By Jericho Rajninger
Many “recyclable” materials are not recycled or even recyclable. While papers and metals are recycled at relatively high rates, recycling rates for plastic are below 10 percent. Most plastics display numerical codes, purporting to denote a standardized and elaborate recycling system. But the system is convoluted, sometimes confusing even recycling facilities and identifying recycling processes that are not used.
Recycling is partially governed by fluctuations in the market. Recycled materials are collected, processed and then sold to producers who make goods from these materials. But cheap new plastics often undercut more expensive recyclables. If the demand for recycled material is low, it doesn’t matter if waste is recycled: it will be stored for future sale or, more likely, shipped to landfill.
Still, most plastics are not designed to be recycled at all. Even if recycling infrastructure were maximized, less than 50 percent of existing plastic would be recycled effectively. Reprocessing some mixed plastic is not environmentally or economically viable, and can pose significant health concerns.
Best recycling practices:
So what plastics can be recycled and how can they be recycled within the parameters of the current system?
Recycling varies greatly depending on local standards and regulations. Generally, plastics most suited for recycling are of a single material, like beverage and other liquid containers. But if these plastics are not cleaned before being recycled, they will likely not be recycled. According to Republic Services, a waste collection company, food residue in one recycled item can contaminate an entire truckload of recycled material. Bottle caps, too, can cause problems at facilities unless these facilities have the correct equipment to accommodate smaller pieces. Republic Services offers the credit card test as a rule of thumb: Anything smaller than a credit card should not be recycled.
Opaque tubs and bottles are harder to recycle because they are usually made of more than one type of plastic. The same goes for paper cups, which have a layer of plastic film on the interior that is difficult to remove. Recycling authorities recommend checking with your local facility to find out how to dispose of these items correctly in your area. Small and flimsy plastics are not intended to be recycled. They cannot be sorted correctly by equipment and are either treated as trash or can be confused with paper, which, authorities say, ends up doing more harm than good.
Buying in metal and glass instead of plastic can help curb excess waste: Unlike plastic, metal and glass can be recycled indefinitely without requiring new materials or generating additional waste. In the end, the best way to reduce waste is to avoid producing it at all. An emphasis on recycling can distract from other more sustainable waste solutions.
- Recycling Labels That Make Sense: https://how2recycle.info/labels
- See What’s Accepted in Your Area: https://how2recycle.info/check-locally
- Feds to Fund Scrap Plastic Liquefaction Tech: https://resource-recycling.com/plastics/2020/05/06/feds-to-fund-scrap-plastic-liquefaction-tech/
- When Does Recycling Your Plastic Make Sense: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/article/what-plastic-types-to-recycle/
- Plastic Wars: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/plastic-wars/
- The Solution to the Plastic Waste Crisis? It Isn’t Recycling: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/14/plastic-waste-crisis-recycling-consumption-environmentally-friendly