Recycling, Composting & Common Misconceptions (Part 1: Recycling 101)

Wednesday April 25, 2018 // By Dana Schlingman

Eco Products

A few weeks ago our vendor partners from Eco Products came to present a seminar about the disposables industry, their products and their sustainability efforts. I found the presentation so surprising and informative that I decided to do some more digging through Eco’s online resources. In this blog series, I share what I learned about the single-use products that we touch, trash and often take for granted. (See Part 2: Composting 101 & Part 3: Making The Most Sustainable Choice)


Plastic Containers Recycling 101
As a conscientious consumer, I was taken aback by all of the misconceptions I held about recycling. I thought I knew a lot more than I did. I guess it makes sense, considering that most of my previous recycling knowledge came from a middle school assembly and a school-wide recycling drive. I suppose seeing the bins everywhere and hearing about recyclable materials, it was easy to unconsciously fill in the blanks and assume that this complex process was consistent or systematized–after all the language and the symbols seem to be. Unfortunately, with so many types of plastic, the difficulty of identifying/sorting them and the limited opportunities to repurpose some materials, the process is anything but simple. Let’s start at the beginning…

Recycling SymbolWhat Is the Real Purpose of the Recycling Symbol?
Just because a plastic cup has those triangular looping arrows, that does not guarantee that it will be recyclable. That symbol and number, merely specify the type of plastic used to make the item.

As Eco Products puts it, “Recyclers are in the business of gathering a bunch of stuff from people like you and me, sorting it by material, then selling those materials to others who will use it to make new products.” With all of the new plastics on the market, recyclers needed a standard way to differentiate them. The numbers 1-7 signify different types of plastics that may or may not be recyclable:

Recycling Plastic Codes#1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – Most beverage bottles are made out of PET because it is clear and flexible. It is one of the most desirable materials to recycle because it can be sorted and cleaned easily and it converts into a strong polymer.

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Plastic#2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Most laundry detergent containers, milk cartons and juice jugs are made out of this type of plastic.

#3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): This type of plastic is commonly used in carpet backing medical tubes and PVC piping.

#4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Flexible squeeze bottles, furniture and film bags are typically composed of this type of plastic.

#5. Polypropylene (PP): This type of plastic is difficult to sort because of its many forms - dairy containers, cups, Tupperware, bottle caps and climbing rope…

#6 Polystyrene (PS): This type of plastic can be clear, opaque white and foam and can be found in cups, containers straws and CD cases.

Unfortunately, the symbol does not guarantee that something is recyclable.
Something is only recyclable if the plastic can be sorted and resold to a buyer who can reprocess it. Sadly, both of those steps present challenges...

Sorting Difficulties:
Even if an item is clearly labeled with the correct plastic number, it may not be easy to identify in a facility. Items like water bottles, milk jugs or PVC pipes (#1-3 plastics) are easy to spot and come in somewhat standard shapes and sizes. However, assorted items like furniture, climbing ropes or random Tupperware containers (#4-6 plastics), all have different forms making them difficult for processing plant equipment to sort. Most plants use some type of automated sorting system because hand sorting isn't efficient or effective considering the volume of material processed or safety/sanitation regulations. This means that if an item cannot be easily/quickly recognized, it will be rejected by the facility and dumped.

Recycling Plastic ContainersLimited Demand For Recycled Material:
Even if a facility is able to sort and process a plastic, that processed, recycled material will only be repurposed if a manufacturer purchases it. Recycling facilities do not produce new products rather, they clean and grind the plastics that they receive into granular pellets that manufacturers then purchase to melt/mold into new products.

According to Eco-Products, “buyers are usually only looking for one kind of plastic.” Because the market rises and falls, the demand for recycled material varies from community to community, and even from month to month in any given location. Therefore, just because a facility can process a plastic, that does not mean that it will necessarily be transformed into something new.

These inconsistencies in the market, partially account for the inconsistencies in the industry. The capabilities of each facility and the processes utilized in each also vary regionally.

The only way to know if something can be recycled is to contact the local recycling facility and specifically ask which materials the facility is able to identify and whether or not it has buyers for that material.

A New Approach To Disposables:
I don’t know about you, but I found all of this information a little disheartening–especially since I don’t foresee the disposables industry dying out (in fact, I have a disposable cold cup on my desk right now!)

Faced with these discouraging realities, Eco decided to take a different approach to sustainability by creating compostable products. (Learn More About Eco Products)

Composting, isn’t that smelly? Do I need to have a compost pile for my disposable cups? NO!

In my next post, Composting 101, I explain commercial composting and why it is so beneficial. Here's a short video, if you'd like to learn more now:

"The Compost Story" by Kiss The Ground

Make Your Recycling Efforts Count!

• Contact your local recycling facility to find out what types of plastic they are able to process and sell. Whenever possible try to only purchase and use those plastics.
• Clearly label recycling bins to ensure that they are not compromised with non-recyclable waste. If possible, use pictures and position them away from regular trash bins.
• Educate others! Share this information on Social Media and get creative with fun initiatives, incentives and signage!

Though the system isn’t perfect, we can still accomplish a lot of good with it when we are mindful.

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