Tom Watson’s article from the Seattle Times “Where can we put all those plastics?” reveals we (as Americans) only recycle twenty-four percent of our plastics. He believes so few people recycle because of the “complexity of sorting and processing, unfavorable economics, and consumer confusion about which plastics can be recycled.”
Have you ever looked on the bottom of a plastic bottle for a number? Heidi Beutel from University of Buffalo, in her presentation “Recycling vs. Incineration” correlates these numbers to different types of plastic resins. Depending on the resin, you may be able to recycle the plastic in question.
Here’s a list of all the plastic resins:
1. Polyethylene Tereplthalate (PETE)
2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
5. Polypropylene (PP)
6. Polystyrene (PS)
7. Other (including mixed plastics for cars)
In her presentation, Beutel also lists common items for each plastic. The most common plastic is Polyethylene Tereplthalate (PET) found in plastic bottles and vegetable oil bottles. These bottles are marked with a number one next to the recycling symbol. These are the easiest to recycle—just be sure to remove the cap!
But what happens after you recycle them? Dan Hogan, writer for Science Daily, in his article “Recycling Revolution” explains that “[used plastic bottles] are used for lower grade plastics to help build things like playgrounds.” Hogan says heavier plastics — like high density polyethylene — also turn into toys and playscapes post-recycling. HDPE starts out as milk jugs, butter tubs, and vitamin bottles, states Beutel. HDPE is easy to recycle.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for polyvinyl chloride. PVC is un-recyclable at the moment. Christine Escobar, author of Green Parent Chicago, in her article “Can You Recycle Plastic Bags and Plastic Wrap?” addresses why plastic wrap, a form of PVC, can’t pass the test. “The reason Saran Wrap causes such big problems is because the resin it contains cannot be re-extracted without massive amounts of energy—more than it takes to make it from scratch.” She offers another option: switch to bio-degrable food wraps like EcoWrap or invest in reusable food containers.
Like PVC, Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) causes many problems in the recycling world. LDPE is the main component in plastic bags. While they are helpful for transporting groceries, these translucent demons take up to 1000 years to break down in a landfill, says Green Sangha in “Don’t Think of a Plastic Bag!”. He reminds us that plastic bags do not biodegrade. They eventually form “plastic dust:” small pieces of plastic that get into our oceans and forests.
Plastic bags play culprit for other problems as well. Sangha talks about the 100,000 whales that are harmed by ingesting plastic bags. “Plastic dust” now outnumbers the amount of plankton in ocean waters. Those micro pieces work themselves into the food chain. To help remove plastic from the environment, bring your plastic bags back to your grocery stores, where there are receptacles to recycle them. Switching to permanent grocery tote bags is the next step — every good grocery store stocks them at very low prices. Grocery stores even work with famous designers to create the most fashionable and eco-friendly bags for your shopping.
A safer plastic to use is polypropylene. This flexible plastic keeps our yogurt fresh. These containers are easy to recycle; just make sure to clean them out! If you don’t, the “contaminated containers” will be thrown out. Escobar knows that “anything designed to wrap around food” is near impossible to recycle if not cleaned.
Some plastics can get away without a thorough cleaning. After a picnic, your plastic cutlery can go straight into the recycling bin. Most people, according to Beutel, choose not to recycle polystyrene items like plastic forks and Styrofoam dishes. Luckily, they are recyclable.
Other plastics, including thermosets, have a bleak future in recycling. These types of plastics, according to Beutel’s presentation, are designed to be strong and “set” into one form, making them ideal for car interiors.
Now that you have the information, it’s time for some action. The first step to making a difference is getting a recyclable container you can put on the sidewalk with your trash. If you’ve already done that, fantastic! Watson reminds us that “reducing and reusing trumps recycling.” He recommends investing in a metal water bottle, versus indulging in Dansani.