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Recycling Plastics Is Confusing and Truly Questionable

Recycling plastics can still cause an enormous disorder on the environment. It’s worth questioning whether plastic is, in truth, recyclable.

Human waste is a gigantic problem. Note that, every year the average American throws out close to 2,000 pounds of garbage.

When it comes to recycling, the issues pertaining to plastics are weighed down with confusing, sensation, and absolute amazement.plastic recycling

Can Plastic Truly be Recycled?

A most valid and truthful definition of recycling entails taking a material, melting it down, and turning it back into itself over and over again. We are capable of accomplishing this process with glass and metal.  These materials can both be melted again and remolded into jars or cans forever.

In the recycling world, this is called closed-loop system.  A closed-loop system is especially sought-after in the recycling world

However, materials slowly degrade over time.  This means they can be reformed maybe once or twice.  After awhile the chemical composition of the original substance has changed and it can no longer be turned back into what it once was.

For example, plastic bottles are rarely turned back into bottles. Instead, the plastic is used for something secondary like fleece fabric or plastic lumber.

And in the recycling world, this is referred to as downcycling.

Downcycling Plastic

One of the serious issues pertaining to plastic is downcycling.  Though it has a much shorter life in the recycling flow, plastic is comparable to paper in that it downcycles.  In fact, sometimes it’s not even recycled once before it is turned into a less-valuable material.

For example, rarely is soda and plastic water turned back into bottles. Instead, plastic lumber or fleece fabric comes out of recycled plastic bottles. This actually means plastic made from fossil fuels is the only way to manufacture of new plastic bottles.

Another sober issues of concern pertaining to plastic is that it never biodegrades.  Many materials — like newspaper — biodegrades after its usage; they mineralize, or turn back into their relevant chemical components. When paper enters the environment, given exposure to the air, it disintegrates…and there’s no harm to the environment.

On the other hand, unfortunately, plastic material does not disintegrate…it photodegrades.

Photodegrading Process

Photodegrading is processes in which water, the sun, and wind, break plastic down into smaller particles that don’t lose their chemical composition. Eventually these particles get so small they’re microscopic. This has become a huge concern because of the damaging impact these microplastics have on the environment…especially when it comes to our ocean’s ecosystem.

The apprehension about heating food in plastic containers is also worth noting.  Evidence suggests that some chemicals in plastics can leach into our food and cause health problems. As a precautionary measure, it may be worth avoiding reheating food in plastic containers in the microwave.

An additional precautionary measure is to abstain from recovering food with plastic wrap.  Microwave popcorn and TV dinners should be avoided, as well. Eliminate the possibility of plastic leaching you your food by avoiding heating plastic and food together; however, the concern is not so great when it comes to storing cool food in plastic containers.

As it stands, plastic cannot really be recycled.  Plastic will never disappear from our environment because it can’t biodegrade.  In addition, plastic can actually deliver dangerous chemicals into our food chains.

Plastic Positives

Plastics are usually turned into fleece fabric. Instead of saying a blanket statement that plastics are awful, there are some positives regarding this material. For example, plastic is a remarkable asset to the medical community.  Consider IV tubing and syringes.

Plastic is also durable.  Grocery carts made of plastic are a better choice than carts made of a material like metal. Plastic is also lightweight — so plastic goods can be shipped farther — and less fuel is used during transport.

Moreover, plastic may be a beneficial material for long-term applications like park benches and playground equipment.  However, plastic isn’t a good option as a single-use material for things like shopping bags or candy wrappers.

To minimize its impact on the environment, we need to reduce our need for plastic. In addition, it’s important to be aware that, even recycling an empty shampoo bottle, may not be as recyclable as one might think.

Recycle Plastics

The most confusing category of recyclables today is plastics. In fact, plastic is a broad category.  They cover a variety of material compositions.  And, all communities have differing recycling systems.  Furthermore, the public receives inaccurate information about plastic.

At the bottom of plastic containers is a chasing arrow-recycling symbol.  The chasing arrows have a number – either 1 through seven. Each number stands for a particular type of plastic resin.  Additionally each resin has a different chemical makeup.

As long as plastic is melted down with other plastic with the same chemical makeup, technically all plastic is recyclable.  But, please note the important fact that the existence of a recycling symbol with a number inside it doesn’t mean the plastic container is recyclable in your community.

The numbers at the bottom of plastic containers correspond with the resin identification coding system, which recyclers use to filer plastics according to resin types.

Many communities recycle resin types 1 and 2, whereas, others recycle only bottles.  Still, more recycle only containers with necks that are narrower than container bases. Check with your local recycling center, to find out your community’s rules for recycling.

Types of Plastic

The following is a description of the seven types of plastic:

  • Plastic # 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET, PETE) Common uses: Water and soda bottles, salad dressing bottles, peanut butter jars, mouthwash bottles, beer bottles. Recycled into: Carpet fibers, fleece jackets, new containers.
  • Plastic # 2: High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Common uses: Milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, juice bottles. HDPE is also used to create plastic film for grocery bags and cereal box liners. Recycled into: Decking, fencing, and plastic flowerpots.
  • Plastic # 3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Common uses: Children’s toys (“rubber” duckies are often made from PVC); blister packs, disposable battery wrap, vinyl shower curtains, construction materials like pipe and window framing, IV bags. Recycled into: Pipe, gutters, and packaging. Note: The dangers of PVC are well documented. PVC has an easily identifiable odor often associated with “new car smell,” new carpet smell, and new construction in general. This smell is the PVC “off-gassing” the dangerous chemicals used in PVC production leaching into our environment, the air we breathe, and our bodies.
  • Plastic #4: Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) Common uses: Plastic film for bread bags, dry cleaning bags, garden soil bags, and plastic wrap. Recycled into: Shipping envelopes, trash bags, and compost bins.
  • Plastic # 5: Polypropylene (PP) Common uses: Yogurt and margarine tubs; coat hangers; plastic cutlery, plates, bowls, and cups; medicine bottles; toothbrush handles; rakes; storage bins; shipping pallets. Recycled into: Ice scrapers, brooms, brushes, rakes, storage bins, shipping pallets, and trays.
  • Plastic # 6: Polystyrene (PS) Nickname: Styrofoam. Common uses: Grocery store meat trays, egg cartons, disposable cups, packing peanuts, and protective packaging. Recycled into: Light switch and outlet plates, protective packaging, and desk trays.
  • Plastic # 7: Common uses: Cheese packaging, oven baking bags, headlight lenses, and safety glasses. Recycled into: Sometimes recycled into plastic lumber. Note: This code indicates that a piece of plastic is made with a resin other than one through six or a combination of resins. Because resins are impossible to separate, recycling of number 7 plastic is extremely difficult.

Proper Recycling

Because there are seven different types of plastic, sorting them properly is important. Improperly sorting plastics can contaminate the recycling stream and cause damage to recycling equipment.

Recycling plastics is better than just throwing the material away. Follow local guidelines to learn which types of plastic your recycling facility will accept.  In addition, when recycling, keep in mind the numbers on the containers and their matching receptacle.

About the author: George Zapo is certified in Public Health Promotion and Education (Kent State University). George provides informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles.

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