you’re a good steward of the earth: you recycle what you can and send it on its way when the truck comes round to pick it up. but then what happens?
well, first, let’s look at what the recycling center actually takes versus what is marked as recyclable content, and what those numbers actually mean.
aluminum, glass, tin, and paper all get recycled. there’s nothing weird about them, unless there is plastic involved (like your to-go paper cups for hot beverages, cardboard milk containers, any paper food container in the refrigerated or frozen section; they are not recyclable, sad enough).
as for plastic, let’s have a look.
1: polyethylene terephthalate. this is your common drink bottles and non-film/bagged food packaging. this is generally recycled into bottles and poly fibers. this is the easiest to recycle!
2: high density polyethylene. this is the heavier duty bottles, like laundry soap bottles, shampoo bottles, etc. this is also easily recycled.
3: polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC. this is what toys, piping, furniture, etc. is all made of. it’s hard to recycle and turns out PVC is a huge environmental and health threat! 33 million tons are produced every year and it keeps going up. it’s made from oil and chlorine, both of which aren’t necessarily green, and PVC is not easily recyclable because heavy metals are added to it, like lead and cadmium. less than 1% of PVC is recycled, and the dang things aren’t biodegradable at all. plus, when you want some flexibility, phthalates are added to it, which may cause cancer and/or kidney and reproductive damage. (think about how many plastic toys go into kids’ mouths.) ps: this really shouldn’t even have a recycle triangle on it. just a skull and crossbones with a 3 next to it.
(i think i’ll propose this to the EPA.)
4: low-density polyethylene. this is your sandwich bags, grocery bags that float in the wind and catch on trees, plastic wrapping. these can generally be recycled into more of the same, just slightly degraded.
5: polypropylene. this is your clothes. yep, your tri-blend tshirts or your poly running shorts are just plastic. also, some bottles, tubs, and the plasticky ropes. these can be recycled into fibers.
6: polystyrene. styrofoam! this is difficult to recycle because it’s lightweight so not a lot to reclaim (the transport of styrofoam to recycle it would probably cause more pollution). it can be reused, though! it’s unfortunate that so many to-go containers are made from styrofoam.
your recycling company probably very easily takes 1 & 2 plastics to recycle. there are several 4 places to recycle that are in places of business – you see the bins when you walk into some grocery stores or home depot or some place (when i lived in st. charles, they took plastic bags in the single-sort curbside bin). everything else on the plastic side? a pain in the butt.
farewell, recycle bin! off to never-never land where i don’t have to think about you again!
but wait! let’s see what happens.
according to the minnesota pollution agency, here’s what happens to your recyclables:
- paper and cardboard: half of the paper recycled in MN goes to st. paul, where it’s made into liner board. liberty paper in becker recycles cardboard boxes into new paper. and a duluth company uses recycled paper fiber to make new educational books and business documents. how wholesome! make sure to recycle your paper! (but also make sure that there is no cross-contamination from your bottle of oil you just threw in the bin. wash your oil bottle so it doesn’t make your comingled items a mess!)
- plastic bottles (1 & 2): they get chipped, shredded, and cleaned and then sent to a manufacturer. (hmm….. more to this, methinks.) so your #1 plastic gets sent to rogers where it’s made into food and consumer packaging. your #2 bottles get made into composite decking, lawn and garden furniture, and plastic lumber (all #3 pvc plastic, i do believe). so, something that has stuck with me since my hippie environmental class during a J-term at st. ben’s is that plastic is not a pure recyclable. it always has to get made into something a little worse, unlike aluminum cans or glass bottles, which can be recycled over and over into aluminum cans or glass bottles. and remember, #3 plastic – PVC – is awful and can never break down. it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that fish and birds and even humans eat and can’t digest.
- cars, cans, appliances: aluminum is smelted and turned into ingots for a bunch of stuff like new cans, cars, and signs. aluminum is a very nice recyclable, and it’s lightweight. i’m not sure why more companies don’t use aluminum packaging.
- glass: guess what! more glass. over the past 20 years, i’ve noticed more and more food manufacturers moving to plastic over glass (mayonnaise jars, peanut butter jars, etc.). glass is heavy, so i get that they want to save money on transport, but is it worth the tradeoff? maybe we need to move to the old model of returning your pop bottles to the grocery store to get a deposit back.
