How do you know whether to dump a plastic container in the trash or into a recycling bin when you’re done with it? You’re not alone if you’re perplexed by the choice. According to 2014 research, 65 percent of customers had no idea which plastics can be recycled. FRONTLINE discovered the answers to that and other crucial questions by interviewing recycling and garbage management professionals.
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Is Recycling Always Beneficial?
Recycling is both cost-effective and environmentally friendly for many items. Consider aluminum, which can be recycled endlessly while consuming 95 percent less energy than new aluminum.
Plastic recycling helps to conserve the fossil fuels needed to make it, such as natural gas or oil. Plastics, on the other hand, are typical “downcycled” into lower-quality, lower-value items like carpet fiber or vehicle parts. While practically any plastic can theoretically be recycled, this does not guarantee that it will be.
What Plastic Can Be Recycled, Exactly?
There are a variety of factors that contribute to the low recycling rate of plastic. One important issue nowadays is that recycling plastic is up against new plastic. Which is less expensive due to the abundance of low-cost shale gas utilized in its production.
Another issue is that existing plastic must be classified by kind before it can be recycled. The plastics industry developed a code to identify seven different types of plastic. Which are represented by numbers within the triangle “chasing arrows” logo on the bottom of typical packaging.
- PET (polyethylene terephthalate) is a translucent plastic that is commonly used in water and soda bottles. Sorting PET bottles is relatively simple. Since 10 states provide customers a five-to-15-cent reimbursement for returning empty containers to the retailer.
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a strong plastic that is extensively used in pipe and construction products. Because of worries about toxicity, many businesses have stopped using it.
- Shrink wrap, bags, and toothpaste tubes are all made of low-density polyethylene (LDPE), a flexible plastic. These can’t be recycled in the same places as curbside recycling. In fact, they can block sorting machines—but there have been some early attempts to collect them separately at grocery shops. They end up in landfills in large numbers.
- Yogurt containers and shampoo bottles are frequently made of polypropylene (PP). There is a limited recycling market for them. Most of them end up in landfills.
- Polystyrene (PS) is frequently used in packaging, either as Styrofoam or as a hard material in Solo cups and other containers. It’s difficult to recycle because it’s so light and frequently contaminated with food. The vast majority of them wind up in landfills.
- “Other.” Any additional type of plastic, or a mixture of the aforementioned.
So, which packaging is the most effective?
There is no one-size-fits-all solution. Packaging accounts for only a minor portion of a product’s overall environmental impact. Because of all the water and resources necessary to produce food, it frequently has a significantly greater impact on the environment.
“With packaging, you have to strike the exact balance of not too much and not too little,” Allaway told FRONTLINE. “It reminds me of Goldilocks.” If there isn’t enough packaging, food will be wasted. That’s a deal-breaker because the impact of making the container is far greater than the impact of growing the food.”
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