a guide to recyling plastics

Recycling can be confusing. Laws around the subject vary by state-by-state and even city-by-city. Some cities, Seattle for example, have made recycling mandatory and enforce the law by fining violators. Meanwhile, Vermont, Massachusetts, and a handful of other states have enacted bottle bills to help incentivize local recycling efforts. But despite all this legislation, it seems like many states and cities, even ones with good recycling programs, do little in the way of public education. Sure, I can go to the City of Boston website to see a nicely designed graphic covering the do’s and don’ts of recycling. But beyond that, I’ve struggled to find accessible, clear materials that can help me make better buying decisions and feel confident I’m using recycling in the right way.

Exhibit A

On a recent trip to North Carolina, my boyfriend and I stopped by a community music event. We were on vacation so naturally we started things off at the bar. After getting our IDs checked and waiting in a long line of thristy people, we finally reached the wine and craft beer. Crap, I thought. Plastic. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me that we’d be drinking and that drinking likely would mean using single-use plastic but there I was, face-to-face with a material I knew was up to no good.

A half hour or so later, I finished the wine and started thinking about how I could redeem my lack of foresight. Looking down, I noticed a small symbol on the bottom of my cup. I flipped it over to see what it said. In the middle of all the arrows was the number six. Immediately, I picked up my phone and to my dismay, found that the cup I was holding in my hand was actually made from the same materials as styrofoam. NOOOOOOOO. Not wanting to feel like the only guilty party, I grabbed my boyfriend’s festival-themed plastic cup. It was thicker than mine, so I figured it had to be worse than the styrofoam I had managed to pick up. Nope, on the contrary, the number on on the bottom of his cup—#1—let me know it was actually highly recyclable (as plastics go).

Life is plastic. It’s not that fantastic.

Plastics fall into their own category of recyclables. And as my mishap shows, the numbers themselves are not always straightforward. From laundry detergent to house insulation, all plastics are given a number, ranging from one to seven, and each category varies in its level of recyclability. Knowing what these numbers mean and how to properly dispose of the materials is one of the simplest ways to make better purchasing decisions. And, I’m willing to bet your local garbage and recycling collectors won’t be mad about it either.

No. 1 – PET (Polyethylene terephthalates)

Not a day goes by when the average American doesn’t touch a PET. No, I don’t mean your friendly neighborhood labradoodle. I mean Polyethylene terephthalates. Each of the million single-use plastic water bottles sold daily around the world is made up of this material, along with common kitchen items like store-bought salad dressing and mouthwash. Even though it’s one of the most recyclable plastic materials, shockingly, only 25% of PET products are recycled. Instead, the majority end up in landfills and waterways, where they’re left to emit chemicals into the surrounding areas. PET products that are recycled come back to life as fleece, furniture, and carpeting.

How can you avoid PET? BYOB. I can’t say it enough. At this point, the majority of Americans have at least one reusable bottle lying around—so use it! You can also start making your own salad dressings to avoid plastic packaging and try buying products like life jackets second-hand instead of new.

No. 2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

Recently, Seventh Generation came out with a low-plastic alternative to their regular detergent. The plastic they were replacing? High-Density Polyethylene. Sturdy and stiff, this material is found in milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and cereal box liners and is considered one of the safest plastics. Sadly, even though HDPE is highly recycable and widely accepted at curb-side pickups, 65-70% of HDPE end up in the trash. The 30-35% that are recycled, get turned into plastic lumbers, trash bins, and pens.

To cut back on your amount of HDPE, consider making your own laundry detergent and dish soap, buying cereal in bulk (with reusable bags or jars), or switching from milk to a plant alternative.

No. 3 – V (Vinyl) or PVC (Polyvinyl chloride)

A common material in kids toys, hoses, shampoo bottles, and piping, PVC is known for its softness and flexibility. But don’t let the cute, bendable action figures fool you; PVC’s main ingredients is chlorine, a chemical known to release harmful biotoxins. In fact, it’s got such a bad reputation that it’s often referred to as “poison plastic”. Because PVC requires almost all virgin materials, it’s not usually accepted through curbside recycling. What is recycled turns into mud flaps, cables, and speed bumps.

The best way to cut back on your use of PVC is to just not buy it. Especially because of its chemical components, it’s in the best interest of your health and the earth to find accessible alternatives.

