7 Misconceptions About Plastic and Plastic Recycling

Whenever you input “plastics recycling” into an internet search engine, one of the top three results (after ads) will be the article “Seven Misconceptions About Plastic and Plastic Recycling” from the Ecology Center in Berkeley, California.  This blog article is well written, but its content is locally driven and not particularly accurate across a broader cross section of the country, or even California for that matter.  Since recycling programs and their effectiveness vary significantly across the country, these “misconceptions” may or may not fit your particular situation. 

Because their blog article comes up consistently high in internet search results, we felt that we should provide our perspective, as plastics recyclers with national scope, to the issues addressed in the blog article.

–      Misconception #1: “Plastics that go into a curbside recycling bin get recycled.  Not necessarily.”, says the Ecology Center.  This statement is not accurate.  Provided that we put the proper plastics in our recycling bins, as requested by our municipal waste authority, they will all be recycled.  In Berkeley, they ask for #1 PET bottles and #2 HDPE bottles only.  These plastics are in high demand and will be recycled back into plastics products.

The Ecology Center states that “In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers from Berkeley are being made into containers again…”.  This is not an accurate statement.  We buy the #2 HDPE material from Berkeley (and many other California communities) and most of it is converted back into plastic bottles by Graham Packaging, Liquid Container, Consolidated Container, Clorox, Polytainer, Microdyne and other molders on the West coast.  It is true that there are other end markets for this material and some of it may become plastic drainage pipe, plastic lumber or other products, but it certainly does not wind up in landfills.

–      Misconception #2: “Curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled.  Not necessarily.”, says the Ecology Center.  This doesn’t make sense to us.  Our plant in Chino, California saved 344,626,607 plastic bottles from being landfilled in 2010 alone and we are not the only recycler on the West coast.

The Ecology Center argues that more recycling will lead to more demand for plastics products.  This is not how demand for consumer products is created; however, demand for recycled plastics currently exceeds supply of curbside collected plastics, so our attitude is, bring it on!  We’ll recycle it!

–      Misconception #3:A chasing arrows symbol means that a plastic container is recyclable.  The arrows are meaningless.”, says the Ecology Center.  We agree.  The chasing arrows identification system does not mean that a plastic container is recyclable, nor necessarily recycled.  This system is currently being overhauled by ASTM and should be replaced in the near future.

–      Misconception #4: “Plastic resins are made from non-renewable natural resources that could be used for a variety of other applications or conserved.”, says the Ecology Center.  We agree.  Since plastic packaging and products are not going to go away, what better argument could there be for recycling plastics back into useful products.

–      Misconception #5: “Plastics recyclers pay to promote plastics’ recyclability.  No; virgin producers pay for the bulk of these ads.”, says the Ecology Center.  This may be true, however, it would be nice to see some ads regarding the facts of plastics recycling.  There haven’t been any in circulation in years.

–      Misconception #6: “Using plastic containers conserves energy.  When the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers…”, says the Ecology Center.  This is nonsense.  They definitely need to make a trip to a glass container producing plant.  The single largest cost to making glass is energy, not raw materials and its cost dwarfs what it costs to make plastic.  This has been well documented elsewhere.   Less energy is used to make plastic and far less energy is used to transport plastic products.  This is not even debatable.

–      Misconception #7: “Our choice is limited to recycling or wasting. Source reduction is preferable for many types of plastic and isn’t difficult.  Opportunities include using refillable containers, buying in bulk, buying things that don’t need much packaging, and buying things in recyclable and recycled packages.”, says the Ecology Center.  We agree wholeheartedly.  Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!

The Ecology Center goes on to make some other points, such as, “Plastic container producers do not use any recycled plastic in their packaging…”.  This is not true.  California has a recycled content mandate for non-food plastic containers that all molders must adhere to.  They are audited annually for compliance and will be fined if they are found to have less than 25% recycled content in their containers.

They go on to say that “Plastics recycling costs much and does little to achieve recycling goals.”  That may have been true in the early stages of establishing recycling programs.  If setup correctly and efficiently, plastics recycling is economically viable and provides a profitable revenue stream to waste haulers and municipalities alike.  It also is a job creator, even in these difficult economic times.  Plastics recycling creates 6 jobs to every landfill job.

While we agree with many of the messages the Ecology Center is making in their blog article, we need to be clear that plastics recycling is effective and, if anything, needs to be expanded in order to conserve natural resources, reduce energy consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create new jobs.

We welcome any other topics you wish to see or your comments on our posts.

Need more information? Envision Plastics Vice President, Tamsin Ettefagh will be happy to discuss your comments or concerns in greater depth. Contact her at 336/342-4749 Ext 225.

3 thoughts on “7 Misconceptions About Plastic and Plastic Recycling

  1. I am looking for more information on plastics. I am doing an LCA project on ziploc reusable plastic containers and hope that you can direct me towards information on raw materials, manufacturing processes, energy requirements, and any other info that might be helpful. I have emailed ziploc and they have told me that the plastic is mostly made of polypropylene but that is all they are able to tell me. They also insist that there is no BPA in their products.

    • The issue of plastics films recycling is a significant one due to the handling issues you identify, however, companies in the U.S. are entering the film recycling business, if for no reason, but to defend the use of films in packaging and plastic bags. While no panaceas exist today, technology and desire to recycle these materials will lead to commercial solutions in the not distant future.

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