The Recycling Handbook

While banning plastic bags in grocery stores may seem like a useless and inconvenient policy in the short run, take a moment to consider how many plastic bags you’ve seen floating around street corners and tangled in tree branches. About 2 million plastic bags are used every day around the world…each of them made from a material that will take over 1,000 years to break down. Considering that out of all the plastic bags we consume and throw away, only 5% are recycled in the U.S.? Banning plastic bags in favor of sustainable bags suddenly doesn’t seem quite as inconvenient.

As discussed in our previous article Trash, Recycling, & Waste: The Disposal Guide, America has a tendency to misplace and improperly discard recyclable items. The EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it– and this isn’t entirely our fault as average citizens. Inadequate education about waste and recycling, weak government-funded promotion, and a cataclysmically poor number of recycling bins/reciprocals in several states has resulted in a population oblivious to our effects on the environment as well as our own well-being.

The Benefits of Recycling

So beyond all of these statistics, why is it worthwhile to recycle? On top of its positive effect on the environment, properly segregating your recycling generates many benefits:

  • Because it sits in a separate bin, there’s more room in your trash can for…well, trash! This immediately leads to less trash bag use and fewer trips to the trash bin. (If you compost, your trash bin could take even longer to fill up!)
  • On top of emptying out your trash can, recycling also prevents unnecessary use of landfill space.
  • Recycling reduces pollution caused by the manufacturing/collection of new raw materials.
  • It conserves reusable materials and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Recycling creates jobs for facility and manufacturing workers.

For a more in-depth look at the economic, financial, and environmental benefits of recycling, read the Environmental Protection Agency’s article here!

The Consequence of Improper Disposal

Within the vast ocean between Japan and California, 4 islands sit. One of them is Hawaii; the other 3, however, are distinctly abnormal. 2 out of the 3 islands are both roughly the size of Texas, each resting near Kuroshio and southern California respectively…but the third is estimated to be the size of the United States, settling smack in the middle of the North Pacific.

These, believe it or not, are islands of garbage.

Comprised of plastic material dating back as far as the 50s, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has gained attention as one of the most infamous and disgusting pieces of evidence regarding the inefficacy of human waste disposal practices. Much like an iceberg, the majority of these patches (or gyres) of marine debris are hidden beneath the surface, but their detrimental effects on the eco-system are obvious.

Plastic does not biodegrade, and is virtually indestructible. Under the sun’s rays, it disintegrates over time and merely splits into tinier pieces called microplastic, causing a breed of manmade pollution that- up to this day in time -is irreversible and uncontrollable. Plastic bottles, toys, jugs…any and all non-biodegradable material inevitably is a poison to its environment.

Decoding the Tiny Triangle

On a smaller scale, improper recycling results in unwelcome use of our already-full landfills, air and water pollution due to unnecessary excavation of new raw materials, and neglect to reuse sustainable materials like metal, paper, and glass. So how do we know if something plastic is really recyclable…? Simply look to the little triangle!

The triangle on your plastic item has a number within it, classifying the type of action that should be taken upon its disposal. This code determines whether or not you toss it in your own recycling bin, if it requires more specialty handling (i.e. your city facility does not process that type of material), or if it cannot be recycled:

  • #1 (PET): Recyclable. Ex: single-use plastic drink bottles, some food containers, mouthwash bottles. Recycled into textiles such as fleece garments, carpets, stuffing for pillows and life jackets, etc.
  • #2 (HDPE): Very Recyclable. Ex: milk jugs, detergent bottles, toys, shampoo bottles, butter and yogurt tubs. Recycled into detergent and oil bottles, pens, floor tile, recycling bins, lumber, fencing, picnic tables and benches, etc.
  • #3 (V or PVC): Not Recyclable. Ex: clear plastic food wrapping, cooking oil bottles, teething rings, children’s and pets’ toys, window cleaner and detergent bottles, plastic pipes and parts for plumbing, etc. Less than 1% of PVC is recycled into window frames, decks, mud flaps, garden hoses, cables, etc.
  • #4 (LDPE): Not Always Recyclable. Check with local facility. Ex: shopping and dry cleaning bags, squeezable bottles, shrink wrap. If collected, it’s recycled into plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners, shipping envelopes, floor tiles, compost bins, etc.
  • #5 (PP): Not Always Recyclable. Check with local facility. Ex: cereal box liners, caps, medicine bottles, disposable diapers, pails, margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape, rope. If collected, about 3% is recycled into battery cases, brooms, bins, trays, signal signs, ice scrapers, bicycle racks, rakes, etc.
  • #6 (PS): Not Recyclable. Ex: disposable styrofoam drinking cups, take-out food containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, foam packaging and foam chips, CD cases, etc. Although technology exists to make progress on recycling polystyrene, very few facilities accept the material, and therefore it makes up 20-30% of all US landfill matter according to the Earth Resource Foundation.
  • #7 (Other): Generally Not Recyclable. Ex: DVD cases, baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles, car parts, 3 and 5 gallon bottles. This category was cast as a wide net to filter materials containing BPA out of circulation; a #7 item’s ability to be recycled is low due to the potential health issues the materials may cause. However, if the item says #7 PLA, it is comprised of a bio-based polymer, and is therefore compostable instead of recyclable.

If you’re a Texas resident and would like to learn more about where your recycling goes, visit TDS’s website here to explore their facility, their mission statement, and tips on what to toss in the blue bin! Remember: just because something is thrown in the trash doesn’t mean it’s no longer you’re responsibility!