No. 4 – LDPE (Low-density polyethylene)

Everytime you say, “Plastic, please,” at checkout, you’re actually saying “yes” to low density polyethylene. Shrink wrap, squeezable water bottles, and bread bags are also common culprits. Although not typically collected with residential recycling, communities are becoming more accepting of LDPE. Most supermarkets now offer recycling in-store for plastic shopping bags and recycling programs, like mine, are happy to accept many LDPE products at the curb. However, even with those efforts in place, Americans on average use one plastic shopping bag per day. To put that in perspective, Danes only use four per year. At this rate, the majority of LDPE plastics end up being trashed after minimal use. The few products that are recycled are used to make shipping packages, paneling, and floor tile.

Overall, try to steer clear of LDPE. These materials aren’t typically very durable and in terms of bang for your buck, reusable totes, silicone sandwich bags, and mesh produce bags will serve you just as well, if not better.

No. 5 – PP (Polypropylene)

Medicine bottles to plastic straws, polypropylene is in a lot of daily-use products. For those of you who have ever dropped a yogurt container, you already know the appeal of PP is that its very sturdy but also lightweight. Some curbside programs, including Boston’s, accept PP, but many don’t. As a result, only about 3% of PP is recycled. What will you find PP reincarnated as? Brooms, signal lights, and brushes.

A lot of PP products are avoidable (i.e. STRAWS). But, doing things like purchasing larger cartons of yogurt instead of the individuals serving sizes and avoiding items you know you won’t be able to dispose of properly can help reduce waste destined for the landfill.

No. 6 PP (Polystyrene)

Remember that cup I told you about? Well, let’s just say 666 is the devil’s number for a reason. PP is found in plastic plates, cutlery, styrofoam egg cartons, packaging peanuts, and home insulation. Know where else you’ll see it? On almost every beach in the world. Because of its poor construction, PP breaks off and ends up in waterways and then into animals, some of which we eat. Mmmm, plastic! Not a highly accepted recyclable, PP makes up 35% of all landfill matter. Oh, and the real kicker? It’s also a possible carcinogen linked to reproductive dysfunction.

Do I really need to say it? For the sake of the fish and your ovaries, avoid PP at all costs. Items like styrofoam cups and egg cartons can never be recycled, meaning after you’re done with them, they’re destined for an endless lifetime in the dump. Fortunately, PP is one of the simplest plastics to avoid or find alternatives for. It’s as simple as choosing cardboard egg cartons over styrofoam ones, using real dishware and cutlery, and opting for newspaper if you need to pad any packages.  

No. 7 – BPA, Polycarbonate, LEXAN, and Other

Really the only redeeming quality of this category is compostable plastics, referred to as PLA on packaging, and even those comes with their fair share of caviots. Other than that, this category of materials is best known for being fairly unhealthy and difficult to recycle. Perhaps the most common is BPA, you know, that material your mom warned you about? Well, she was right. Its been shown to disrupt the endochrine system—the part of the body responsible for regulating hormones. But even though BPA is toxic, it still doesn’t stop it from showing up in plastics #1, 2, and 4. And many products in the #7 category are found in baby toys, bottles, and other products.

Hopefully at some point, products in the #7 category will be outlawed. Until then, steer clear. While some curbside programs take them, many don’t, adding to this category’s already terrible reputation.

Cutting Back

There you have it—plastics in a nutshell. I highly recommend you download a picture of these categories to your phone for easy reference. Maybe even print out your city’s recycling policies for your home or office. Remember, every area has its own rules so be sure to check with your local regulating body for details on your area’s program.

If you takeaway anything from this artcile, I hope it’s this: Plastics are only as recyclable as you are. So even if you buy recyclable products, it only really makes a difference if you’re able to dispose of them responsibly. This a whole other article completely, but it’s worth mentioning that China, historically one of the America’s top recycling sources, is moving away from the recycling trade, finding greater wealth in markets like technology. What does this mean for us? Well, China has cut back tremendously on recycling imports, which means that there’s overflow at many of the recycling centers here in the US. With more and more recycling likely not being repurposed, it’s more important than ever that we find alternatives for the convenient products we rely on. This doesn’t mean you have to give up everything. Maybe try to cut back a bit in categories like #6 and #7 that are the most damaging to our health and the planet. Remember, its small changes that make the biggest, most lasting impact.

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