Recycling Revolution: The Problem With Plastics

All the plastic items you've been throwing into your recycle bin? Most of them aren't being recycled. Why, and what you can do about it.

The world of recycling is undergoing a revolution. In fact some would call it a crisis. For 30+ we've been encouraged to recycle just about everything in our household that's not biodegradable. Now, seemingly overnight, we're told that glass shouldn't go into our recycling bin (click here for that story). And what's worse, most of the plastics we've been putting in our bins actually haven't been recycled at all.

Sparkt went in search of some answers about why, and what we can do about it.

The issue with glass, as we told you in the first part of our series on the "recycling revolution," is contamination. When jars and bottles break in the recycling process, glass gets all over the paper, metal and plastics. It's gotten too expensive to clean and sort the scrambled mess to the point where it meets the quality standards of raw materials buyers. Even glass recyclers don't want glass that's mixed with other flotsam.

The problem with plastic containers is more complicated. We've always been told to look at the number stamped inside the recycling triangle on a plastic container. If it said 1-5, we were OK to recycle. Now the experts say it's really the shape of the container that matters. Containers with an opening that's narrower than the body (think milk jugs, beverage bottles) are good. Anything else can't be recycled because of additives in the plastic that allow it to be shaped (think take-out containers, yogurt cups, the clamshells berries come in, etc.).

Up until now recyclers took the "bad" plastic to get the "good" because it was less confusing to consumers. These days, once again, it's become too expensive to sort out the items raw materials brokers want from what can go into the landfill. Here's a list of what should still go in your bin (including plastics) and what you can toss in the trash.

Justin Stockdale of the Pennsylvania Resources Council says recyclers aren't telling consumers to stop throwing all plastic into the bin -- yet. But he predicts that could happen and hopes it could be the catalyst for an attitude change by consumers.

"We believe that if you understand recycling you'll make better decisions as a consumer purchase more wisely, use materials more responsibly, and recycle in line with what is truly recyclable." Justin Stockdale, Executive Director, PRC

For those who still want to be as recycle-conscious as possible with plastics, he suggests starting with avoiding overly packaged or convenience-packaged foods (for example individual serve fruit cups). When it comes to the inability to recycle glass, for now, look for products that used to be packaged in glass but are now in plastic containers.

He says the biggest and easiest change you can make is carrying a refillable water bottle and avoiding drinking water from single-serve disposable bottles.

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