Recycling Plastic the Right Way

Learn what can go into your recycling bins and how to calculate potential energy savings from recycling plastic.

Reduce plastic waste and conserve energy.

Use the iWARM tool to help reduce waste and calculate the energy savings that can be gained from recycling plastic.

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Michael SanClements accepted a dare and quickly discovered that plastic is, literally, everywhere. Plastic Purge (St. Martin’s Press, 2014) shares his experience of trying to eliminate it from his life. Though completely eliminating plastic turned out to be nearly impossible for SanClements, he did learn there are plenty of ways to limit the amount, and kinds, of it in your life. The following excerpt from “Recycling Plastic” introduces the iWARM tool for reducing waste and clarifies what can actually go into the plastic recycling bin.

The EPA has this really great tool, the Individual Waste Reduction Model (iWARM), that does a fantastic job of putting things in perspective. The iWARM model translates the energy savings from recycling things like plastic bottles, rather than trashing them, into easy-to-comprehend energy units like, for example, the hours that energy could power your laptop, TV, or a lightbulb. The model includes options for seeing the amount of energy derived from plastic bags, gallon milk jugs, plastic bottles (20-ounce and 2-liter), and detergent bottles. And it’s not just limited to plastic—there are a slew of other recyclable items included: newspapers, aluminum cans, cereal boxes, and more.

I spent a lot of time playing with this model. It’s really quite fun. I must say I was surprised to find out how much energy was locked away inside my recycling. Knowing plastics are made from fossil fuels is one thing, but seeing it in real energy terms adds a whole new level of understanding. For instance, recycling ten 20-ounce plastic bottles, as opposed to throwing them in a landfill, saves enough energy to power my laptop for ninety-seven hours, or an incandescent lightbulb for eighty hours! Even better, a fluorescent lightbulb would brighten your life for over 370 hours!

The power locked in plastic bags is fun to think about, too. Ten plastic grocery bags will power my laptop for over three hours, and if we recycled every one of the estimated one trillion plastic bags produced globally each year, it would save over sixteen billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity. For a point of reference, the average US home uses 11,280 kWh per year.

Plastic Purge Trailer from Mike SanClements on Vimeo.

I wish all aspects of plastic recycling were as easy to understand and as fun as the iWARM model, but unfortunately, the recycling of plastics is often complex, inefficient, and rife with nuance and room for error. All sorts of questions arise when recycling plastic, some of which we’ve already covered, like, can I really ruin a whole batch of recycling by tossing the wrong number plastic into a bin? Or can I recycle anything made of plastic number 1, or is it just bottles? Can I toss the cap in? As stated before, the golden rule with respect to plastics is when in doubt, keep it out! I know, I know, throwing stuff away when you aren’t sure seems like the worst way to go about recycling plastic, but the fact of the matter is, it makes more sense in this case. Here’s why. Mixing certain types of plastic recycling really can lead to contamination of the entire batch during processing.

Some mix-ups are quite likely. For example, PET (plastic number 1) is recycled all the time and PVC (plastic number 5) is rarely recycled, but they can appear very similar to each other visually and with respect to specific gravity. Specific gravity is the density of a substance relative to some reference substance, usually water at four degrees Celsius. If your specific gravity is less than one, it will float; more than one, it will sink. The similar specific gravity of PET and PVC makes it difficult to separate them mechanically, meaning they can easily wind up in the same batch of recycling because they float and sink together, even though they are made of completely different material and do not mix. PET and PVC are so incompatible that one PVC bottle in ten thousand PET bottles can ruin the whole batch. So, in short: yes, you can ruin a whole batch of recycling if you are careless, and that is why it’s better to leave it out when in doubt.

Some other no-no’s when it comes to recycling: no plastic bags. They can be recycled, but likely not as part of your single-stream recycling program. Single-stream recycling is a pretty great luxury if you are lucky enough to live in a city or town that has it. It basically means you get to toss all of your recycling into one big bin with no need to separate the items by number or even by material (e.g., glass or plastic). Also, please don’t go fill up a plastic bag with plastic bottles and place it in your bin. That plastic bag will mess things up pretty quickly by forcing workers to slow the conveyor belt, rip the bag open, sort the items, and start it going again. This wastes time and money. Also, no dirty diapers! No nonrecyclable plastics or Styrofoam! The point is, be careful!

Plastic number 5, Polypropylene (PP), comprises a lot of plastic packaging at grocery stores, mostly in deli items, like premade pizza dough, premade sandwiches, or small tubs of cheese. It turns out these number 5 plastic items aren’t typically recycled in curbside recycling programs. However, there is some opportunity for recycling this kind of plastic at Whole Foods. Some of their stores have bins out to take back all that number 5 plastic. Which is a nice service, considering that, based on my experiences and observations, they seem to sell quite a bit of this less easily recycled plastic. And luckily, you can return plastic number 5 packaging from whatever grocery store you frequent at a Whole Foods recycling bin.

Remember, these tips are generalizations and guidelines, they aren’t gospel. In the end, the answers to most of your recycling questions are specific to your town’s or city’s program. I’ve seen numerous articles stating that the plastic caps from containers like peanut butter jars cannot be placed into recycling bins. However, according to my local recycling rules it’s a nonissue to leave those caps on for recycling.

While it may seem that opportunities for plastic recycling abound, at this point in time plastics recycling is still a terribly inefficient and incomplete operation with little to no opportunity existing for recycling certain types of plastic in many communities. Why is this?

From Plastic Purge. Copyright © 2014 by Michael SanClements, reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.