Plastic vs. Glass/Aluminum/Paper – Clearing up some myths

This past plastic free july I decided to annoy all of my facebook friends by posting one plastic fact every day of the month to try and get more people aware of their excessive plastic use.  One of my posts ended up getting a lot of positive response, and it was a post I wrote about why I believe using other materials other than plastic is more environmentally friendly (mainly, the argument for reusables).  So I decided to post it again here (and make it a bit more in depth) so that if a new zero waster found it they would be informed!

There is a lot of misinformation about recycling out there.  Let’s start with a little history: According to the book I just reviewed, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, plastic recycling was invented by the plastic industry due to the big environmental movement of the 70’s, which was the beginning of the outcry against plastic use.  They spent billions of dollars developing the technology to recycle it, so that they could keep producing it and convince everyone it’s okay to buy it.  Except, in the process, a lot of misconceptions developed: the first, is that those little symbols on the bottom of your plastic items, the numbers surrounded by the recycling symbol, doesn’t mean it can be recycled.  It is just a labeling system to label what type of plastic it is.

#1 means PET (or PETE) or Polyethylene Terephthalate (water bottles, soda bottles etc). This is considered a safe plastic (by the FDA which means no I don’t trust that it’s really safe).  These are not supposed to be reused, because they easily leach toxins. Which is why they are used for single use items.  These are most commonly recyled into more bottles, carpet, fibers (for fleece and other plastic fabrics)

#2 is HDPE, high density polyethylene (detergent bottles, cleaning product bottles, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, plastic bags, etc).  These are usually recyled into more detergent bottles (but the color in the bottles is tough to deal with because you can’t get the color out), lumber, pens.

#3 is PVC, or polyvinyl chloride (pvc pipes, shower curtains, juice bottles, plastic wrap). These are not commonly picked up by recycling facilities in the US. Has lots of nasty chemicals in it. Recycled into flooring, speed bumps etc.

#4 is LDPE, or low density polyethylene (cothing, plastic bags, food packaging like bread bags and frozen food bags).  Considered safe, but do with that what you will.  Not often picked up by recyling facilities. Recycled into compost bins, trash cans, shipping envelopes, etc.

#5 is PP, or polypropylene (ketchup bottles, syrup bottles, yogurt containers, medicine bottles etc). Considered safer (meh).  Recyled into brooms, bike racks, ice scrapers, etc.

#6 is PS or polystyrene, or styrofoam. Terrible. Leaches toxins when heated, rarely accepted by recycling facilities.  Recycled into egg cartons, foam peanuts, insulation.

#7 is everything else that isn’t 1-6.  Notorious for containing BPA. Rarely accepted by recycling facilities.  If it is, usually recycled into plastic lumber.

(Examples of objects come from: http://www.nationofchange.org/numbers-plastic-bottles-what-do-plastic-recycling-symbols-mean-1360168347)

So now that you know your plastics, we can discuss the issues with recycling.  As you can see from above, not all plastics with a label are guaraneed to be able to be recycled.  It’s a labeling system so that if they do end up in the recycling facility, the workers can figure out what it is.  If the recycling facilities can’t easily and very quickly classify a piece of plastic, it will either be sent to landfill, or baled up with other “mixed plastics” and shipped somewhere else for someone else to sort and use. If you are on the west coast, it will usually be sent to China to be sorted in a facility with child workers (probably). If you are in the middle of the country it is probably landfilled because it’s too expensive to ship anywhere, and if you are on the easy coast it’s probably sent to a domestic recycling facility. Plastic is not often recycled back into plastic that you can use.  Only certain PET bottles (soda bottles) can be recycled back into bottles.  And it’s not a 1:1 ratio.  The PET is melted down and made into pellets with virgin plastic and that is used to make new bottles.  Most plastic is downcycled into plastic wood and other building materials.  This is what plastic bags are mainly used for.  However, the rate of plastic bag recycling is anywhere from 5 to 14%, so many of them are ending up in places they shouldn’t be.

The other main issue is that most single use plastics are bought and disposed of on the go, and not every public space and street is equipped with recycling bins.  Walk by any park or beach and the trash cans will undoubtedly be filled to the brim with coffee cups (paper and plastic), straws, water bottes, plastic bags, and to go containers.  These will be sent straight to landfill, or blown into the ocean or rivers or forests.  Some estimates claim that only 5% of plastic water bottles will be put into a recycling facility.  And americans alone used about 50 BILLION just LAST YEAR.  That is an absurd amount of plastic water bottles (not even including the other types of plastic) that is now in the environment somewhere, whether that’s a landfill or the ocean.  That’s NOT okay with me.

So, here’s the thing. Yes, recycling facilities don’t take all the plastic, and most of it gets thrown out when you’re not at home. But what about the statistics for when you ARE recycling at home? Well, let’s start out with the national average. In America today, only 34% of items that can technically be recycled are actually being recycled.  In Boston, our recycling rate was 30% last year. But Denver has an appalling 16% recycling rate.  This is terrible.  Especially considering how environmental everyone around here appears to be.  (Will do another post on neighboring Boulder, CO’s amazing Zero Waste Initiative).

In Boston and in Denver (and in most places in the US) we have single stream recycling.  Which across the board has increased recycling rates due to convenience.  This has increased the amount of plastic that gets recycled, but actually ends up decreasing the amount of material that can be converted to new materials.  This is because glass, paper, and leftover food stuck to your recycling are all mixed.  Broken glass loses value the smaller the pieces get.  The pieces of glass that are too small for anyone to try to recycle into new glass products are downcycled, usually into fiberglass, insulation bits, or sand.  Glass gets broken up a lot easier in a single stream recycling system than if you recycled glass through a bottle return (please always vote for local bottle bills, they always get overturned because of successful lobbying from non-environmentalists. Don’t listen to them!).  The issue with paper is that it gets dirty with food spillage from the recyclables you didn’t wash, which lowers the quality of the paper to be sold to people who will recycle it.  Little bits of plastic and metal (bottle caps, can tabs, etc) get lost in the paper and baled with it, which also lowers the value of the paper to be sold. Most places will only buy paper bales with less than 3% contamination.  Paper and glass are normally very efficiently recycled, so this is a bummer.  Aluminum is still very efficient and has a high recycling rate in single stream recycling so continue to go for it with the cans.

The recycling system is not the gold star solution to alleviate all of your environmental guilt unfortunately.  Only about 9% of plastics produced every year are being recycled.  Even glass and paper recycling is lower than you would imagine.  The answer is not to recycle more, or switch to only glass, paper or aluminum.  If you went to the store and had to choose between paper and plastic bags, the paper would actually be worse for the environment in the short run. The answer is to switch from DISPOSABLES to REUSABLES, so that all trash and recycling is REDUCED, not replaced with alternatives.  Every product has a negative environmental impact, but reusables can negate this impact due to it’s long useful life.

So there it is! Why I choose a lifestyle of reusables (and paper/glass/aluminum alternatives when necessary). It’s pretty fulfilling and I suggest it of everyone!

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