(i have fond memories of glass bottle returns at the red owl in austin!)
a few months ago china said “hey, we’re done taking your recyclables.” which got me wondering – are we REALLY recycling our stuff? or are we sending our garbage to china, where it sits in another landfill? well, actually, china said “hey no thanks; we don’t want your dirty recyclables” because they were all contaminated.
there’s a documentary about china and our garbage that i want to watch called “plastic china.” people pick through huge amounts of waste coming from us and europe, shredding and melting plastic they can find and then burning the rest into the open air. ugh. it’s on amazon prime, so i’m planning on watching that VERY soon.
plastic recyclable prices have plummeted. it’s not even worth recycling. and they can barely give away paper recyclables. what’s going on? can’t we take that paper and cardboard and create better packaging for mailers, instead of those awful plastic bubble wrap things that have to go in the trash? so now, countries have these recyclables piling up because china isn’t taking them – but was it even worth it then? if they were just burning it anyway?
what’s a person to do? of all the plastic produced ever, only 9% has been recycled. at this moment in time, we’re sitting about about 20% recycled each year. this is not good news. plastic is made from oil, which is a finite product. (and if you really are concerned about gas prices and oil prices, maybe you should be taking a good hard look at HOW MUCH plastic is sitting on the shelves at your local grocery store. It’s mind boggling. and the food giants seem to keep converting more and more packaging to … plastic.)
and the recycling process itself isn’t necessarily environmentally friendly, when it DOES happen. it needs to be shipped, it needs to be sorted, it needs to be washed, it needs to be chopped up, it needs to be melted, and then it needs to be manufactured into something else. that process isn’t carbon-free these days.
BUT, that all needs to happen with glass and aluminum/metal, too, doesn’t it? you bet. extracting the raw material for aluminum is not very kind to the earth. glass is pretty easy to make but has a heavier footprint for transport (and they break). but think about it though: glass, aluminum, and metal are all recyclable back into their original forms; it could be an endless process once one is made. plastic is not able to go back it its original form; it’s the most difficult to recycle AND it’s the least recycled product.
let me insert here that i KNOW plastic has a place, especially in health care [even though we somehow lived without it for a while] and i KNOW that we won’t get rid of it overnight. but let’s try to figure this out – no one wants to live in a dump. no one can say they think landfills full of garbage, and animals eating plastic, and plastic floating around in the ocean, and people picking through our waste in a burning dump are good things.
so what can be done?
- contact big offenders: food companies are huge single-use plastic offenders. i signed this petition. you should too. or find a different petition to sign if you have a beef with greenpeace. i’m also going to work on contacting the big ones (coke, pepsi, nestle, etc.) directly, too.
- buy food items that don’t come in plastic. i’m awful at this because it’s incredibly difficult. buy in bulk using your own containers or visit a farmers market and refuse the bag. even if you go to the food co-op, if you don’t buy in bulk, chances are the item is going to come in plastic. but, sometimes there are choices on the shelf. if you see a glass or tin or aluminum option, buy that instead. and then clean it and RECYCLE IT!
- wash out your recyclables. if you’re lucky to have a comingled bin, food residue from a bottle drips onto your cardboard or paper and renders it useless. this is also the reason that some recycling centers won’t take pizza boxes (think about the grease stains on the cardboard). i keep a paper bag next to my garbage can to put all my paper in so it’s not floating around in the comingleds to get contaminated. also, i’m going to do better with washing out my bottles, cans, jars, etc.
- push amazon to continue to use cardboard and paper packaging vs. plastic. we get a lot of items in the good ol’ cardboard amazon box, but sometimes the packaging inside is plastic bubble wrap. contact them and tell them you want them to use paper-only packing.
- maybe it’s time to check your convenience. i like convenience. you like convenience. the less work people have to do, the happier we are. i get it. but maybe you don’t need to have a stockpile of styrofoam plates in the cupboard because you don’t want to do dishes. just a thought.
- speaking of styrofoam, when you get a to-go box, ask the restaurant if they’d consider moving to non-styrofoam. or bring your own container. (i know; that whole convenience factor.)
- invest in reusables. instead of taking the plastic set of silverware, keep a set with you to reuse. try out some silicon bag-like containers. get some beeswax compostable wrap instead of plastic wrap. wash out your plastic baggies to use again. there are options.
- and what we’ve all been waiting for – remember your reusable bags that you keep leaving in the backseat when you go to the grocery store!!!! UGH.
PVC plastic’s environmental impact
Beverage Container Showdown: Plastic vs. Glass vs. Aluminum
Recycling plastics – what the numbers mean + cheat sheet