This one is true now, but changing quickly. Sorting plastics is tricky for recycling processors. Bottles can't be separated out with a magnet; small pieces like coffee-cup lids get flattened and mixed into paper bales; bags get caught in the spinning disks of sorting equipment, forcing frequent shut-downs. Trying to decode the recycling numbers on plastic products is also a pain for consumers. As a result, it's true that most of the plastic we use does end up in landfill sites. Less than 1 percent of polystyrene containers (e.g. yogurt pots) are recycled, and even well-established recyclables like PET (e.g. soft-drink bottles) end up in the trash more than two-thirds of the time. But the problem isn't that recycling programs are dumping recyclable plastic into the trash -- it's that they don't accept the plastics in the first place. That problem is on the way out, though. This spring, San Francisco announced that its pioneering recycling program would begin accepting all rigid plastic, including anything from yogurt pots and clamshell containers to plastic toys and buckets. Other cities are also expanding the range of plastics they accept. New technology makes this feasible: Optical sorters use infrared light to instantly identify the chemical composition of a container, then a puff of air directs it into the right pile. Recyclers also have to find a market for plastics once they're sorted -- and that's starting to happen, too. San Francisco recently signed a deal to sell rigid 5-gal buckets, common in construction, to a company that will turn them into artificial lumber for landscaping.The information about sortation isn't really new. Big PET recyclers have been using sophisticated sortation equipment -- like the technology described here -- for over a decade. I don't think it's really fair to say that this myth "is true now." Obviously most plastic thrown away in the U.S. today ends up in landfills, and the numbers PM cites are accurate. But that's not the same as saying that "most of the plastic put in recycling bins ends up in the garbage." Sure, consumers throw stuff in their recycling bins that communities don't want, and that ends up being thrown away. But is that the majority of plastics? I suspect that most of the plastic put into recycling bins are PET and HDPE bottles, and there is definitely a market for those containers. So the bottom line is that PM is right, it is a myth that most plastic put in recycling bins ends up in the garbage. They also happen to be wrong, because the first sentence of the article contradicts the headline. Thanks to PN colleague Kathie Case for pointing out this story today.
A half-truth about recycling
Popular Mechanics magazine's Web site has a fun feature today, "Recycling Myths: PM Debunks 5 Half Truths about Recycling." It's always interesting for me to see what magazines like Popular Mechanics are saying about plastics, so I'll share the publication's Myth No. 5: "Most of the plastic put in recycling bins ends up in the garbage."
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