There is a new island being formed in the Pacific Ocean and it’s composed entirely of the world’s garbage. According to Greenpeace.org, “The trash vortex is an area the size of Texas in the North Pacific in which an estimated six kilos of plastic for every kilo of natural plankton, along with other slow degrading garbage, swirls slowly around like a clock, choked with dead fish, marine mammals, and birds who get snared. Some plastics in the gyre will not break down in the lifetimes of the grandchildren of the people who threw them away.”
Now if that’s not enough motivation to recycle plastic, then we don’t know what is. But before we all run home and throw every plastic container, case or wrap into the blue bin, we need to read on. Because actually, not all things made of plastic are recyclable. Even some items with the friendly chasing arrows symbol will eventually end up in the landfill of most municipalities.
It turns out that sometimes, placing something in the recycling bin is actually worse than just chucking it. To help clear up the confusion, we decided to take a closer look at the in’s and out’s of plastic recycling to help us figure out how best to do good when it comes to this ubiquitous and complicated subject.
Now first off, let us be clear. Recycling is good. It takes two thirds less energy to make products from recycled plastic than from virgin plastic. In the United States, people are now recycling approximately 32 percent of their total waste which is the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking over 39 million cars off the road. Nice work!
Most cities now require some form of residential recycling and the state of California is even creating legislation to require commercial participation as well. Companies like Seventh Generation are stepping up and using primarily recycled materials in their packaging and the number of readily available consumer products made from recycled materials is on the rise.
But here’s where it gets more complicated. Glass, paper and metal are pretty straightforward when it comes to recycling, but plastic is far more complex. Even the #1 and #2 plastics, which are considered the most recyclable, contain various combinations of additives (plasticizers, molding agents, dyes…) which require different processes to be fully broken down and recycled.
These all need to be sorted at the recycling plants, which is an expensive and time consuming process that eventually relegates a good portion of the “recyclable” plastic to the landfill, because the technology is not in place to actually recycle it. Not to mention the amount of energy required to move all of those containers through the complex sorting process.
So What Do We Do?
Don’t despair! We can still make a difference and actually vastly improve the way our current recycling system works by taking a few simple steps:
Sort carefully: Make sure that you are only putting out the plastics that your municipality recycles (in most cases, containers marked #1 or #2)
Participate in the Gimmie 5 program: Preserve, a company that makes products for the home from recycled plastic wants your #5 plastic containers! Drop them off at your local participating Whole Foods market or mail them straight to the company.
Buy less plastic: The United States consumes 1500 plastic water bottles a second. Yep, that’s right. And 80% of them end up in landfills, despite our recycling programs. So imagine what a difference we’d make if we all bought just one reusable metal water bottle and filled it with filtered tap water instead? Or even refilled and reused the plastic bottles we already have, as they can be safely reused up to 25 times.
Upcycle, baby! Buy secondhand (or vintage, as the glossy magazines like to call it), support local folks (or non-local- it’s all good!) making beautiful and useful objects out of previously used materials. Check our post on upcycled products for ideas! And put your newly purchased treasures in a bag you brought along with you!
Some good online resources:
So is plastic recycling a waste of time? Certainly not, as long as we are doing it properly. And now that we know what we’re doing, we can also help by spreading the word. Because every little bit really does make a difference!