Understanding Plastic & Recycling
by Robert Hing on Jun 01, 2022
Five things you didn’t know about plastic and recycling
Not all plastics are recyclable
Plastic bags? Nope. Straws? Negative. What about coffee cups? Requires a special machine. Without it? Another no. Plastic forks, knives, and spoons generally can’t be recycled either. Low grade small plastics are difficult to separate at waste management facilities and generally can’t be recycled properly.
There are seven types of plastic that can be essentially differentiated by the temperature at which they are melted. Although plastics for the most part originate from crude oil, a PLA label would indicate a source consisting of either sugars in corn or other plant starches like cassava. Certain types of plastic, such as thermoset plastics, cannot be recycled. They’re typically used in car parts and electrical appliances.
Any plastic with food residue on or in it cannot be recycled. Only clean plastics can be recycled. In order to be transformed into other goods, they need to be of a high enough standard to compete with other products on the market. The majority of dirty plastics will be simply discarded and lumped in with other garbage - Destined for either the landfill or incinerator.
Recycling downgrades the quality of the plastic
Everytime plastic is recycled, its polymer chain chain grows shorter and the quality significantly decreases. Expect to only recycle plastics a maximum of 2-3 times before the quality reaches such a point that it cannot be used anymore. Furthermore, to assist with the diminishing quality of the recycled plastic, virgin materials are often added into the mix. Consider labels marking ‘recycled materials’ as actually a mix of new and old plastics rather than a rebirth of that plastic water bottle you threw away last year.
How to know if your plastic can be recycled or not?
Flip the product over and look at the base. If you see a #7 in the center of a three arrowed triangle then you have no way of knowing whether it can be recycled properly. It’ll probably end up in the landfill either way.
Given the prominence of plastic in our everyday lives and the lengthy time required for the product to be completely broken down - Think anywhere from between 400–1000 years, with some estimates suggesting even longer - It’s important to understand how recycling functions. It’s not the perfect solution. Recycling, at the end of day, is an initiative started by the very companies that produce this material