Why isn’t all plastic recyclable?
I get that question a lot… and though the answer is more complicated than it really should be, I am going to try and keep it as simple as possible for this article.
Not all plastic is created equally.
Not only does plastic come in all shapes, sizes, and colors – it also is made from different types of plastic resin, labeled #1 - #7, each varying in quality of material. Plus, there are different categories of plastic: rigid plastic vs. film plastic. Add compostable plastic in the mix, and you get quite the confusion!
Let’s all start on the same foundation:
- Rigid plastic: hard durable plastic like a water bottle, plastic peanut butter jar, or a plastic storage container.
- Film plastic: soft, flexible, flimsy plastic like bubble wrap, plastic bags, or wrappers.
Clearing up a BIG misunderstanding:
***** The chasing arrows/triangle does NOT mean the item is recyclable, rather it is just identifying what type of plastic resin it is made from. *****
How do you know if it is recyclable? Check out your jurisdiction’s website to see what is accepted, so if you live in the City of Napa or unincorporated South County visit: www.NapaRecycling.com.
I bet you are wondering what is the point of the triangle and numbers, then? Well, the numbers inside the chasing arrows serve for the industry to know what type of plastic resin the item is made from – and can be found on BOTH rigid and film plastic.
For example, if you see #1 (soda bottles, for example), it stands for polyethylene terephthalate (PETE). Have a #6? Well, that is polystyrene (PS) – Styrofoam in a different form. Got a #4 on a film plastic item? That’s a Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)… and not recyclable here.
Now that we have some basic foundational understanding to plastics – let’s get back to the original question: why are some plastics recyclable vs. others?
Answer: Infrastructure, markets, supply and demand, location, quality, quantity, and cost of virgin fossil oil.
- If the market is not demanding recycled plastic to reuse in new plastic packages or to be upcycled into something else, then no infrastructure will be created to get it recycled.
- Some companies now have promises/agreements to make their packaging out of 30% recycled plastic or more, which is a start toward getting more discarded plastic recycled.
- Location, location, location: Where the recovery facility (aka recycling center) is located has a huge impact on what materials it can capture for recycling. If you are landlocked and far away from a port, being able to market and sell your materials is very hard, especially if there are no domestic factories that will take your commodity.
- The cost of transporting the recyclable commodity cannot be more than the value received when selling it --- where is the financial feasibility in that?
- Quality and quantity: not all plastic is made the same. Some are “cheap”, hard to recycle or upcycle, and some types are more popular than others (PET and HDPE) and have better markets than other lesser common rigid plastics.
- Every time plastic is recycled, it loses quality and can only be recycled a few times compared to glass or aluminum that can be recycled indefinitely without loss of quality.
- Cost of virgin fossil oil: when the price of oil goes up, so does recycled plastic. When oil prices go down, so does the demand for recycled plastic.
For our token what-we-always-find-in-the-recycling-but-shouldn’t-item: film/soft/flexible plastic.
Film plastic (pesky plastic bags, wraps, air pillows, etc) cannot be recycled curbside due to the huge operational problems and damage it causes to the sorting facility’s machines. The machines were not built to handle the flimsy plastic and it wraps around the sorting screens like a tangled fishing line on its reel. Not only that, but film plastic gets mixed in our actual recyclable bales of cardboard or mixed paper, contaminating them, and making them unable to sell.
I personally am confounded when in our current economy, producing virgin plastics is cheaper or desired more than using used plastic. How is that possible? How can extracting virgin natural resources and the environmental impacts that go along with it EVER be considered “cheaper” (financially and the cost to the environment) than using something that we already have….
… curious in some actions you can take to help?
- Buy things with less packaging;
- Limit online purchases that are shipped using film plastics;
- Learn what is recyclable in Napa;
- Buy items made from recycled content if possible when you need to purchase something;
- Urge for extended producer responsibility; and
Don’t use it (as much as you possibly can).