Plastics and You!

If you asked anyone on the street about recycling, they’d probably say the movement is a huge success. This is mostly true for cans, paper, and glass, and efforts fall short with plastics. 

With #Plastic Free July midway through, avoiding plastic is a hot topic worldwide.

Many people treat plastics the same way as any other recyclable: see a chasing arrow icon, toss it in a blue bin, assume it ends up as another plastic bottle someday. It is still important to throw plastics into proper bins, and few people know that only about half of a bin’s contents will actually be recycled.

Plastics are different than other recyclables because they come in so many different sizes, shapes, densities, and thicknesses. Because of these differences, it is challenging for recyclers to get all of the same kinds of plastics together without another kind accidentally mixing in. Some even end up in landfills regardless of which bin you put them in. Unfortunately, recovery rates of plastic are low, especially in the U.S. According to Tom Szaky, CEO of TerraCycle: “Typically, 50% of what you put in your recycling bin is never recycled. It's sorted and thrown out.” All plastics cannot be treated the same way: composition varies, regulations vary, and people often don't know what items go where.

In order to make recycling efforts more efficient, most plastics are now printed with the chasing arrows and a number (one through seven) that indicates what kind of plastic it is.

Those numbers are a part of the Resin Identification Code (RIC). 


Of all of the different types of plastic, only #1-PET and #2-HDPE get recycled efficiently. #3-PVC, #6-PS, and #7- “Other” are usually destined for the landfill, and #4-LDPE and #5-PP are only accepted by some recyclers. The odd thing about the RIC is that nobody regulates it! It can be placed on anything, or not placed at all.

Once sorted, most post-consumer plastic is shredded into small pieces, sterilized, and sold back to manufacturers. Most recycled plastic pellets, or nurdles, become polyester fibers or construction materials--items that live only one more life and are then trashed. Recycling efforts are making a huge difference, and more is needed if plastics are to be kept from piling up all over. And more than that, we need to get serious about ways to reduce our usage of plastics in the first place.

Sticking numbers on plastic items does not stop them from ending up adrift. The RIC does aid recyclers, and it does not clean beaches or oceans. Since the RIC’s introduction, climbing plastic production rates have led to accumulation of plastic trash worldwide. You can see it on the streetside, on the beach, in the bushes, virtually everywhere.

It’s pretty clear that the world has a problematic addiction to plastics.

RIC or no RIC, recyclable or not, plastics are becoming a greater threat to the environment every day. The two trillion bags used each year alone kill wildlife, poison waterways, and continue to wreak havoc for hundreds of years, until they supposedly decompose (and we will have to wait at least a few more centuries to be certain). Vast garbage patches circulate in five of the world’s oceans. Their main ingredient? You guessed it, plastic. Stopping the flow of plastic waste into nature may not be a question of numbers and recycling at all --rather, a change in societal habits. This change starts with you.


So, what can you do?

First and foremost, try to avoid plastics. By consciously reducing the amount of plastic you purchase, keep at home, and come into contact with, you reduce the amount of related toxins entering both you and the environment.

Always consider alternative options. If your favorite products can be bought without plastic, take that route. Always keep an eye out for plastic-free items at the store. Check out the Zero Wasted Store, Package Free Shop, and Life Without Plastic for some options!

Tell your representatives that you want a ban imposed on disposable plastics (and send them this link)! Many cities now charge a few cents per plastic (or paper) bag and litter rates in these cities have declined as a result. Initiatives that restrict plastics, be it bags, bottles, or takeout containers, make a difference and are worth supporting. Watch this to learn more!

Eliminate plastics from your daily routines. Disposable items like sponges, plastic wrap, and baggies can easily be replaced with rags, beeswax wrap, and jars. Explore the plastic-free household market.

If ditching plastics altogether is not an option, shop with the RIC in mind. Identify your plastics. Buy items listed #1 PET or #2 HDPE and avoid the others. Check online to see how your local recyclery functions and what kinds of materials they process. Some regional recyclers require that you sort your paper, plastic, and glass separately, some do not. Follow their directions.

Always clean out your recyclables. Food and liquid residues throw off the sorting machines and lead to unnecessary trashing of recyclable items. Check with your recyclery again here: sometimes they have to be squeaky clean (for good reason), and sometimes they just shouldn’t have a whole serving of food left.

 Plastics may be convenient now, and when they start to pollute our oceans and waterways, end up in our food supply (and ourselves), & cause serious health effects in only the first 20% of their lives (remember, 400 years until we know if it's 400 years), they start to look less convenient. Avoiding them may seem impossible, and if you start with one or two simple swaps, you'll be setting yourself up for success. Invite your friends to do the same, and you'll start a movement.

Here's the thing; it HAS to start with you. Make new choices, encourage others around you, and strive to see the societal change that will stamp out plastics.


Clara von Dohlen