Is Recycling Plastic As Easy As You Think?

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pollution 5 miles offshore - Manila, Philippines

The Pacific Garbage Patch is a Texas-sized swirling mass of the world's mostly plastic garbage floating around in the North Pacific Ocean. And because the garbage comes from everywhere, no country is willing to take ownership of the mess or responsibility for cleaning it up. Yuck.

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!

RecyclingSavesEnergyPoster

Recycling does more than just reduce our landfills, it saves energy, too! Graphic courtesy of recyclemorenc.org.

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.

piles of plastic

All of this plastic has to be sorted through before only some of it gets recycled. Photo by siftnz on Flickr.

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:

  • 1-800-RECYCLING.com will help you find recycling centers near you that take almost everything.
  • Eartheasy.com explains in detail the in’s and out’s of household recycling.
  • 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!

     
    • Pingback: Tips to Empower, Transform and Evolve Your Daily Life: ReUse Your Plastic Bags! | To the Sticky Mat and Beyond()

    • Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article.

      I’ll make sure to bookmark it and return to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post.
      I’ll definitely return.

    • Vinod Bodhankar

      In my city of Pune,
      India, 81,000 school students are collecting plastic waste from their homes
      (only from within the four walls of their own homes with the help of family)
      and fetching it to school every month in a monthly-collection-bag. This is the
      Sagarmitra Abhiyaan which began in 2011 with 150 students; 2012 – 10,000
      students; 2013- 61,000 students and now in 2014 – 81,000 students in Pune and
      15,000 in three other cities. This plastic being from home is clean and empty
      and dry and is purchased and recycled. AIM- every school on our planet.
      Timeline- before 2025. SAGARMITRA ABHIYAAN means Friends-of-Oceans
      Mass-Movement. http://www.sagarmitra.org . Vinod Bodhankar.

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    • C K Polymers

      Great article on recycling plastic, and on informing poeple how to save their use of plastic, recycling used plastic saves energy to remake it into another product than producing something from virgin plastic.

    • CK Polymers

      Great article, recycling plastic certainly does use less energy to make products out of then using virgin plastic. Informing the public on the different kinds of plastic is certainly helpful as there are so many different types out there.

      Residential recycling is fantastic, by adding the community glass and bottle bins are a great way to make it easy for the community to recycle all your rubbish.

    • I think you have a point, however I would break down a government recycling initiative into two parts: awareness and fulfillment. By asking (or forcing) people to separate their trash, it is a continue reminder that we need to be conscience of making an effort to reduce our effect on the planet each and every day. This awareness on a mass level leads to other positive side effects such as less litter and a consumer demand on corporations to use more eco-friendly packaging and more importantly less packaging. Then there is the fulfillment. The government actually doing the recycling. Some do, some don’t. Much of the time it is a question of budget where local government has the “marketing” budget but not the “fulfillment” budget. Of course we should push our local government to do both, but I wouldn’t “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” 

      I live in Paris and here they actually recycling everything. Ever since World War II, people are extremely aware of conservation out of necessity. I’ve been living in Paris for almost eight years and I rarely see people leave the lights on in a room or throw away perfectly good food. And most everybody recycles. Throwing a plastic bottle into the trash is like throwing away a pocket full of pennies. Sure you can do it, but people will look at your strangely. In France (and a lot of Europe) they are beyond the “awareness” stage and therefore government can spend their budgets on fulfillment. We need to remember that awareness also takes money. So when you don’t have to spend the budget on marketing, then there is more left over for actually making things happen. The US is still not to this point yet. We are still young in terms of recycling awareness. 

      Anyhooo, just some ideas to share …

    • Robwick Nme

      On conservation, I completely agree along with the need to stop the pollution of the our waters.

      The only thing that I must complain about, is not with this page but the idea of separating trash/rubbish.

      Since the 90’s, many cities have made the separation of trash into three to four bins an offense that is punishable by fine, but when the truck comes to claim the rubbish, it will mix all waste and then separate it again at the refuse center.  This is not logical.  Many government bodies have just turned your rubbish into a means of money making.This system must be stopped.  Either the people can put the solid waste into one bin and let the company do the work, or the company needs to send out separate trucks to collect the rubbish, which is harsh financially and ecologically…Where is that balance at?

    • Actually, the tipping point started a little earlier, in 1913 with the passage of the Federal Reserve Act and the passage of the 16th Amendment (Federal Income taxes) both passed under President Wilson and under the direction/supervision of Colonel Edward M. House (the author of Philip Dru: Administrator and not a Colonel in any Army).

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