By Jim Mansfield
In recent months, everyone has become acutely aware of the crisis in single-use plastic and recycling. For years now, we have seen the single-use plastic “triangle” and the numbers 1 to 7, indicating the type of plastic used. But it turns out that only about 9% of all single-use plastic containers are recycled in the US. Furthermore, it seems that only a portion of single-use plastic can ever be successfully recycled!
The most common single-use plastics are #1 (water bottles, soda bottles, plastic food containers), #2 (milk jugs, shampoo bottles, laundry detergent containers), #5 (yogurt containers, amber-colored pill bottles, coffee cup lids, coffee pods) and #6 (styrofoam cups, solo cups, egg cartons, to-go containers).
Quoting from the executive summary of the Greenpeace study: “Only PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs, with acceptable shrink sleeves and labels, can be claimed as recyclable in the U.S. today. The many other types of consumer plastic products and packaging are not recyclable and should not be claimed or labeled as such.” Some towns and cities are recognizing this fact and have told their residents to place only #1 and #2 plastics in their recycling bin.
Plastics #3-7 have negligible-to-negative value and are effectively a category of products that municipal recycling programs may collect, but most do not actually recycle. Some ‘material recovery facilities’ still accept mixed plastics but take them to landfill, incinerate them or export them. However most foreign counties are no longer accepting our used plastic; and if they do, they are not recycling them either! Furthermore, the low cost of oil and gas often make new plastic cheaper – and of a higher quality – than recycled plastic. The result: Companies must absorb an extra cost to use recycled plastic rather than new plastic!
So here’s the bottom line:
1) Recycling may be great for paper, metal, and glass. But it’s only viable for #1 and #2 plastic. Avoid #3-7 containers and the products they contain, whenever possible.
2) Try to buy only products in plastic containers made from #1 or #2 plastic. (These containers should, preferably, be redesigned to have recyclable labeling and no cap rings).
3) Try to avoid single-use plastic containers altogether; and reuse old containers multiple times (e.g. to store leftovers) before trashing them.
4) Advocate for companies to redesign containers to be sustainable. If they insist on using plastic, they should be made from #1 or #2 plastic without cap rings and with easily removeable (or recyclable) labeling.