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Plastic Recycling Misconceptions

Closed Loop Plastics is hard at work devising new methods to integrate better practices to service a larger variety of conditions and types of scrap plastic. Here are some best practices to share from us to you.



Nowadays, we’re all aware that recycling is important, and that conservation should be part of our daily lives, both for our benefit and our planet’s. However, even with the best intentions, we may have learned one or two things about recycling that may not be entirely correct. Today we want to go over a few misconceptions about recycling that you might have heard of and clear the air about what the proper procedures are.


1. Storing small plastic pieces into a larger plastic container will allow them to be recycled:



Many people who read or hear that the plastic recycling process has faults because small plastic pieces fall through the cracks during the sorting process might be tempted to find a way to consolidate their small plastic items to increase the chances that these pieces can be recycled. While that’s a very commendable attitude, it’s also important to thoroughly validate any hacks you might come across sharing methods that appear sound on the surface. One such hack we came across encourages users of contact lens blister packs (the small containers that hold individual lenses in contact lens solution) to consolidate their used blister packs into a plastic beverage bottles for easier recycling.

The issue with this misconception is that it assumes that the plastic that the blister packs are made of and the plastic of the water bottle is the same type of plastic. This is not the case, and in fact, can cause issues in the recycling process downstream. Most blister packs are made from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene (PS), or other plastic types while most plastic bottles are made from PET. Since plastic is sorted, sold, and recycled by resin type, putting together multiple objects of different resin types will render both objects unrecyclable. If material sorters are unable to dislodge these blister packs from the water bottle, which is likely the case because the sorting process is very manual and operators will not have the time to remove them, they are likely to toss the entire bottle and its contents into the landfill; thereby losing the opportunity to recycle both the blister packs and the bottle.

More generally, consolidating plastics into a more dense form factor could also harm the recycling process downstream, even if all the resin types are the same. The typical recycling process involves a size reduction step that usually involves granulation or some other form of size reduction. A dense object is a lot more difficult to grind and can cause clogging/damage if it’s too tightly packed together, so in that respect, looser objects could be preferable for the recycling process.


2. <Insert object here> should be recyclable (otherwise known as wish-cycling):



In a perfect world, anything and everything would have the proper disposal infrastructure so that it is properly recycled into a new and reusable product. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in our world. Our recycling infrastructure is limited in range in terms of the types of objects we can recycle (specific plastic resin types, cardboard, paper, etc.) and the state in which they are being recycled. For example, a plastic container that held moldy food is not recyclable even if it is plastic. That’s because our recycling infrastructure isn’t yet able to handle contaminated plastic waste. We here at Closed Loop Plastics are trying to change that, but the recycling infrastructure as a whole has a lot of progress to make.

A good rule of thumb when it comes to determining whether or not a plastic object can be recycled is to first look for a recycling symbol on it. (The symbol itself is its misconception, but we’ll get to that later) The symbol should be in the shape of a triangle with a number ranging from 1-7 in the center. If the object has no symbol, it is not recyclable, even if it’s plastic, and even if it’s clean. If it can’t be sorted or identified, it can’t be recycled.

The next thing to look for is the number itself. The biggest plastic resin types that are recycled today are numbers 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE). Anything else is not recycled, even if you put it in the recycling bin.

If the object is made up of multiple materials, we would encourage you to separate the materials if you can. Take a water bottle for example. The cap is made of a different material from the bottle itself, and so is the bottle label. Since the bottle label is film and can’t be recycled, that can be thrown in the trash. If you separate the cap as well as the label from the water bottle, you’ve helped the recycling process! If you cannot break the object down by material, it’s not recyclable. It may not feel the best to throw something that looks entirely recyclable in the trash, but it does a whole lot of good for the process as a whole rather than “trying” to recycle it anyway.


3. All objects with a recycling symbol on them are recyclable:



This misconception has a strong connection with Misconception #2. The symbol itself is a bit of a misconception - it’s made up of 3 arrows in a triangular formation with a number in the center, implying that this plastic will be recycled. However, as we mentioned above, the recycling of most plastic resin types isn’t supported on an industrial scale, if at all.

The “chasing arrows” standard is outdated and poorly regulated, so even though resin types 3-7 basically can’t be recycled except under specific circumstances, manufacturers will continue to produce their objects with these symbols, giving the impression of sustainability.

The best way around this misconception is just to be mindful of your recycling practices while also understanding that it isn’t perfect. Be sure to check your plastic types, and if they’re not 1 or 2, please throw them away in the trash, or see if the producer of the product has a dedicated recycling program.

4. Plastic recycling is easy once it’s been sorted and cleaned:



First things first: the sorting and cleaning of plastic is in itself a problem we’ve yet to figure out a solution for. So to even get to that step, we’ve still got a long way to go. But that being said, once plastic waste has been sorted and cleaned, it’s still not as straightforward as we’d all like it to be. Plastic waste is made up of plastics from all different kinds of environments, processes, and manufacturers. Everything that’s done to unrefined plastic to form into the bottle you drink from or the container you use does alter the chemical composition and physical properties of the plastic itself, even if it’s all plastic type 1. A water bottle from Dasani is much different in terms of properties from a water bottle from Crystal Geyser. Even the individual parts of a single water bottle have different properties because of the way it was shaped, but that’s a far more complicated conversation. So once you have all these (actually) different plastics all together, the process of recycling them so that they come out to a single homogenous plastic product that can be reused for manufacturing can be as varied as the chemical makeup of the individual pieces. It’s not impossible, but there’s a reason recycling is still a problem in search of a solution.


5. Recycling doesn’t work, so I should just throw everything in the garbage:



This is completely untrue! While shedding light on its current shortcomings, we hope this will help you be a more mindful community member and recycler. We want our recycling infrastructure to be better but can also support it in its current state at the same time. The more knowledgeable we are about how our recycling works today, the better equipped we can be in finding solutions that make it better, more resilient, and more efficient.


 

At Closed Loop Plastics, it is our goal to close the loop on this very complicated recycling process and improve everyone’s relationship with recycling, plastics, and the planet. Tackling every resin type is possible, and it’s what we’re striving to do, but in the meantime, please work with your local recyclers by properly disposing of your waste so that our recycling yield can increase and we can reduce the amount of waste that’s currently being sent straight to the landfill, all because of simple misconceptions.


Got any other plastic hacks, ideas, or understandings that you’d like clarified? Let us know and we’ll be happy to clear the air!


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