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Plastics recycling: Still confused?

By: Don Loepp

March 29, 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 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 in mid-March when I attended the Plastics Recycling conference in New Orleans.

I spent my time talking to many of the 1,000-plus 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 his small protest will convince city officials to change their minds.

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 idea gets people in the plastics industry thinking about how they can achieve it.

Loepp is Plastics News editor and author the "The Plastics Blog."