Recycling Plastics: Are We Doing Enough?

The History, Process, Failures, and Future of Recycling Plastics

Group of people collecting bottles in a park

South_agency / Getty Images

America's first plastic recycling mill in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, opened in 1972. It took several years and a concerted effort for average citizens to embrace the recycling habit, but embrace it they did, and they have continued to do so in increasing numbers—but is it enough?

Recycling Isn't a New Idea

Plastic recycling may have come to the fore during the late-mid-20th century, Mother Earth-loving, hippie counter-culture revolution—but the idea was nothing new even then. The concept of repurposing and reusing products is as old as hand-me-downs.

For thousands of years, household products were made with the idea that if they broke, they could be repaired—not simply replaced. Paper was being recycled in Japan as far back as the year 1031. A little closer to current history, plants for recycling aluminum cans opened in Chicago and Cleveland in 1904. During World War II, the U.S. government asked the public to recycle and reuse products, a list that included tires, steel, and even nylon. Prior to today's disposable containers, fleets of milkmen home-delivered milk and cream in glass bottles that were collected when empty. They were then cleaned, sterilized, and filled back up to start the cycle all over.

It wasn't until the 1960s, however, that society began to take action against the ever-increasing amounts of waste created by the nonbiodegradable disposable plastic packaging that was being foisted on consumers in the name of convenience.

The Plastic Recycling Process

Recycling plastic is unlike glass or metal processes due to the greater number of steps involved and the use of dyes, fillers, and other additives used in virgin plastics (resin produced directly from a petrochemical or biochemical feed-stock).

The process begins with sorting the various items by their resin content. There are seven different plastic recycling symbols marked on the bottoms of plastic containers. At recycling mills, plastics are sorted by these symbols (and are sometimes sorted an additional time based on the color of the plastic). Once sorted, the plastics are chopped up into small pieces and chunks, and then cleaned to further remove debris such as paper labels, contents residue, dirt, dust, and other contaminants.

After the plastic is cleaned, it's melted down and compressed into tiny pellets called nurdles that are ready to be reused and fashioned into new and completely different products. (Recycled plastic is hardly ever used to create the same or identical plastic item as its original form.)

Fast Facts: Commonly Recycled Plastics

  • Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, PETE): Known for superior clarity, strength, toughness, and as an efficient barrier to gas and moisture. Commonly used in the bottling of soft drinks, water, and salad dressing, and for peanut butter jars.
  • High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Known for its stiffness, strength, toughness, resistance to moisture, and permeability to gas. HDPE is commonly used in the bottling of milk, juice, and water, as well as for trash and retail bags.
  • Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Known for its versatility, clarity, bendability, strength, and toughness. PVC is commonly used in juice bottles, cling films, and PVC piping.
  • Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Known for its ease of processing, strength, toughness, flexibility, ease of sealing, and as an efficient moisture barrier. It's commonly used for frozen food bags, freezable bottles, and flexible container lids.

Does Recycling Plastics Work?

In a nutshell, yes and no. The plastic recycling process is fraught with flaws. Some dyes used in creating plastic products can be contaminated, causing entire batches of potential recycling material to be scrapped. Another issue is that producing recycled plastic does not reduce the need for virgin plastic. However, due to its use in the manufacture of composite lumber and many other products, plastic recycling can and does reduce the consumption of other natural resources, such as timber.

While it's true that there's still a large percentage of people who refuse to recycle (the actual numbers of plastic being returned for reuse is roughly only 10% of what is purchased as new by consumers), there are a lot of plastic items—like drinking straws and children's toys—that aren't considered recyclable at all.

In addition, over the last few years, overwhelmed by the sheer volume and rising costs, many communities no longer offer recycling options or have added restrictions (washing and drying containers, and disallowing certain grades of plastic) for items that could have been recycled in the past.

Beyond Recycling

Plastic recycling has come a long way since its inception and continues to make strides in reducing the amount of waste in our landfills. While disposable packaging isn't likely to disappear altogether, a number of alternative options, including biodegradable cellulose-based containers, cling film, and shopping bags, as well as reusable silicone food storage solutions are becoming more readily available to consumers.

In some locations, consumers looking to lessen the plastics in their lives are looking to the past to inspire the future. Milkmen—and women—are making a comeback, delivering not only milk in recyclable glass bottles but organic fruits and vegetables along with artisan cheeses and baked goods. It can only be hoped that in the long run, the conveniences offered by our present "disposable society" will eventually be outweighed by conveniences that are actually good for the planet.

Sources