Tips From The Expert: Cutting Through the Myths About Plastics & Plastics Recycling

by Christine Wied

There are many myths and misconceptions about plastics and plastics recycling.  Some of these myths have been explored and researched by the Association of Postconsumer Plastics Recyclers. They have a stake in making sure that they have the proper feedstock to make reliable products and keep plastics working and out of the landfill.

Myth 1: It takes more energy to recycle.

This myth was busted through a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA), a thorough study of all environmental aspects of a product from raw materials to recyclability.  In one example it was found that there is actually an 84% energy reduction to make recycled items reusing PETE flake (that’s the #1 plastic from such things as water and soda bottles) than total virgin materials.

Myth 2:  Caps aren’t recyclable.

This myth is busted when we look at the recycling process for plastic. The caps on many plastic bottles are made from a different plastic than the bottle. When the plastic is ready for recycling, it is shredded and cleaned and goes through a float test. The PETE plastic (water and soda bottles) because of its properties sinks. The Polypropylene (PP #5 plastic) used in many caps floats to the top along with labels and other debris. With current technologies, these materials can be separated and used to make different products. There is a growing market for items using Polypropylene for feedstock. In checking with Gold Coast Recycling who sorts our recyclables, they want their Ventura customers to keep the caps on the plastic containers. Just be sure that the container is totally empty so it is light enough to go through their plastic sorting equipment that uses air in the separation process.

Myth 3: The little numbers in the triangle tell us if a plastic is recyclable.

Untrue! Those numbers in the chasing arrow triangle on the bottom of most plastics are called Plastic RIC codes. That stands for Plastic Resin Identification Codes but sometimes it may seem like is should say Plastic Recycling is Confusing. These numbered codes tell what chemicals were used in the product, not its recyclability.  The codes were put on the plastics for the Materials Recovery Facilities that sort the plastics and remanufacturers to know how that plastic might be reused. Each of the plastics have different properties that can determine if or how the polymer can be reused. For example the #1 PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate) frequently used in bottles can be recycled into fabric, pens, carpet as well as new bottles. However it may not have the right properties to be used in playground equipment. Fortunately, HDPE #2 (High Density Polyethylene) fits the bill  so that many children are going down slides made out of recycled milk jugs. Materials Recovery Facilities can only take those plastics for recycling where they have consistent, reliable markets. Hopefully one day we will have clearer labeling that will be user friendly for consumers.

Open Line Article, March 28, 2012

Contact: Christine Wied, cwied@cityofventura.net

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