Updated: Aug 20, 2022
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Plastic Recycling
“Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Such a common phrase that you may not have given it much thought. But before we talk about recycling plastic, we have to talk about the other two. After all, they come before “recycle” for a reason. Recycling is simply not the best way to reduce waste—reducing consumption is the best. It means producing fewer raw materials in the first place and consuming less energy to produce, manufacture, transport, and sell the goods made with those raw materials. All of this reduces environmental impacts along the supply chain. Recycling is better than putting something in the trash, but the process still consumes energy (and often water, too) to collect, transport, and process the collected materials (for example, at the materials recovery facility or MRF) and manufacture a new product. In many cases, manufacturers still need to add new material to the recycled content to meet certain properties (such as strength) that an end product might require. And let's face it, recycling is not new, and we are terrible at it.
What Actually Gets Recycled?
Recycling has many layers to it: the technically recyclable, economically recyclable, uncaptured recyclable, highly recycled, and the unrecyclable.
Let’s start with the technically recyclable. Lots of things, in theory, could be recycled in the sense that we know how to do it—i.e., we have the technology to do so. But this does not mean we actually do it. Why? It may be too expensive, making it not economically recyclable. This can be a moving target as prices of materials fluctuate, particularly the price of oil and gas, which are the primary sources of raw materials for plastics. In other cases, it may just be too difficult to pull apart all of the different materials that make up a particular item, such as foil-lined plastic food wrappers or plastic-coated paper coffee cups (picking apart those two layers of different materials is just not happening). Then there’s uncaptured recyclables—i.e., items that are not captured in the recycling stream. There are lots of reasons people may not put items into the recycling bin: they don’t know it’s recyclable (every program is a little different, so you’re not alone if you’re confused), they don’t know where it’s collected (plastic bags cannot go in your curbside bin, but they are often collected at grocery and big box stores if you can find the bin for them), they’ve used it in a way that’s left it unrecyclable (dog poop in the plastic bag, for example), they forget (it happens!), or they don’t have time and/or mental space to do it (sometimes life is very full, and it takes effort to build new habits). And so it goes in the trash instead. Anything that’s overcome these hurdles is highly recyclable: people put it in the right bin, we have the technology to recycle it, and it's not too expensive to turn it into a new good. Plastics with numbers 2, 4, and 5 are among these highly recycled materials (polyethelyene/PE and polypropylene/PP). There’s a limit to the number of times these can be recycled because the material degrades each time until it becomes unusable. If color was added to it, that further complicates it for anyone who wants to make a product that is clear or white. The unrecyclables are the ones we don’t recycle at all, even if it's collected in the bin and we know how we could recycle it (polystyrene, PVC). There’s just no use for it, and these materials can be toxic to the consumer and to the workers making it.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
This brings me to the good, the bad, and the ugly of recycling. The “goods” are the highly recycled (packaging with recycling numbers 2, 4, and 5). Given the choice when you must use plastic, these are the ones to pick as they are most likely to go on to have another life. And if you buy a product made of recycled materials, then they are already on at least their second life!
The “bads” are the ones that may be uneconomic or uncaptured.
The “uglies” are the toxic, unrecycled materials that should be avoided at all costs.
What About PLA?
PLA, one of the many plastics labeled with a #7, is a tricky case. Derived from plant starches like corn, PLA is not recyclable but rather compostable in many cases through a high-temperature composting process. It looks just like other highly recyclable plastics and is easily mistaken for something that belongs in the recycling bin, but it actually contaminates the recycling stream.
We use plastic because it's durable, flexible, lightweight, and can easily be made in any color. The purchase price for the consumer is often low, but that does not include the health and environmental price we’ll all pay in the long run.
What are your favorite tips for reducing plastic in your life?