What Really Happens with Plastics Recycling?

Zero Waste Humboldt logoA combination of waste reduction legislation, increased manufacturer responsibility and a societal shift in our thinking and our habits will reduce plastic pollution. What happens to your plastic materials after you drop them in a recycling bin?

Recycling has been sold to consumers as a way to be environmentally responsible but, in truth, we cannot recycle our way out of our waste problems. Recent research reports on plastic consumption behavior indicate that consumers buy more single-use plastics when they believe they are recyclable, rather than seeking out a reusable or paper alternative that is better for the environment.  Consumers who choose “recyclable” single-use plastics may imagine plastics recycling to be a simple, efficient process of collection at the curb, transportation to a sorting facility (called a Materials Recovery Facility, or MRF), easily and efficiently sorting separate materials, and then swift transportation to a factory to be seamlessly manufactured into a new plastic product.

In reality, however, the plastics recycling process fits the old idiom about seeing how sausage is made. It’s  complicated, rife with problems, and so unpleasant that it’s best to not watch.

First, there is widespread confusion about the numbers on plastic packaging. Contrary to what most people think, these numbers do not actually mean the item is recyclable. These Resin Identification Codes are used within the plastics manufacturing industry to identify the type of plastic used. In the late 1980s, these numbers were placed inside the internationally recognized recycling logo of three chasing arrows as a means to assist recyclers with sorting. In 2013, the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general finally cracked down on the plastics industry’s use of “false and misleading environmental claims” in product marketing. New regulations require a closed triangle symbol, but many plastic food and beverage containers still have the recycling symbol.

There are seven main plastic resin categories and it is often difficult to visually distinguish one resin from the other. Not all plastics are equally well-suited for re-melting and re-forming due to differing chemical structures. The number 7 category is a particularly problematic “miscellaneous” category of resins and resin combinations that are generally not recyclable.

This, combined with overall issues of contamination present in mixed or single-stream recycling systems, results in the need for further sorting beyond what the typical MRF equipment can handle. Sometimes these materials are transported to and handled by a separate plastics recycling facility (PRF) where, after sorting, the materials are pelletized before being transported for melting at a plastics manufacturing plant. These multiple stages (collection, transportation, sorting, additional transportation, additional sorting, pellitizing, and yet more transportation) require significant energy and labor just to prepare plastics for re-manufacture into a new product.

Because of these costs, most U.S. single-use plastics are instead baled and shipped to Southeast Asia and the Philippines where this labor-intensive and sometimes dangerous sorting is often done not by machinery, but by children and whole families for a few dollars a day. This aspect of the recycling process is not well-known, and is certainly not desirable from an environmental justice or human rights perspective. Processing plastics for manufacture is also a toxic, polluting process, which wreaks havoc on the air, water, and health of surrounding communities.

These factors represent the rationale for Zero Waste Humboldt’s emphasis on a shift to non-plastic and reusable options for food and beverage packaging. A growing number of shoppers are experimenting with how to purchase food and beverages by bringing their own containers, avoiding plastics, and buying milk and beverages in returnable containers.  Future columns in EcoNews will address options that will help you to reduce reliance on single-use plastics, and on important legislation aimed at reducing plastic waste.

Contact us for more information on what you can do to reduce and eliminate your use of plastics!