Recycling Misconceptions – Part 1 – “All plastic containers with a recycling logo are recyclable.”

recycle puzzle

Recycling may be the easiest way to do your part when it comes to being “green,” right? Well, it does seem that a few trashcans around the house and conditioning oneself to differentiate throw-a-ways based on that ubiquitous chasing arrows logo is an easy way to get started and do some good, but are you really helping? Does that logo really mean what most people think it means (this is recyclable)? Chances are only some of the plastic containers you throw out are actually being recycled, and the rest are being pulled from the stream and discarded in the landfill.

This is the case in my current “hometown,” New York City. I spoke with the Director of the NYC bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling a couple weeks ago while doing some research for a client, and he informed me that if I throw, for example, a plastic sandwich container, top of a tic-tac container or any other non-typical plastic container into my municipal recycling stream it won’t get recycled. Why? Well, the infrastructure is just not there yet; currently the only plastic containers that NYC will recycle are plastic bottles and jugs where the neck is smaller than the body. According to the NYCWasteLe$$ website, this is because 90% of all plastic bottles and jugs are made of #1 PETE and #2 HDPE, two plastics with strong market demand. Other less popular plastics can contaminate the batch of recycled plastic. This was news to me, as I had been dropping anything plastic that contained the mobius loop into my recycling bin, and I had been encouraging my roommates to do the same.

So here’s the rub:
Since the recycling logo isn’t a government-mandated symbol, manufacturers are allowed to put it on their products even if that product is only recyclable in some places. The mobius loop or chasing arrows logo along with resin codes (e.g. 1 for PETE), which were developed by the Society of the Plastic Industry, only denote the type of plastic and not its recyclability. As more and more companies are forced to outfit their products or packaging with something “green,” ill-informed consumers will continue to drop those products into their municipal recycling streams; thus increasing the man power needed to pull them out of the stream before the recycling process begins and ship them to the landfill, using more energy than if they had just thrown it in the trash. Like The Big Lebowski said, “That’s a bummer man.”

I think most people feel recycling is a good thing, and a necessary thing, but want clear-cut guidelines about what and whatnot to toss in the recycling bin. Sometimes this information isn’t readily available. The first thing you should do is make sure you have read any available literature or signs regarding recycling in your area. If these don’t clearly outline both what and whatnot to recycle, then check with your local or regional municipality to find out the specifics. Some places like San Francisco encourage recycling of all plastics, not just bottles and jugs. The important thing is to seek out the correct information; don’t let a lack of knowledge thwart your efforts to do something good. Be proactive.

If you’re bothered by the uncertainties of recycling just as I am, a third thing you can do is encourage your local municipality to adopt a cool process started by Waste Management called Single Stream recycling. Single Stream recycling collection is becoming popular throughout the US and allows for all recyclables to be mixed together when deposited. Check out this post from my friend John Laumer at treehugger.com for more information.

  1. Green SAHM

    We have single stream recycling in my area, and I love how easy it makes recycling. We still have the #1 & #2 bottles only rule, but at least it makes recycling as easy as throwing out the trash so more people will do it.

  2. Sarah

    We used to have Waste Management’s single stream service – but our municipality discovered that not enough people were participating, and stopped the service. No more recycling – it’s all garbage now. I hope that WM discovers that there’s money in separating it out later downstream.

  3. SSS

    Love the focus of the article and I really do agree. However, recognizing the problem of -only being able to recycle #1 and 2 type plastics- is only half the battle.

    It’s true that public interest is on the rise but since it’s not really a force to be reckoned with yet, why not get a bigger environmental organization interested and involved in your local waste management programs?

    Small steps lead to big outcomes.
    Helping to educate the general public on environmentally sound practices is brilliant… Taking it a bit further and acting upon these wonderful articles is genius.

    I believe that if a small county dump located off route 11 in Virginia can adapt a program that accepts and recycles all types of plastics (not just type 1 and 2), so can the big guys up in New York.

  4. Cathi

    I have called our Waste Management office several times and I get different answers from everyone I speak to there. The latest I was told is that all plastics can be recycled through them – I know that this can’t be right, but the lady got very rude with me when I asked for clarification, so I have just been throwing all my recyclables into the bin. I hope this isn’t a bad idea – I don’t know what else to do!

  5. Matt

    I live in NYC in the West Village. We separate our plastics and paper into clear blue bags. I just watched the garbage men outside my window throw everything, recycling and garbage included into the same compactor and drive away.

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