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I Want To Say One Word To You: Plastics Recycling... Okay, That's Two Words.
February 15, 2008 12:00 AM   Subscribe

A Visual Guide To Recycling Plastics. Most recycling programs only accept plastics #1 and #2, so being able to quickly identify them can be a time saver when sorting your recycling. In the future, we should be able to recycle plastics #3 through #7 — but for now these outcasts must be banished to the landfill (that’s too bad, because a lot of stuff is made from plastic #5).
posted by amyms (24 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
In the future, we should be able to recycle plastics #3 through #7

These symbols have been on plastics for 20 years, and that's what we were told then too. I'm not holding my breath.
posted by grouse at 1:58 AM on February 15, 2008


This is interesting, but very misleading. Going by local guidelines and the number on the piece is really the best move, because:

1. The numbers are not entirely visually predictable.
2. Numbers are only part of the story. There are important chemical differences within number categories that affect recyclability in a major way.
3. Local programs vary in what they accept. What is recyclable in Charleston doesn't help people in other areas so much.

Many areas will not accept mold-poured #1 and #2, so things like those clamshell containers and the Starbucks cup shown wouldn't be acceptable. My area only accepts narrow-necked bottles in the #1 and #2 categories, and it's a pretty strong program that is more extensive in terms of what it accepts than any other place I've lived to date. Similarly, the Charleston County, SC recycling site says they accept #1 and #2 plastic bottles, so I suspect this blog entry is actually misleading even for Charleston. (It is possible that Charleston the city accepts other kinds of #1 and #2. I'm not finding this information on the city website at the moment.)

There are important chemical differences within the number categories, and bottles with narrower necks than body tend to be the #1 and #2 type programs will accept. This is because they are blow molded rather than injection molded (explanation). Same family of plastic, different manufacturing process, different chemical structure in the end, different recyclability.

In conclusion: many recycling programs accept a certain subset of what people think they accept. Go check your local guide, which will be far more useful to you than anything from a specific area that could be posted here. Throwing all #1s and #2s into your bin may make you feel better about the amount of waste you actually contribute, but it actually just drags down the efficiency of your local program by adding trash to the recycling they pick up from you.

I used to be very involved in a recycling program. I'm still amazed at how many misconceptions about recycling are out there, especially among people who are supportive of recycling. Seriously, read your local guide. If you're not following your local guide, then you're just guessing and making assumptions. Some of them will be right, and some won't.
posted by Tehanu at 2:13 AM on February 15, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm not holding my breath.

Without more robust recycling in the US you may need to.
posted by Pollomacho at 3:52 AM on February 15, 2008


This reminded me of another post on the front page:
Recycling is a part of a larger theme of stuff white people like: saving the earth without having to do that much.
posted by grouse at 4:38 AM on February 15, 2008


Of course, it's not for lack of technology, my town recycles #1 - #5.
posted by wilful at 4:38 AM on February 15, 2008


I'm told that Sam's Club will recycle all #1-#7. Someone correct me if I'm wrong.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 5:16 AM on February 15, 2008


wilful and East Manitoba, it's not so simple. It's highly doubtful Sam's Club recycles all plastic because of the barriers to doing so.

Recycling requires three things to be true at the same time:
1 - High volume of like types of plastic (clamshells, plastic wrap, whatever)
2 - Ability to collect and separate each type of material
3 - A market to see the separated and baled material to

In the vast majority of markets there's simply not enough material to make it worthwhile. Consider that plastic is so light it's like hauling air, so the transportation costs are not as easily covered like they are for cardboard, paper, tin, etc. And the recycling program has to find a buyer for these materials, and for non-#1 & 2 bottle shaped plastics, buyers are few and far between. This may start to change as China hungers for more materials, but consider how sustainable it is to consume plastic derived from petroleum and chemicals, only to ship it halfway across the world after you're done with it. Not terribly environmentally friendly.

This is my experience working at a recycling company. If you don't like to throw away plastic, buy items in reusable packaging.
posted by look busy at 5:27 AM on February 15, 2008


Oops, #3 above should say "sell".
posted by look busy at 5:28 AM on February 15, 2008


What are the carbon economics? Seems like less energy to make new plastic than recycle old. Plus the oil gets sequestered at the landfill.
posted by stbalbach at 5:53 AM on February 15, 2008


Wikipedia page on the codes

In the future, we should be able to recycle plastics #3 through #7

#7 is "misc other plastics", so that's... optimistic.
posted by smackfu at 6:11 AM on February 15, 2008


Nothing is sequestered in landfills. It all gets out into the air or water eventually.
posted by look busy at 6:51 AM on February 15, 2008


When I lived in Las Vegas and Tempe, they had the same #1 and #2 bottles only problem. Very frustrating, and that crucial "bottle" was not obvious. We thought we were recycling a bit more than we actually were. Here in Bloomington, Indiana (why is it that every other town in Indiana seems to share a name with a more populous town someplace else?), they accept "ANY plastic designated by the numbers 1-7" (emphasis in original). And while curbside recycling pick-up is free, they charge you for every trashcanful they haul away. I like that, but that's another story.

However, I've heard ruminations that a lot of what gets accepted by recycling plants or picked up at the curb doesn't actually get recycled, or that the process is so energy inefficient that the small savings in landfill size are more than ruined by energy costs and air pollution. Has anyone done the research on this to find out to what extent (if any) this is true, and if so, how much that differs depending on the particular material or processing plant.
posted by ErWenn at 6:51 AM on February 15, 2008


Nothing is sequestered in landfills. It all gets out into the air or water eventually.

