Recycling plastics

Most of us probably feel pretty confident about our recycling IQ. I know I did, until I started to do some research into the topic. I was particularly interested in learning more about plastic recycling, because it’s really hard to avoid plastic these days. I wanted to make sure I was doing everything that I could to recycle things properly, and to keep plastic waste out of the environment.

The first (and probably most important) thing that I learned is that even though many plastics are recyclable, that does not mean that they actually get recycled. This isn’t because waste management companies don’t try and sell the plastic products to recyclers, but that there is not a strong market for purchasing recyclable plastic. As a result, much of what is collected for recycling could ultimately end up in a landfill anyway. Another surprise for me was learning that most recyclable plastics can only be recycled one time. By comparison, metal and glass can be recycled an unlimited number of times. Paper products can generally be recycled five to seven times.

I do my best to reduce the amount of plastic waste that I generate. I don’t buy plastic water bottles, use disposable drinking straws, and carry my own washable cold and hot drink containers, a washable food storage container and spork with me. However, there are many types of plastic packaging that are difficult to avoid. Many of these are plastic wrap that can actually be recycled if it is taken to a store that offers plastic bag recycling. Wrappers from paper towels or toilet paper, newspaper bags and even zipper-seal bags can all be recycled in this way. These plastic bags are used to make plastic/wood composite lumber, which is often used for boardwalks and picnic tables. These plastic films should not be put in curbside recycling bins—they will become tangled in the machines that sort the recycling. By the way, the paper tubes from toilet paper and paper towels can be recycled with your paper products.

Recyclable plastic bags–if they are taken back to a store

Some of you might have noticed that there are new recycling logos on many products. How2Recycle is a standardized labeling system that many manufacturers are utilizing. Instead of a simple recycling logo, this new labeling system adds a small amount of instructional text to help consumers better understand what can and cannot be recycled (and how/where.) Many plastic film items are not recyclable. The new recycling labels help clarify this. On a package of fruit cups, for example, the label indicates that the paper packaging is recyclable, the plastic cups MAY be recyclable (depending on your local recycling program) and that the plastic film lid should be discarded. It also says to rinse the cup before recycling. This provides so much more information than the recycle logo with the number 7 which is on the plastic cup itself. The number tells what type of plastic the container was made from. Some resins are more commonly collected than others. This is what you might need to check with your local recycling program.

In general, containers that are set out for recycling should be rinsed, especially if they contained food products. This will help ensure that they will not attract vermin or produce noxious odors, and it can also make the recyclable items more valuable. There are certain types of products that cannot be recycled (e.g. multi-layer plastic pouches). The new recycling logos help to identify these products.

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