100 million tons of unlovable plastic: The container-bottom numbers game

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Every year 1.3 percent of the world’s crude oil and an equal amount of energy are used in the production of 100 million tons of plastic packaging that we will toss out almost immediately after we buy it. This is called “post-consumer” plastic and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, only eight percent of the plastic we throw away gets recycled. Until recently what was accepted for curbside recycling were only bottles with a neck and the symbol #1 or #2 inside tiny recycling arrows. Now some local recycling programs have added more plastics but what is accepted differs by community, creating confusion as to what to put in our blue bin and whether this stuff is getting recycled.

Recently, Minneapolis announced that it will collect for recycling all plastics, labeled #1-#7. Hennepin County now requires recyclers to start picking up plastics labeled #3, #4 and #5 by the end of 2012. Are all those plastics really being recycled? Or are they going somewhere else?

FULL DISCLOSURE: The author, Susan Hubbard, is founder of Nothing Left to Waste, a consulting practice aimed at helping people to prevent waste. Before founding Nothing Left to Waste, Susan co-founded and worked at Eureka Recycling, a 501(c) 3 nonprofit corporation whose mission is to demonstrate that waste is preventable.

It’s About the Numbers – Or is it?

In the struggle to explain which of the thousands of plastics are recyclable the only way to distinguish between the different types of plastics is through the recycling arrows and numbers on the bottoms of the containers. Besides being nearly impossible to see, the numbers represent the type of resin used to make the plastic — not whether it is recyclable. To top it off, # 7 plastic is a general category for the thousands of other plastics that aren’t #1 through #6.

For plastics to really get recycled, what we put at the curb must be made into a new products or packaging and that demands a market. The company that picks up curbside recycling then delivers it somewhere (the market) to be recycled into something new. Not all of the plastic labeled #1 through #7, or even #1 through #6, has a market.

The Market’s Appetite for Plastic

#1 & #2 plastics, the market loves them. There are ample opportunities to make new products out of these plastics. But it is very different for #3 plastic. According to Steve Alexander, CEO of the Association of Post Consumer Recyclers (APR), the #3 plastics are simply a “contaminant to other plastics that can get recycled.” # 4 plastics are bags. While the markets for plastic bags are good, the bags need to go to grocery and retail store recycling bins because they create big problems for sorting machines at the recycling centers. #5 plastic looks better and better to the markets, especially as health and environmental concerns with plastic #3 and #7 increase. #6 plastic also has a bleak outlook for real recycling. A #6 manufacturer operates a drop off site in California. They won’t pay anything for it and you have to get it there.

As for #7 plastic, Alexander, from APR states “If the companies that collect plastics are not required to prepare it for recycling, that means separating it all out – then you can’t make sure it gets recycled.”

What Do We Put in Our Bin?

Last November, Hennepin County notified recycling coordinators that by the end of this year, plastics #3, #4 and #5 must be added to the old standbys #1 & #2. When asked why #3 plastics are required since there are no markets, Paul Kroening, Supervisor, Waste Reduction and Recycling at Hennepin County explained “We didn’t want to confuse people more than they already are so we left the #3 plastic in to simplify education but we are hoping that it will ultimately disappear in the packaging market place.” Kroening said that they were hopeful that adding these plastics would “reinvigorate people’s interest and increase recycling in general.”

Scott Merkley, St Louis Park Public Works Coordinator said that they are working with the nonprofit that collects and processes their plastics, Eureka Recycling, to add more materials including other plastics. “Eureka has concerns about #3 in particular because they can’t find markets.” St. Louis Park’s contract requires Eureka to verify where they sell the materials to assure that they are being recycled. “Is there a market? We want to be honest with the public. If we collect it for recycling then it needs to get recycled.” said Merkley.

“Recycling isn’t just collection” said Bryan Ukena, Business Development Director at Eureka Recycling. “We won’t collect and ship plastic unless we know it is getting recycled. It just puts the environmental burden on another community”

David Heberholz, Director of Solid Waste and Recycling for Minneapolis said they decided to add #1 through #7 plastics in April, when Allied Waste Inc., the company that processes and sells their materials gave them the green light. Heberholz said Minneapolis’s current contract does not require Allied to provide proof that the material actually gets recycled but that the city is about to issue a new RFP for these services that will include that requirement. Rich Hirstein of Allied Waste did not return our calls. (The Minneapolis city website says: “Contracts require that all materials be sold for recycling purposes only.”)

The Solution is Not in Our Blue Bin

Amy Fields, General Manager who led a recycling effort at the Eastside Food Cooperative for the past five years spoke from her experience operating a #1-7 plastics drop off there. “If people think they are recycling it, then they think it is okay to keep using it,” she said. Fields is convinced that this isn’t the consumers’ issue but a legislative one, and points to the bottle deposit legislation which has been “stalled at the legislature for five years.” Fields says she feels that it is demoralizing to be in a business that is forced to sell so much single use packaging. “Multiply our impact by millions,” she said, “and that is the size of the problem.”

What do you think?

What kind of plastics do you recycle?

Do you think that cities should collect plastics in the recycling process, even if they won’t be recycled?

When you put something in your blue bin, do you expect it will be recycled?