Recycling Plastic: Complications & Limitations

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Eureka Recycling is a nonprofit organization, created by the Saint Paul
Neighborhood Energy Consortium, that specializes in recycling and waste
reduction and manages Saint Paul’s recycling program. Our mission is to
reduce waste today through innovative resource management and to reach a
waste-free tomorrow by demonstrating that waste is preventable not inevitable.
We believe that our resources are valuable—like gold—and our goal is to
provide you with an opportunity to conserve them.
Recycling Plastic: Complications & Limitations
Plastic is light, easy to store and transport, comes in an endless variety of textures and shapes and can hold
almost anything. Those properties make it attractive to manufacturers and packagers, who use it for anything
from ketchup bottles to disposable utensils. Unfortunately, plastic is much more difficult to recycle than
materials like glass, aluminum or paper. Most plastic soon ends up in a landfill or incinerator. Despite
promotion of plastic recycling, plastic production has outpaced recycling by five times over the past decade.
While increased plastic recycling is one way to alleviate this problem, it has only limited potential to reduce
the glut of plastic waste.
Resin Codes Don’t Equal Recyclability
The Plastic Numbering System
Most plastic packaging is marked with a
Almost all plastic products are imprinted with a resin code — a small
resin code to identify the basic type of
number enclosed by the “chasing arrows” symbol. This code can be
chemical compound used in the
product. This code is usually found on
misleading, since it is not intended to indicate that the plastic is
the bottom of the container.
recyclable. Rather, the resin code is used by the plastics industry to
Polyethylene Terephthalate
indicate the general type of chemical compound used to make the
Soda and water bottles,
product.
cooking oil bottles
High Density Polyethylene
The resin codes were adopted by the Society of the Plastics Industry
Detergent bottles, milk and
(SPI) in 1988 to provide an industry-wide standard that would make it
juice jugs
easier to identify and sort recyclable plastic. As the SPI points out on its
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
web site, “The code was not intended to be — nor was it ever promoted
Plastic pipes, shrink wrap, a
few food containers
as — a guarantee to consumers that a given item bearing the code will be
Low Density Polyethylene
accepted for recycling in their community.”
Wrapping films, produce bags
Sorting Plastic: Thousands of Variations
Polypropylene
Drinking straws, yogurt tubs,
Although there are only seven resin codes, there are actually thousands of
syrup bottles
different types of plastic. Different combinations of dyes and additives
Polystyrene
can be added to the basic resin to produce a desired color, shape and
Styrofoam cups, peanuts, to-go
texture in the final product. These variations in the manufacturing
containers
process lead to different melting points and other properties within the
Other (usually a mixture of
resins)

same resin code. To be made into another product, plastic must
Food containers
be carefully sorted by type. Combining different types of plastic
renders it useless for manufacturing.

For more about Eureka Recycling’s services
The technology exists to recycle most kinds of plastic, but a lack of
and FREE information, contact:
infrastructure prevents all but the most widespread kinds of plastic from
being recycled. For recycling to work, communities must be able to cost-
effectively collect and sort plastic, and businesses must be willing to accept
the material for processing. Collection is expensive because plastic bottles
624 Selby Avenue | Saint Paul, MN 55104
are light yet bulky, making it hard to efficiently gather significant amounts
Recycling Hotline
of matching plastic. Only a few kinds of plastic have the supply and
(651) 222-SORT (7678)
market conditions that make recycling feasible.
TTY for the hearing impaired (651) 221-9832
FAX: (651) 221-9831
www.eurekarecycling.org

In Saint Paul, as in most communities, only bottles
likely that it is taking up considerably more than 11
with “necks,” marked with resin codes one or two,
percent of our landfill space.
are collected for recycling. Containers without necks,
Recycling reduces the ecological impact of plastic,
such as tubs and trays, are not recyclable, even if they
but it remains more complicated, more expensive
are marked with a one or a two. This is because
and less effective than other parts of the recycling
plastic bottles are “blow-molded,” while plastic tubs
industry. No matter how many chasing arrows are
are “injection-molded:” the different additives used
printed on plastic products, it doesn’t change the
in each process mean the two cannot be mixed
fact that plastic is largely a throwaway material.
during recycling. Bottle caps, which are not the same
kind of plastic as the bottles, must be removed, and
Health Risks of Plastic
the bottles should also be crushed so that bins don’t
fill up so quickly — this saves money for the
Plastic is associated with health risks in all stages of
recycling program. Plastics with codes three through
its life cycle. The production of plastic releases toxic
seven are NOT recyclable in most programs.
chemicals such as benzene and vinyl chloride, which
can cause cancer. When plastic is used to package
Some recycling programs collect all types of plastic in
food, toxins and carcinogens can migrate from
order to recover more of the kinds of plastic that can
plastic containers to food and beverages inside the
be recycled. In these “all bottle recycling” programs,
container, especially when the plastic is heated. And
the non-recyclable plastics must be sorted out — a
the incineration of plastic pollutes air, land and
labor-intensive and costly job — and most of what is
water despite efforts to keep emissions clean.
collected must be sent to a landfill or an incinerator.
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used in plastic pipe,
Plastic Doesn’t Close the Loop
shower curtains and shrink wrap, is particularly
dangerous because of the presence of chlorine in the
Once plastic has been collected and sorted, it faces a
resin. PVC releases dioxin, a known carcinogen,
weak market. Simply collecting plastic does not mean
into the air during both production and
that there will be a buyer willing to pay for the raw
incineration.
material. It is often cheaper and easier to make plastic
containers from new, nonrenewable resources. Plastic
resin has limited value as a commodity because its
quality degrades every time it is reheated.
Consequently, most plastic is only reprocessed
once before it goes to a landfill.
“Downcycling”
is a more accurate term than “recycling” when it
comes to plastic.
Unlike glass or aluminum, plastic recycling does not
“close the loop” because most postconsumer bottles
are not made into new plastic bottles. Instead, milk
jugs, soda containers and other bottles are turned into
lower-grade products such as jacket fill, fleece,
carpet, toys or plastic lumber. None of these products
are in turn recyclable.
When we collect and remanufacture plastic, we are
only delaying its disposal. The final destination for all
plastic is either a landfill, where it doesn’t
decompose, or an incinerator, where it releases
Should You Still Recycle Plastic?
harmful chemicals when burned.
Yes! Recycling plastic is still better than sending it
In a 2000 study, the MN Office of Environmental
to the landfill or an incinerator. But an even better
Assistance found that plastic comprises 11 percent of
approach is to reduce your use of plastic. For
municipal solid waste by weight. Landfills, however,
information on plastic recycling in Saint Paul and
don’t get heavy — they get full. If plastic’s light
for tips on reducing your plastic consumption, call
weight and bulk is taken into consideration, it is
for our fact sheet “Plastic Bottle Recycling.”