Which plastic is recyclable? And which becomes trash? Australia generates 660,000 tonnes of plastic waste a year. So what do we do with all the plastic waste?
Our recycling bin is part of the solution in our combat against plastic waste, but are we recycling plastic the right way? Or are we just contaminating our recycling bin contents and sending all our hard work straight to the landfill?
What is plastic?
Plastics are organic materials, just like wood, paper or wool. The raw materials used to produce plastics are natural products such as cellulose, coal, natural gas, salt and, of course, crude oil.
The term ‘’plastic’’ is derived from the Greek word ”plastikos”, meaning fit for moulding. This refers to the material’s malleability, or plasticity during manufacture, which allows it to be cast, pressed, or extruded into a variety of shapes and numerous uses. The toys our children play with are made from plastic, the televisions we watch, the mobile phone we can’t live without, our homes, our cars, even the clothes we wear.
Plastic is everywhere. Knowing what plastic in your home you can recycle and what you should throw out is important for us to keep our plastic waste under control.
Here are 9 examples of common grocery items made from plastics that may or may not be recyclable.
You may be surprised to find that you could be wrong on some of them.
Plastic food wrap
The plastic wrap we find covering meat and vegetables in the supermarket? It’s not recyclable. The recycling machines in a material recovery facility (or MRF) cannot deal with the thin film. It gets caught in the machines and can stop it from operating.
After you unwrap the food packaging, throw the cling film in the trash – not the recycling bin.
Anything approximately 6 – 7cm may not be recyclable. These small pieces get caught or fall between the belts and gears of the machinery at the material recovery facility.
Example of small plastic items – the plastic bread clip you find in a loaf of bread, pill pouches, small condiment plastic containers, the plastic applicator of a tampon. Check the packaging first. If it is recyclable the packaging will tell you. Otherwise throw in the trash.
Flexible plastic packaging
Non-recyclable. Check packaging instructions.
This type of packaging flattens out on the MRF’s conveyor belt and ends up being incorrectly sorted and mixed with paper, rendering the whole bale unsellable.
Even if pouches were collected and separated by recyclers, there would be no one to buy them because there aren’t yet products or end markets for which this type of plastic would be useful.
Flexible packaging such as potato chip bags are made from layers of different types of plastic and often are lined with aluminium. It’s not possible to easily separate the layers and capture the desired resin.
Like flexible packaging, these containers challenge the recycling system because they’re made of several different types of plastic: the shiny adhesive labels are one plastic, the protective cap another, and a twistable gear can be yet another.
Plastic drink bottles
These are the types of items the recycling system was developed to handle. The containers are firm, they don’t flatten out like paper and they’re made from a kind of plastic that manufacturers can easily sell for making products such as carpet, fleece clothing or even more plastic bottles.
As for the caps, some sorting facilities want people to keep them on while others say to take them off. It depends on what equipment the local materials recovery facility has. If you keep them on and the MRF can’t process them, the caps can become dangerous. Bottles are subjected to high pressure in the sorting and baling process, which can force caps off at high speeds, potentially harming workers. However, other MRFs can capture and recycle the caps. Ask what your local facility prefers.
Other plastic bottles
A bottle with a cap or an opening the same size or smaller than the base of the bottle is probably going to be recyclable. Bottles used for laundry detergent and personal care products such as shampoo and soap are all recyclable. If nozzle heads on spray cleaners contain metal springs, remove them and discard them in the trash. About a third of all kinds of plastic bottles get recycled into new products.
Plastic clamshell food containers
Could be recyclable. Check first.
Clamshells are made from the same type of plastic as beverage bottles, but not every curbside recycler can process them. That’s because the way clamshells are molded affects the structure of the plastic, making them more difficult to recycle.
You might notice that clamshells, and many other plastic containers, come with a number inside a triangle of arrows. This 1 through 7 numbering system is called a resin identification code. It was developed in the late 1980s as a way to help recyclers, not consumers, identify the type of resin a plastic is made from. It does not necessarily mean the item is recyclable.
Plastic yoghurt and butter tubs
Mostly recyclable. Check first.
These containers are usually marked with a 5 inside a triangle. Tubs are often made with a mix of plastic types. This can make it a difficult material for recyclers to sell to companies that would rather have a single type of plastic for their manufacturing.
However, that’s not always the case. Trash collection and disposal company Waste Management says they work with a manufacturer that takes yogurt, sour cream and butter tubs and turns them into paint cans, for example.
Plastic bags — like those used for bread, newspapers and as cereal box liners, as well as sandwich bags, dry cleaning bags and grocery bags — create similar problems for recycling machinery as thin plastic film. However, bags and wrappers, like those that come around paper towels, can be returned to the grocery store for recycling. Thin plastic film cannot.
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