By Barbara Kessler

Many years ago the plastics industry, composed of people flush with science degrees, had the foresight to catalog and track their products by assigning numbers to different “resins” or plastics. They stamped those numbers on the bottom of plastic containers and surrounded them with the ubiquitous triangle of “chasing arrows” to signify the plastic’s potential to be recycled.

Photo by Robert Hart | © 2008 Noofangle Media

And that is where the confusion began — with those arrows, and those numbers. While the numbers show that the plastics are different. The arrows suggest that they’re all the same.

Soon, consumers applied their own reductionist equation: Triangle + Number = Recyclable. This led to trouble. Non-recyclable polystyrene cups were tossed into the recycle bin with recyclable milk jugs, and low-density polyethylene frozen food trays sidled in alongside high-density polyethylene juice bottles – a mismatch akin to sticking Mitt Romney on the same campaign bus as Dennis Kucinich. Order turned to chaos. And the result is that less than one-quarter of even the most easily recycled plastic — that used to make soda and juice bottles — gets recycled in the United States.


What You Can Do: The Road To Recycling Success

“The public sees that soft drink and milk bottles are sought for recycling and cannot imagine all other applications will not be equally in demand,” explains David Cornell, technical director for the Association of Post-Consumer Plastic Recyclers (APR). “This mistake leads to one of our problems – folks who ‘help’ by adding more plastic items to the bins than requested. Those added items must be isolated and disposed of unless we can find a use for them.”

Blame potato salad tubs, for starters. It seems like they should be recyclable. But in most cases, they’re made of #5 plastic, which is not in great demand by recyclers because the supply for recapturing #5 plastic has not reached critical mass and therefore it’s not that profitable. And you can’t just toss these plastics together with other grades of plastic and hocus-pocus, the result is useable.

Then there’s the problem of different types of the “same” plastic. Take your Smart Balance butter container. It’s a #2 HDPE plastic, but it’s made a different way from the highly sought-after milk jug, which is also a #2 HDPE plastic. But one is “injection grade” and the other, “blow mold” grade. The upshot? When you toss the butter tub into your recycling bin along with your milk jug, you’re as likely to muck up the recycling cycle as to help it.