahead of time (fortunately, recyclers can handle a small percentage of nonconforming items), it contaminates the recyclable plastic, affecting its ability to be reinvented as carpet, fleece jackets, food containers, strapping, shampoo bottles, floor tiles and the host of other products made from reclaimed plastic.
What’s a conscientious consumer to do? The first step, says Cornell, is to get past “the general belief that all plastics are the same” and recognize that “errant plastics contaminate targeted plastics.”
This is news to some consumers because recycling efforts in the United States are so decentralized, it has resulted in spotty user education and myriad dissimilar programs. Some cities collect all plastics and sort them out at the other end; others only collect certain types. Some offer customer incentives. Some don’t. Some use blue bins. Some use gray bins. Some use green bins. Some have said, to heck with it.
Who tracks it? Near as we can tell, no one. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that they know about some model programs, but don’t follow the big picture. The Environmental Protection Agency offers tips for advancing community recycling, but doesn’t round up the facts for every city or even state.
Industry leaders admit that the involved entities – plastic manufacturers, plastic recyclers and the cities and states that manage collection – have historically spun in their own orbits. States and cities operate under countless different mandates and laws; manufacturers, driven by marketing needs, churn out plastics that present new recycling challenges to recyclers, who must then assess whether the technology or the resale market can handle the new products. And at the bottom of this chain of action, the consumer, is often left scratching his or her head.
That is starting to change as more cities see how recycling can be profitable and plastics makers perceive the benefit of keeping in the green loop by helping facilitate the “end use” of their product.
After recycling began in earnest some 15 years ago in the United States, many cities failed to institute effective consumer education because their budgets were tight and they didn’t see the point, said Steve Alexander, spokesman for the APR. Now that the recycling processes have scaled up and proven they can earn a hard cash return, cities are taking notice.
“As more and more communities look at that, more and more (plastic) will be collected and more cities…” will push recycling, he said. “The demand for more material is there, the question is keeping up with that demand.”
There’s more demand for recycled plastic than there is supply? Yes, indeed, Alexander said, consumers need to step it up.
Recycling plastics has become increasingly profitable in the last few years as the price of making virgin plastic has risen, said Rob Krebs, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents plastic makers.
“The price of natural gas has shot through the roof; it’s gone up five to seven times, and natural gas is what (60-70 percent of) plastics are made of so all of a sudden recycled plastics look awful attractive,” said Krebs, who named companies that have begun collecting their own used plastic products for another go-round, among them Hewlett Packard and Mohawk Carpets.
The ACC itself has gotten more involved in the “end cycle” of plastics, working with state agencies to help with new laws aimed at collecting plastic grocery bags and even finding common ground with the state of California in a project to provide more “away from home” plastics recycling bins at state parks, said a spokesperson for the ACC.
“No one likes litter,’’ says Krebs.
So back to sorting out those plastics. A good place to begin is with the American Chemistry Council’s handy chart on plastic types.
The chart shows that there are seven types of plastics, each with its own tensile strength, flexibility, resistance to acids, opacity, that sort of thing. Each was developed to serve certain product needs, and each has specific post-consumer uses.
For example, # 1 plastic (Polethylene Terephthalate or PET or PETE) is clear, shatter resistant and waterproof, which makes it suitable for soft drink bottles, food jars for peanut butter and jelly and oven film. Cleaned and recycled, it can be spun into fibers to make fiberfill and carpet yarns. You’ve heard of polyester.
Number 1 plastic is very different than, say, # 3 plastic (PVC), which is used to make sturdy piping, window frames, rigid packaging and decking and railing. (You’ve probably heard that PVC is controversial. It requires chlorine to manufacture and releases dioxin when burned – but only if its burned in a certain way, Krebs said, which it almost never is. Municipal burning of PVC does not produce dioxin, he said. In terms of recycling, the pertinent factoid to know is that PVC can contaminate an otherwise “clean” load of #1 plastic.)
The second step to getting your scout badge in plastic recycling is to know that at this point in history there are just two plastic types that you really need to remember and absolutely attempt to reclaim for recycling: Plastic # 1 (PET) and # 2 (high density polyethylene or HDPE).
These two plastic varieties – which are used to make soda, water and juice bottles (#1’s) and milk jugs, shampoo, dish and laundry detergent containers (#2’s) comprise the vast majority of plastics recycling in North America, Ettafagh says. So, stick to those and you’ll do no harm. (And while you’re at it, throw out the caps because they’re often made of a different plastic.)
Or even better, just remember to recycle all “bottles,” Ettafagh said, because the vast majority of bottles are recyclable and are made of plastic #1 or #2.
“You’d get more recoverable material by making the message simpler,’’ she said, because people would realize that their shampoo and cleaning supply bottles also are recyclable. (And you could quit squinting at the bottom of your ketchup bottle — because you’d know that it’s recyclable — and move on to cleaning your refrigerator.)
There’s even a website, called AllPlasticBottles, designed to promote this message. “Consumers want to recycle their plastics but the resin identification code can be confusing,” according to APB. “By asking for all plastic bottles, a program can recover higher volumes of PET (#1) and HDPE (#2). Since 95 percent of all plastic bottles produced are PET and HDPE, it is reasonable to assume that the more bottles you collect overall, the larger the percentage collected will be PET and HDPE.”
“We’ve got to stop teaching people chemistry, so we start with bottles first and then we go on to food containers,” Ettafagh added.
She’s referring to the next step in plastics recycling – which will be to tackle the # 3, #4, #5 plastics, which can be and are recycled, but to a lesser degree because consumers don’t use as much, there are fewer vendors and some technological hurdles to scaling up that process, she said.
Yes, it seems a shame that those multitudinous yogurt containers and Lean Cuisine trays are nothing but trash. But for now there’s not much of a post-consumer market for those other plastics, though some cities with more advanced recycling programs are adding those to what they collect and send for re-fabrication into floor tile and landscape lumber.
Aside from these issues, there remains the overall controversy about the very existence of plastics. Yes, environmentalists would like to see fewer plastics and more biodegradable substitutions. They don’t like how so much plastic is made from petroleum in an intensive process that uses energy, and they ask important questions like, “Do we really need a half-dozen little individual disposable plastic containers in our kids’ lunchbox.’’
But Krebs says the plastics industry is environmentally defensible if you consider that many of its products can be recycled and then used a third time as combustible fuel in municipal incinerators. Furthermore, he points out, you’d want a good solid plastic for your heart valve not one that would degrade, and you probably like how that Trex on your deck was made from recycled from waste plastic.
The key is that it gets recycled.
Plastic “has three or four lives and it can give of itself as energy at the end of its life,” says Krebs. “I say to environmentalists, what other material does that? None.”
WasteWise, an online publication produced by Environmental Protection Agency and related private industries, offers tips for consumers who want to help their city or employer set up or expand a recycling program.
Recycler’s World is a trade publication that can help people or city staff who want more information on plastic recycling companies and need to know how plastic can be sold, re-used and redeployed.
RecyclingBizz.com, a global trade publication for those in the recycling business.
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