How many times have you found yourself staring vacantly at a yogurt tub, dry cleaner bag or empty bottle of salad dressing and thinking, “Hmmm… Can this go in the recycling bin?” I know I’ve been confused by what to do with the various plastics used in food and household products. Which ones are considered recyclable? Well, the definitive answer is: It depends.
The type of plastic determines whether it’s commonly recyclable or more likely to end up adding to our overburdened landfills. Another factor is your city’s waste management practices.
For sanity’s sake, let’s start by sorting out the range of plastics and how they differ:
PLASTIC NO. 1: POLYETHYLENE TEREPHTHALATE (PETE)
Initial uses: This product becomes the bottles for softdrinks, juice, water, beer, vegetable oil and mouthwash, as well as containers for peanut butter and salad dressing. It is the most widely recycled plastic and often has redemption value in some states.
Recycled, it later takes on many different after lives, such as containers for food, fiber-tote bags, fabric, athletic shoes, luggage, upholstery, furniture, carpet, automotive parts as well as fiberfill for both sleeping bags and winter coats.
PLASTIC NO. 2: HIGH-DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (HDPE)
Initial uses: Containers that hold milk, bottles for juice, water, motor oil, bleach, detergent, household cleaner and shampoo, trash bags, grocery and retail-carrying bags and cereal-box liners. Occasionally, HDPE is used to make butter and margarine tubs, and yogurt and cottage cheese containers.
The second time around the product becomes: Drainage pipe, oil and liquid laundry detergent bottles, pens, benches, doghouses, recycling receptacles, floor tile, picnic tables, fencing, lumber and mailbox posts.
PLASTIC NO. 3: POLYVINYL CHLORIDE (PVC)
Initial uses: Window cleaner bottles, cooking oil, liquiddetergent and shampoo bottles, clear food packaging, shrink wrap, wire cable jacketing and medical tubing. PVC is also found in household products and building materials, particularly siding, piping and windows.
Recycled they become plastic binders, decking, paneling, mudflaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps and mats.
PLASTIC NO. 4: LOW-DENSITY POLYETHYLENE (LDPE)
Initial uses: Bags for bread, frozen food, dry cleaning and produce, trash can liners, squeeze bottles and foodstorage containers. Note: Plastic grocery bags, which are usually manufactured from HDPE (No. 2) and LDPE (No. 4), are generally not accepted for recycling curbside (check with your local waste-management company). However, many grocery chains including Safeway, Lucky, Albertson’s, Raley’s, Ralphs and G&G accept these bags for recycling.
Round two they come out swinging as: Plastic film and sheeting, garbage can liners, shipping envelopes, compost bins, furniture, paneling, floor tile, trash cans, lumber and landscaping ties.
PLASTIC NO. 5: POLYPROPYLENE (PP) Initial uses: Bottle caps, drinking straws, yogurt and cottage cheese containers, butter and margarine tubs and bottles for medicines, ketchup or syrup. Recycling centers almost never take No. 5 plastic (but double-check, just to make sure).
They’re reincarnated as signal lights, battery cables, plates and utensils, razors, brushes and brooms, autobattery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, plastic bins, pallets and trays.
PLASTIC NO. 6: POLYSTYRENE (PS) Initial uses: Packaging pellets a k a Styrofoam peanuts, cups, plastic tableware, meat trays, restaurants’ clam-shell style, to-go containers, egg cartons, aspirin bottles and CD jackets. While very few recycling programs accept No. 6 plastics, many shipping stores do, so ask around.
They make a comeback as thermal insulation, light switch plates, vents, rulers, foam packing, egg cartons and carry-out containers.
PLASTIC NO. 7: OTHER
The category “Other” includes any resin not specifically numbered “1-6” or combinations of one or more of these resins.
Initial uses: Three and five gallon water bottles and certain kinds of food containers, including Tupperware. I haven’t seen a recycling program yet that accepts these.
They’re recycled as plastic lumber and custom-made products.
THE PROBLEM CHILD?
Most programs accept plastics No. 1 through No. 4, while few to none take No. 6 and No. 7. But what about No. 5? It’s considered the problem child. Made of polypropylene, it’s viewed as too labor intensive and costly to be of interest to most companies. So does that make No. 5 plastics evil?
Oddly enough, no. No. 5 plastics are more durable and much lighter than their peers, which makes them easier and more environmentally friendly to transport.
Yogurt manufacturer Stonyfield Farms has performed oodles of on-site research, which led them to use No. 5 over more recycle-friendly No. 2. In addition, the company encourages consumers to send in used (but clean, please) containers to be turned into preserve products—from tableware (which I love) to razors and toothbrushes.
Other companies, such as Nancy’s Yogurt uses No. 2 plastics. However, Nancy’s encourages reuse of its containers. If you end up with a backlog of used containers you can send them back to Nancy’s and the company will make sure they’re recycled.
So what’s the takeaway from all this?
It’s important to the future of our planet that we take a few minutes to find out what our city and local recycling programs accept. They may even have a chart, which they can send you. Also, it’s important to shop smart by examining the packaging of the products you buy. Avoid plastic and other petroleumbased packaging because they are harder to recycle. And if one of your favorite companies doesn’t offer No. 2 packaging or the option to return that packaging for recycling, write them and tell them to get on the stick!
Lastly, if your city’s recycling program is limited to only one or two items, contact them to find out why and put pressure on them to expand it.
by Kristen McCarthy Thomas
Kristen McCarthy Thomas is a public relations specialist with an integrated marketing communications company in Southern CA. She leads the company’s Environmental and Sustainability Task Forces and helps both employees and management “green up.”
Currently at work on a book on how parents can reduce their family’s environmental footprint through inexpensive, easy-to-understand measures, Kristen intends to pass the torch of environmentalism to the next generation by word and deed.