Unfortunately, that isn't true in human scale. If things in landfills were more exposed to air and water there would be a lot less things in landfills. Not only would people be more inclined to deal with the refuse in more sensible ways, but the forces of decomposition would actually do their jobs.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:00 AM on February 15, 2008


However, I've heard ruminations that a lot of what gets accepted by recycling plants or picked up at the curb doesn't actually get recycled...

I have heard grumblings like this from right-wing ish friends and family who never divulge specifics; I suspect it may be an urban legend or some crappy conspiracy meme propagated on the web. I mean, obviously there is a cost to recycling, but I have never seen ANY data, wing-nut "data" or otherwise, that suggest that there is a net detrimental impact on the environment/energy economy from recycling.
posted by Mister_A at 7:07 AM on February 15, 2008


Just an anecdote, but at the university where my wife works, I've heard confirmation from the people who haul the trash and recycling away that a lot of the recycling ends up in the landfill. If they find one incorrect thing in the recycling bin, the whole bin goes bye-bye.

And take something like Chicago's "blue bag" system. I'm supposed to take all my recyclables and mix them together in this flimsy blue bag, which I then toss into my dumpster with all the other garbage. Of course it all ends up getting recycled; there's no way that bag will rip open under the pressure of all the other trash on top of it, and of course someone at the other end is going to hand-sort all the metal, plastic, and glass that I'm supposed to toss into the same bag. We don't use that system because it seems like a joke. We collect and sort our own recycling and drive it to a drop-off station, so at least I see it delivered to piles of similar material.
posted by goatdog at 7:38 AM on February 15, 2008


People should not be buying plastic bottles when it can be avoided. Specifically stop buying soda in those 20-oz bottles. Buy soda in cans. Nearly all of the aluminum in a soda can is recycled and back on the shelf as a new soda can in about 60 days.


Stop buying 16-oz bottled water. You want bottled water, buy it in a giant gallon size, or get a water purifier at home and fill a reusable bottle.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:03 AM on February 15, 2008


I have heard grumblings like this from right-wing ish friends and family who never divulge specifics; I suspect it may be an urban legend or some crappy conspiracy meme propagated on the web. I mean, obviously there is a cost to recycling, but I have never seen ANY data, wing-nut "data" or otherwise, that suggest that there is a net detrimental impact on the environment/energy economy from recycling.
posted by Mister_A at 10:07 AM on February 15


Further to my comment above and in response to yours, this is silly at least to the disposal of aluminum cans. At current prices, the aluminum in a soda can is worth $0.04. If they find a can, there's incentive to recycle it even if you tossed it in the trash.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:06 AM on February 15, 2008


City of South Euclid (eastern suburb of Cleveland) takes any plastic with a number in their curbside program, as long as it's clean and in a blue bag.
posted by elmwood at 10:33 AM on February 15, 2008


stbalbach - The most commonly cited statistic: It takes 70% less energy overall to recycle plastic than to make new plastic. This was in the printed graphics (not online) for the January 2008 National Geographic as well.
posted by pummelo at 10:43 AM on February 15, 2008


Berkeley's Ecology Center says that the pro-plastic-recycling ads are funded by virgin plastics producers, in an attempt to get people to not think of plastics as harmful.
posted by small_ruminant at 10:50 AM on February 15, 2008


grouse writes "These symbols have been on plastics for 20 years, and that's what we were told then too. I'm not holding my breath."

Lots of places take anything with a symbol. Now they may be burying stuff anyways I suppose but I'm not aware of that being the case here.

smackfu writes "#7 is 'misc other plastics', so that's... optimistic."

My city takes all plastic with a number as long as it's clean. Even something as variable as misc plastic can still be useful as a feed stock for some processes even if it's as mundane as filler for lightweight concrete.

ErWenn writes "the process is so energy inefficient that the small savings in landfill size are more than ruined by energy costs and air pollution. Has anyone done the research on this to find out to what extent (if any) this is true, and if so, how much that differs depending on the particular material or processing plant."

Landfill space is at a premium in many places. Vancouver trucks their garbage three hours away after incineration for example.
posted by Mitheral at 12:35 PM on February 15, 2008


It just baffles me why we even allow such toxic substances. If plastics, styrofoams, etc. barely or never disintegrate, why do we even allow companies to make them? Will we ever ban them and go back to glass or other substances?
posted by dasheekeejones at 5:48 AM on February 16, 2008


Glass is even worse than plastic if you look at it like that. Many plastics are susceptible to assorted forms of environmental degradation, UV and Ozone are common ways to break it down. Glass is susceptible to, um, geological scale weathering.
posted by Mitheral at 2:11 PM on February 16, 2008


Kinda like stone, Mitheral? I don't think glass needs to break down in a chemical sense. It shatters a lot more easily than most plastic. It doesn't resemble organic material, so it's unlikely to get eaten. I guess it could cut an animal if it's broken into pieces, but then so could sea shells and other natural rocks like obsidian (which is essentially glass anyway). Maybe if the glass was treated with some sort of chemical that would cause environmental problems, there would be a problem, but I've never heard of such a thing.
posted by ErWenn at 9:34 PM on February 16, 2008


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