Why Isn’t All Plastic Recyclable?

Recycling sure can be confusing.  Why is it that some plastics can go into your recycling bin but not others?  In order to fully answer this question, we must first explain the recycling process.

As represented by the three arrows in the recycling symbol, recycling involves three elements: collection, manufacturing and reuse. The three elements must be in balance to fully realize the potential of recycling as a means of waste management, energy conservation and resource conservation. Merely collecting recyclables is not recycling. Recycling is successful only when recovered materials are returned to the economic mainstream in the form of new materials or products (mdrecycles.org).

You often hear about the numbers located in the recycling symbol on plastic products and packages, but what do they mean?  Contrary to popular belief, just because a piece of plastic has a number doesn’t mean it’s recyclable everywhere.  In fact, those numbers have little to no impact on recycling at the consumer level.  Plastics are labeled to help facilities sort the materials into the different types of plastic.  It is also true that the numbers have no bearing on whether or not something will be recycled; what does matter is if a market exists for the specific type of recycled product.  If there is no one out there willing to buy the type of material you are recycling, whether it is recyclable or not, then it may not be recycled at all.

It goes a little farther than that though.  If a market does indeed exist for a specific type of product, then Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) will sort and then bale based upon the specific type of product. Here’s the catch, they get paid based upon the quality of the product contained in their bale, the less contamination the more they will be paid.

What can contaminate a bale?  This is where we finally get to answer the question we posed at the beginning, why isn’t all plastic recyclable?  The wrong type of plastic in the wrong batch can drastically lower the purity of the end-product intended for resale.  Lower purity equals lower profit for the facilities.  If MRFs don’t get paid well for a product, then they are not going to be encouraged to keep recycling it. These facilities simply do not have the manpower to thoroughly sort everything that comes through their doors, so they rely on what they know for sure to be recyclable and saleable.  For example, this is why you can always recycle your narrow-neck plastic water and soda bottles. The recovery facilities know that these bottles are almost always made from a certain type of plastic, specifically PET or polyethylene terephalate (#1). Bales composed solely of these bottles have a very low contamination rate.  Other types of containers also labeled #1 are not as appealing to MRFs because they have a better chance of containing other products in addition to PET and thus a greater chance for diminished value in the resale market.

Keeping all of this in mind we must be conscientious of what we are putting in our recycling bins.  The more things we throw in that cause contamination, the harder it is for the post-consumer product to get back to the shelf.  Furthermore, we need to be conscientious consumers and buy more recycled products.  If we can increase the demand for products made from recycled materials, then more will be recycled; it’s simple supply and demand!

Not recycling at work?  Contact us to learn more about how Reduction In Motion is helping organizations achieve their sustainability goals.  We specialize in waste reduction and waste flow strategies for companies of all sizes.  Focused on education and driven by on-site facilitation, our processes have helped our clients achieve award-winning programs.  Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.