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The truth about plastic recycling – You can’t.

If you believe that simply sorting your plastic trash is helping with plastic recycling, you have been woefully misled. Psychologically, we believe that if we sort our trash, and put our plastic waste into the blue bin marked with a recycling sign, we have done our part to recycle plastic. The truth is recycling is a lot more complicated, and the process of recycling plastics is significantly more complex and less transparent than we have been led to believe.

What are the seven types of plastic?

One of the biggest advertising deception from the late 1980s is the invention of the Resin Identification Code or RIC. The official purpose is to make it easier for consumers to identify what type of plastics products, packaging and containers are made from. Many believe that thanks to the creation of the RIC, plastic recycling is widespread.

Let us take a closer look at how useful the RIC codes really are. There are seven specific RIC codes:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) typically including drinks bottles and cups.

  2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) including bottles, cups and milk jugs.

  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) including rigid plastics like pipes and tubes.

  4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) such as beer six-pack fasteners and plastic bags.

  5. Polypropylene (PP) used in food containers and some plastic car parts.

  6. Polystyrene (PS) again used to hold food, drinks cups and some plastic utensils.

  7. ‘Other’ – A general-purpose category for acrylic, nylon and other plastics.

Advertising paid for by plastic manufacturers has lead to the widespread belief that The lower numbered RICs are more recycle friendly, specifically products with RIC codes 1 and 2 are among the most commonly recycled materials.

Why are some plastics not recycled?

Unfortunately, this is just not true. Just because a particular item is marked with a RIC code 1 or 2 does not mean that it is automatically universally recyclable. Recycling programmes are determined by two important considerations: the market and the city government. If there is a demand in the market or city, then recyclers and companies will pay for your post-consumer recyclables. Without market or city demand, those plastics are not recyclable - making your painstaking effort to sort your plastics entirely useless as placing them in the recycling bin will not make a difference.

The key consideration for plastic recycling is profit. If your city or local businesses cannot make money off recycling plastic, then the demand simply is not there. Your carefully sorted plastic waste will end up where all the other trash ends up - in landfill or incinerators. It is important to remember that local governments play an essential role in plastic recyclability. Before throwing something away, check what your city actually recycles. Government regulations can create market opportunities for companies to recycle legally-mandated products. But every municipality is different.

Plastic cannot be recycled forever

One of the biggest misconceptions the public have about plastic is assuming that it can be recycled into the same original product, but that simply is not true. For example, the beverage companies use only a small amount of recycled plastic because 100% recycled plastic isn’t clear as needed for their bottled products. It is most likely that recycled plastics are used in items like carpets, fleece, or plastic flooring. As plastic degrades upon recycling, experts estimate that it may only be recyclable once or twice – after that, it’s chucked in the landfill or end up becoming microplastics. In truth, the same piece of plastic can only be recycled twice or trice before the plastic quality decreases to the point where it can no longer be remodelled into a new product.

Additionally, each time plastic is recycled, additional virgin plastic is added to help “upgrade” its quality so that the recycled product is able to have reasonable quality and have a "fighting chance" against new, durable and fresh goods. So, when you read the label “recycled material”, consider what the word “recycled” actually means in that context.

We are living in a Plastic Era

In the present world, everything from the clothes we wear to the food we consume, plastic is a household staple for families and communities all around the world. Given its growing prominence, and the fact that scientists estimate it takes somewhere between 450 -1,000 years to decompose and some argue it will never decompose, we are truly living in a plastic world.

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