Smarter: ♻️Which Plastics Are Actually Recyclable?

I have two choices. I can throw the container into the trash can and forget about it. Or I can be responsible. And by responsible I mean wash out what I’d aptly called “The Thing”—because if Stephen King could see what my lunch had turned into, he would have written about it—so I can recycle the plastic container. At that time, I believed all dogs go to heaven and everything we put into recycling bins gets recycled.

I was wrong. Well, wrong about the second part, not the first part (that will forever be indisputable, incontrovertible truth). Although perhaps wrong isn’t the right word, as it’s complicated. Turns out, plastic isn’t that easily recyclable. As I very recently found out, only about 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, according to 2018 data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Why such a low percentage?

Before I dive into this, it’s worth noting first that some consumer plastics, such as soda and water bottles and milk jugs, do have a recycling rate that’s close to 30 percent, which is higher but still far from ideal.

The problem stems, in part, from the design. Overall, plastic is “not designed with circularity in mind,” says Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for waste collection and management company Republic Services. “These products are intended to be used once and then discarded.”

The many additives and colorants used in the production of plastic products make the recycling process difficult, says Judith Enck, a former regional administrator at the EPA and president of Beyond Plastics, a group committed to ending plastic pollution.

Plastics as a category is also very diverse, says Patrick Krieger, the vice president of sustainability at the Plastics Industry Association, an organization that represents plastics manufacturers. There are many different applications, forms, and sizes when it comes to plastics, which makes the recycling process a bit more challenging, although currently, there are new technologies aimed at converting some of the plastics that are difficult to recycle into new plastic products. More than $7.5 billion has been invested in projects and facilities that use these advanced technologies, although more infrastructure still needs to be built to grow these technologies to a larger, more commercial scale, according to the American Chemistry Council, a trade association for American chemical companies .

At this stage, these advanced technologies are still not economically viable because it’s still cheaper to make plastic from new materials than it is to reuse old plastic, according to reporting by Kevin Loria, my CR co-worker who has written extensively about plastic waste and recycling. There are, however, a few types of plastic that are easier to recycle than others.

Which types of plastic are they?

PET plastic bottles (the bottles that water and soda are usually sold in and are labeled as number 1 in the recycling triangle) and HDPE milk jugs (the plastic jugs milk is sold in that are labeled as number 2) are recycled most consistently among the different categories of plastic due to their economic viability.

There are reliable markets for both that transform their plastics into new products. Soda and water bottles can be recycled back into more soda and water bottles, as well as fiber products such as carpets and sweaters, says Chaz Miller, who has worked for the National Waste & Recycling Association and is a member of the Maryland Recycling Network Board . HDPE milk jugs, Miller says, can be recycled into HDPE products such as detergent and shampoo bottles.

Plastics labeled number 3 through 7 in the recycling triangle are the least recyclable, Loria says. The same thing goes for the majority of plastic bags and packaging film.

In the meantime, how should we recycle?

If not all plastics are actually easily recyclable, should we still be throwing everything into the recycling bin, as I did with that takeout container, which if I recall now was very likely not a number 1 or 2 product?

The answer is no. In fact, the act of chucking every kind of plastic into the recycling bin actually decreases the amount of plastic that gets recycled because it makes separating out the easily recyclable materials more difficult. You might think you’re helping, but you’re actually hurting the whole process.

Instead of doing that, the safest rule to stick to is recycling only number 1 and 2 plastics. But you should also check with your local recycling program to see which types of plastics it accepts, as some facilities recycle, for example, polypropylene (number 5), the plastic commonly used in yogurt containers.

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