How much of recyclable plastic is really recycled
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that the United States averages more than 34 million tons of plastic waste annually. Consumers often assume they have done their part to curb plastic pollution by recycling their containers. However, the reality is that just over eight percent of all waste, including plastic, gets recycled. Part of the solution lies in consumers understanding recycling codes and manufacturers creating more types of plastic from easy-to-recycle materials.
Understanding recycling symbols
The widely-known recycling symbol, known as the Mobius Loop, consists of three triangles with each pointing to the next in a continuous circle. Both the triangle and the background remain white. The Mobius Loop alerts consumers to recycle an item and/or its container once they have finished using it.
The same three-arrow symbol with an all-black background indicates the product and/or its packaging has gone through the recycling process. However, it doesn’t state which parts of the package or the product contain recycled materials. The all-black background indicates a combination of new and recycled materials, and the package may indicate a percentage. When the arrows are white with a black background, it signifies that 100 percent of the materials come from recycled products.
What does each recycling code mean?
Each type of plastic has a number associated with it. The lower the number, the easier it is to recycle the plastic. These are the most common recycling codes:
PETE/PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate): This lightweight plastic typically contains soft drinks, peanut butter, mouth wash, salad dressing, and similar single-use products. Materials handling companies can easily recycle PETE/PET into new containers, carpet, paneling, furniture, and similar items.
HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene): HDPE is a safe plastic due to its low leaching risk. Common places to find it include cereal box liners, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and laundry detergent bottles. Examples of recycled uses of HDPE include new laundry detergent bottles, pens, picnic tables, and recycling containers.
V/PVC (Vinyl): Although manufacturers use vinyl to create products such as medical equipment, detergent bottles, and window cleaner, it is difficult to recycle and rarely accepted for curbside pickup. Vinyl also contains at least two ingredients that pose serious human health risks.
LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene): While generally considered safe, most communities don’t accept LDPE for recycling. LDPE most often shows up in shopping bags, frozen food bags, squeezable bottles, and carpet. When materials handling companies can recycle LDPE, new uses include shipping envelopes, floor tiles, and trash bag liners.
PP (Polypropylene): Now considered one of the safer plastics, manufacturers use PP to create straws, medicine bottles, bottle caps, and syrup containers. When recycled, PP reappears as ice scrapers, signal lights, and auto battery cases.
PS (Polystyrene): The most common use of PS is Styrofoam, which is difficult to recycle. Disposable plates and cups, egg cartons, and restaurant take-out containers are just some products made with PS. While rarely accepted by curbside recycling programs, companies willing to accept it can transform it back into the same types of products.
Miscellaneous: This includes any product not meeting one of the above descriptions. Because these plastics include harmful toxins that disrupt hormone production, no community accepts them for recycling. However, miscellaneous plastics may occasionally appear in larger water bottles, signs, computer cases, and related products.
Both manufacturers and consumers can do their part to help the environment by creating or choosing products with low recycling numbers.