All Plastics Are Not Created Equal for Recycling
When it comes to recycling, we all want to do our part, but plastics can be confusing. It may come as a surprise that the term covers a variety of materials that use very different ingredient and manufacturing processes, which we cannot treat all the same because it may gum up the stream or even damage the machinery at our local material recovery facility (MRF). Even though we have been handling these familiar household items for years, we have much to learn about different plastics and recyclability.
Plastic is a very broad term describing a wide variety of materials developed over decades to make products and packaging that contain our food and drinks, travel into outer space or even go into our bodies as replacement parts. Many different products are made with plastic in whole or in part. A milk jug, soft drink bottle and liquid laundry soap bottle are fair game for recycling; a garden hose, strand of tree lights and granola pouch are not. In addition, there are an ever-growing number of plastic types, and not all have the same quality, performance features or value.
The recycling industry works to help recover a select group of these plastic products that are a part of our daily routine. For plastic to be recycled into another product, it must go through several processes, including shredding, float sorting, melting down and reforming. Different plastics have different float and melting points for breaking down the old product, and that determines what type of new product it can become, as well as whether it can be accepted for recycling at all.
The Plastic Number
The bottom of a water bottle, yogurt cup, milk jug or plastic shopping bag displays a number inside a triangle of arrows called a resin code. Just seeing a number on a product does not ensure that the product can be recycled at a MRF.
The resin code was developed by the plastics industry in the 1980s to serve as an indicator of the type of resin (plastic) content in the item. This code provides a guide to help the growing number of recycling programs to identify the types of plastics that the MRF might accept and help workers to identify and sort the plastic containers for shipping to plastic buyers (end markets).
The confusion for many residents is believing the “chasing arrows” triangle means the product can be put into the recycling bin and actually get recycled. Some recycling programs are limited to accepting only #1 and #2 plastics; other programs include more numbers, and still others state an exception to indicate certain exclusions to the list. This is due to conditions of supply and demand, driven by what the end markets are buying to turn into the next product
Form and Function
Besides the type of resin, the form of the product is a factor in identifying whether a MRF can sort the items into bales to be sold to an end market. A rigid plastic bottle such as a milk jug or soft drink bottle is made to enable the product to be transported, stored and maintain content integrity. The rigidity also determines how it can be recovered at a MRF and sent to a specific end market to convert into another product. These are often able to be recycled. Flexible plastics, such as plastic bags, or “stringy” plastics such as hoses and lights strings are made to fulfill other uses and expectations.
Types often mistakenly misplaced in a recycling bin might be described as “squishy” plastics such as laundry baskets, decorative wreaths and oversized items like children’s wading pools, furniture and large buckets. The ability of the MRF equipment to recover these and find end markets are very different and in many cases, not possible at this time. In other words, flexible, stringy and squishy plastics usually are not recyclable.
A problem arises when new plastic types and forms are developed to be more lightweight for efficient manufacture and transport, and provide better protection to keep food from spoiling. Each recycling facility has a significant investment in equipment to sort out the wide variety of materials delivered to them, but not all can be currently sorted or destined to an end market. Keeping up with changes in packaging is a challenge for the MRF, but there are promising initiatives on the horizon researching how to recover these more difficult items.
Kris Kaar is a senior consultant with RRS (Resource Recycling System) and president of the Illinois Recycling Association. Contact her at KKaar@recycle.com or visit IllinoisRecycles.org. RRS is a sustainability and recycling consulting firm serving communities, companies and organizations. Visit Recycle.com.
General Plastic Recycling Guidelines
Check with the city or municipality on a regular basis to find out which plastics are currently accepted in a curbside recycling program. Many offer checklists on their websites or decals on the bins to guide residents.
Some communities or counties offer drop-off locations or special collections for hard-to-recover or challenging materials such as styrene-based plastics, often labeled as #6. For example, Lake County residents can utilize SWALCO drop-off days for some materials. During April, many Earth Day events may also take hard to recycle items.
Don’t presume or expect that a new type of plastic package is included in the recycling program.
Don’t toss these into the bin: plastic toys, play pools, flip-flops, wreaths, baskets, plastic bags, and “stringies” such as hoses and light strings.