Consumer confusion about what can and can’t be recycled grows as more communities embrace curbside recycling programs. It doesn’t help that those numerical recycling codes (#1 through #7) on plastic containers are both difficult to read and impossible to understand.
If the option is easily available, people will generally opt to recycle, rather than simply discard their recyclable products. However, some types of plastic may require a bit more effort and diligence on your part to reach a willing recipient. You may be wondering, is it worth the trouble? Why should you bother recycling plastic at all?
Why Recycle Plastic?
The answer is simple. By recycling plastic, you:
- Conserve energy
- Save natural resources
- Reduce greenhouse gasses and pollution
- Reduce the amount of plastic waste that goes into our landfills, oceans, and natural environments
In fact, it takes two-thirds less energy to make products from recycled plastic than it does by using virgin materials. When one ton of plastic bottles is recycled, almost four barrels of oil are saved. That means there is more oil available for home heating, which in turn helps keep the price down. Furthermore, recycling just one ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space. The more plastic we recycle, the less chance it has to end up either in landfills or as plastic littering our landscape and our oceans.
A report by the American Chemistry Council shows that the demand for recycled plastics exceeds the available supply, and that demand may increase given current green trends. The more we recycle plastic, the more of it will be available to manufacturers to produce new products.
Problems With Plastic
Discarded plastic has become a visible scourge on land and in our oceans. Every major ocean on our planet contains “gyres” - swirling maelstroms of fragmented pieces of plastic that have been swept out to sea. Caught up in ocean currents, these gyres are huge and growing. And there’s no simple way to clean them up, though there are organizations hard at work attempting to do so, including the Algalita Foundation, the Ocean Conservancy, and, more recently, Method (a laundry products company).
When it comes to plastic, the “out of sight, out of mind” perspective is deadly. Plastic containers, bottles, utensils, and all kinds of implements have turned once pristine beaches into a littered wasteland. And all this plastic is killing wildlife and marine life - they mistake the plastic litter for food, often dying horrible, painful deaths.
Many plastic products contain dangerous chemicals and compounds, including Bisphenol A (BPA). When exposed to heat, these chemicals have been known to leach from the plastic and have the potential to adversely affect any nearby water supply.When plastic is incinerated, it releases toxic chemicals – including BPA – into the air we breathe. In turn, this can create a variety of health problems, particularly for the young and the elderly.
It takes approximately 1,000 years for plastic to degrade. Tossing those bottles and containers into landfills doesn’t mean they’re gone. They’re guaranteed to be here centuries later as a testament to our excessive wastefulness.
The Possibilities for Plastic
There is good news. Most plastics are recyclable and reusable – and more new items are being created out of it all the time.
New Life for Plastic
Plastic bags – the white, flimsy kind – have the opportunity to gain a second life. They are already being:
- Transformed into plastic lumber
- Reprocessed into small pellets that can be used for jewelry, moldings, decorative bowls, or cushioning when tumbling fragile stones
- Woven into attractive handbags and shawls, especially by women artisans in third world countries who use this as a project to help better their lives
- Made into post consumer resins that can become basic materials for products, such as new sturdier bags, pallets, containers, crates, and pipe
There’s even a new Japanese machine that is turning recycled plastic bags into crude oil for fuel.
Still other companies are looking for ways to solve the plastic waste issue on a global scale. In 2010, Swedish vacuum manufacturer Electrolux introduced its first line of “green” vacuum cleaners, made with 55% to 70% recycled plastic (Electrolux UltraSilencer Green Canister Vacuum Cleaner). To meet what they saw as increasing consumer demand for green products, they planned to expand the line and produce vacuums made with 100% recycled plastic. Discovering that there wasn’t enough recycled plastic available, the international appliance manufacturer created a global initiative to begin recovering plastic from our oceans gyres. This resulted in their stunningly unique Vacs From the Sea vacuums.
As more companies are getting into the “upcycling” industry, it’s more important than ever that consumers recycle as much of their plastic products as possible.
How to Recycle Plastic
Some plastics are easier to recycle than others. Municipalities that accept plastic for recycling generally accept numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4. This is because recyclers have an easier time of finding buyers for these. And like most businesses, supply and demand is what drives success or failure in the recycling industry.
What About #5 Plastics?
Up until the past several years, few communities offered a way to recycle #5 plastic, primarily because there was little demand for it. We see #5 plastic in all sorts of consumer products – from yogurt and cottage cheese containers, to small plastic takeout food containers, to hair care products, to screw-on bottle lids.
If your community hasn’t yet established a #5 recycling program, there are other options you can take advantage of.
Corporate Recycling Initiatives
Companies like TerraCycle, Preserve and, to a smaller degree, Aveda Corporation have built a demand for these and other types of hard-to-recycle products by creating “upcycling” programs:
- TerraCycle’s Brigades allow schools and nonprofit groups to collect various types of plastics, send them in, and receive a donation for each item they receive. The company partners with the manufacturers of those products and creates programs to turn waste into new, useful consumer products. They’ve turned discarded candy wrappers, chip bags, and single-use drink pouches into purses, totes, pencil cases, trash cans, placemats, and even “eco speakers.”
- Preserve’s Gimme 5 Program accepts returned #5 plastic containers and turns them into new toothbrushes and razors. Consumers participating in this program earn RecycleBank points that can be redeemed for discounts and deals at various local and national businesses.
Other companies are beginning to jump on this bandwagon as the concept of product stewardship and consumer demand for more green products has grown across America.
Also, there are independent recyclers throughout the country that may accept things your local waste management won’t. To locate one near you, go to Earth911.com and enter your city and state.
Surprisingly, there are still communities where recycling is not only non-mandatory but is not even offered to residents. This too is something that consumers can have a say in.
In fact, consumers can do to a lot to greatly reduce the plastic waste scourge. As more towns embrace a plastic bag ban, using reusable bags is a must. Consumers “vote” with their dollars, so when grocery shopping, see about purchasing products in recycled packaging. More manufacturers are shifting to this all the time. And as for those plastic water bottles, there are plenty of eco-friendly options – from installing a home water filter, to using water pitchers and “green” stainless steel water bottles with built-in filters (e.g. Klean Kanteen)
Cutting back on plastic isn’t difficult to do. Doing so saves you money in the long run, and it helps save wildlife and the environment too.
What have you done to recycle plastic in your home or community or to reduce your use of plastic products?
(photo credit: JustASC, Shutterstock)