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Plastics recycling: are you still confused?

By: Don Loepp

March 21, 2013

I think it's usually pretty easy to identify plastic products by resin type and process — although I still pause when I see an unfamiliar package on a store shelf.

But the most non-plastics folks don't know (or care) about the difference between PET, oriented polystyrene and PVC.

And that can be a problem when someone wants to do the right thing and recycle their plastic products.

The issue was reinforced to me the past few days, which I spent at the Plastics Recycling conference in New Orleans.

I spent my time talking to many of the 1,000+ attendees — many of the people who are responsible for the tremendous growth that we've seen in plastics recycling.

They'd like that growth to continue to accelerate, but they know there are still some barriers to overcome.

One of the biggest problems is that the public just doesn't fully understand plastics recycling.

Many people think they understand plastics recycling. Just ask your neighbors and friends.

If you're lucky, they'll tell you which plastics products they think are recyclable. (If you're not lucky, they'll tell you that plastics recycling is a sham, and that it all ends up in the landfill. There are a lot of conspiracy theorists out there.)

But many are confused about things like resin codes, product types and whether recyclers want people to leave caps and labels on containers.

Most folks just want to do the right thing and recycle everything. In fact, one of my fellow panelists at the conference admitted he does just that — he puts containers into his recycling bin that he knows his city doesn't want, hoping that his small protest will convince city officials to change their minds.

With that in mind, I'd like to share a guest column that appeared in our sister publication, Waste & Recycling News, earlier this week. It was headlined: "Plastics recycling is still confusing — It's the industry's job to fix it."

Spoiler alert: You probably won't be surprised by which industry is being blamed.

The column was by Tom Watson, who manages the King County, Wash., EcoConsumer public outreach program.

He wrote that "I have an observation that I'm sure the recycling industry and plastics industry really do not want to hear: Plastics recycling is still pretty messed up." He offers a variety of examples of materials and products, and how what's accepted varies by community.

"The reality, it seems to me, is that plastics recycling is confusing even for the companies that collect it and make new stuff out of it. Quality control is extremely difficult. It's gotta be. Or, if they don't do much sorting and all they end up with is a very low grade of mixed plastic, where does all that go? I believe it's getting recycled, but I'd sure like to know where. Probably it's often some place overseas where very low-paid workers are sorting through it," Watson wrote.

"And if plastics recycling is confusing for the companies that deal with it as a business, it's much more confusing for the public. You wouldn't believe how many questions I get about it. It's mind-boggling how many people still put into their recycling bin everything that has the recycling symbol on it (and of course it seems logical to do that), even though there are many things with that symbol on it … that residential recycling programs definitely don't want."

Watson puts the blame squarely on the plastics industry.

"Recycling companies and governments are working on this problem, but personally I feel that the ball should be in the plastics industry's court. The industry needs to provide more recycling options, do much more public education about recycling, and make its products and packaging more recyclable. But instead, the plastics industry acts like it's the public's fault that plastics aren't recycled at a higher rate (recycling rates for most types of plastics are abysmal)," he wrote.

Fair criticism? Not completely. For now, which plastics are acceptable for recycling are going to vary by community, and depend on market forces and whether local recyclers can make money on them. There's no need to standardize and pretend that certain plastics aren't recyclable when there really is a market, even if it's just in a handful of communities.

At the same time, it would be great for the plastics industry if there were opportunities for consumers to put almost every type of plastic into a recycling bin.

That's a fantastic goal, and I hope that Watson's column gets people in the plastics industry thinking about how they can achieve it.