Recycling Plastic the Right Way

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

  • Use the iWARM tool to help reduce waste and calculate the energy savings that can be gained from recycling plastic.
    Photo by Fotolia/alexandro900
  • “Plastic Purge” by Michael SanClements provides encouragement and suggestions for protecting ourselves from potentially harmful chemicals lurking in plastics.
    Cover courtesy St. Martin's Press

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.

7/21/2014 12:12:23 PM

Great article and video! Curious to see what answer SanClements gets as to 'why' plastic bags don't get recycled and how do you convince the public to do a little bit more in their handling of their plastics. I make handbags and totes from "Plarn" (plastic bag yarn) to keep a few bags out of landfills. My largest totes have 150+ grocery sacks crocheted into them. Available at, my bags will wear like iron, yet are extremely lightweight and surprisingly soft. May as well make them downright attractive, too!

7/21/2014 9:02:53 AM

To commennt on recycling Number 5 plastic. NOt all Whole Foods have the recycling bins. If I am not mystaken Houston area for instance has none. On contrary Chicago land apears to be more caring and there is a lots of oportunity. There is a GimmeFive program by a company called Preserve (I am not associated with them in any way). They make new products out of Plastic Numer 5. I think you can even mail a big box to them. If you choose to do so, you should probably cut it up so you are not shipping air with your plastic, or compact it just like in one of the first pictures in this article. In general anything you put to recycling or garbage you should compact. For example a 1 gallon milk jug, you can open the cap squeez the jar flat a while most of the air is our close the lid. This will save space on the truck and saves on fuel used for picking up recycling or garbage by reducing the number of trips needed. Here is the link to gimmefive program. I have been doing it for years and I also buy their tooth brushes. Also Toms toothpaste now has a programm where you can send in the empty tube from the paste and other items. Ed.

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