Is Plastic Recyclable & Does Recycling Actually Help?

A figure pulling their recycling bin behind them, ready for collection.

The fossil fuel industry is scrambling to change its approach.

As the worldwide push to end our reliance on oil and gas energy grows, big plastic is moving in to line the pockets of shareholders.

Can it be true that recyclable plastics offer us a way forward in troubling times?

Plastic manufacturers don’t make it easy for any of us to fully grasp the plastic recycling process – with misleading recycling campaigns playing a key role in all the confusion.

So which plastics are recyclable – and does it even make a difference?

How much plastic is actually recycled?

It seems obvious that the solution to our plastic waste crisis would be to reuse the material, but what percent of plastic is recycled successfully?

A plastic disposal bin meant for recycling plastics.

Reusing and repurposing recyclable plastic into new products and packaging sounds great, in theory – but the fact remains that only around 9% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.

We also incinerate around the same amount, but the majority of all plastic manufactured since the 1950’s is still rotting within landfills, or hanging about the ocean. On a global scale, the rate of plastic recycling is rising each year – but it’s hard to combat such a widespread problem.

These numbers are hard to believe as well, with growing evidence of regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) overestimating the amount of plastic actually being recycled.

Is recycling a scam?

If organizations like the EPA are overestimating the amount of plastic being recycled, who can we trust to give us facts? No answer to that really exists, but the information you should truly avoid comes from the plastic producers themselves.

The truth about recycling is that the oil industry has been purposefully misleading the public for some time – with plastic industry insiders expressing doubt over the recyclability of plastics as early as 1974.

A sign thanking all citizens for recycling.

Essentially, the idea was never intended to be an economically viable pursuit. Instead, recycling advertisements have been used as a convenient way for the industry to fabricate good intentions and shift the blame onto consumers, similar to the idea of reducing your carbon footprint.

NPR even discovered reports written by scientists in 1973 referring to recycled plastic as “costly” and “infeasible”. This same investigation discovered multiple flagship projects promoted by the plastic industry – things like sorting machines, recycling centers, and collection infrastructure – had all ground to a halt by the 1990’s after public pressure began to cool off.

A plastic recycling plant with workers sorting plastic in Baltimore, USA.
Image by Kristian Bjornard via Flickr

Even legitimate recycling has been contaminated, with the oil and gas industry lobbying to have the various recycling symbols (listed below) placed on products so that consumers would feel better about buying plastic without truly understanding how recycling even works.

What types of plastic can be recycled?

Even if plastic recycling is a sham in most cases, you probably want to know what kinds of plastic can be recycled.

There’s a fair amount of standardization among plastic producers, who place resin identification codes on the bottom of containers to let consumers and recyclers know what kind of plastic they’re dealing with:

A chart showing the standard plastic resin identification codes.
Common plastic resin identification codes.

Our list is going to be based off of California’s plastic resins code system, a state in the US that tends to set a pretty good example of sustainability in general. Make sure to check with your local government if you live elsewhere, as things could change a bit.

Which resin identification codes are recyclable?

Not all of these codes are actually recycled very often, so we’ve labeled them to make that clear:

  1. (PETE) Polyethylene terephthalate. PETE is used to make things like soda bottles, plastic cups, ziploc bags, and pillows filling. Commonly recycled.
  2. (HDPE) High density polyethylene. HDPE is used to make things like milk and juice jugs, face wash and shampoo bottles, and cutting boards. Commonly recycled.
  3. (PVC or V) Polyvinyl chloride. PVC is used to make things like plumbing pipes, building materials, and cable insulation. Not commonly recycled.
  4. (LDPE) Low density polyethylene. LDPE is used to make disposable plastic products like cling wrap, squeeze bottles, and even computer parts. Not commonly recycled.
  5. (PP) Polypropylene. PP is used to manufacture things like car batteries, carpets and rugs, and plastic toys. Not commonly recycled.
  6. (PS) Polystyrene. Also known as styrofoam, PS is used to make things like packaging peanuts and take-out containers. Not commonly recycled.
  7. Other. This last category is home to all other kinds of plastics or mixtures of different types of plastics such as multilayered boxes and containers. Not commonly recycled.

A confusing list to say the least, but the key thing to take away from all of this is that only two of these kinds of plastic are commonly recycled. The remaining five can be recycled in some circumstances, but usually are just sent to the landfill.

What makes all of this even more confusing is that even on plastics that aren’t often recycled the resin codes can be found surrounded by recycling symbols or placed near a statement saying something about recyclability, as seen below on this styrofoam cup:

The bottom of a styrofoam container showing its resin identification number.

What kinds of plastics cannot be recycled?

Many kinds of plastic aren’t recyclable, including some that fall under the Other resin code category. Here are a few examples:

Most bioplastics. Touted as a climate-friendly solution to the plastic crisis, bioplastics are ironically rejected by most recycling facilities due to how uncommon they are. Biodegradable garbage bags and similar products do exist, but are better disposed of via industrial composting compared to recycling.

A piece of bioplastic padding meant to protect products during shipment.
Image by Richard Masoner via Flickr

The good news is that many kinds of bioplastic are biodegradable and can successfully break down in a backyard compost bin or your local industrial facility, even if they complicate the process of recycling plastic in most cases.

Composite and combination plastics. Multilayered cartons, plastic-lined cardboard boxes, and other annoying things under this category. A lot of these could technically be recycled, but the time and effort involved causes recycling facilities to send them to the landfill.

Plastic-coated packaging. Similar to combination plastics, recycling things like absorbent fast food packaging and food wrappers is wishful thinking. Products like microwavable meal cartons that are lined with a non-stick layer to prevent your frozen chicken nuggies from sticking aren’t recyclable.

Plastic coated with grime or food residue. Even in “perfect” conditions, industrial plastic recycling requires both time and energy. Sadly, manufacturing new plastic is simply more cost effective – which means even if you’re cleaning off all food residue and properly sorting your plastic trash into the correct bin, it may not be recycled at all.

How is plastic disposed of otherwise?

The vast majority of plastic we use is incinerated or ends up in a landfill. And these landfills aren’t on land, either; in fact, the largest landfill can be found at sea. Huge oceanic collections of plastic debris like the Great Pacific garbage patch are only increasing in size – with even recycled plastics contributing to them.

Plastic trash and waste collecting along a beach.

There are plenty of other disturbing facts about plastic recycling – consider the reality of those living in nations who import plastic trash and recycling from areas like the US and Canada. These are countries already struggling to deal with the waste choking their waterways, polluting their soil, and even filling the air they breathe with fumes from burnt trash.

Even the plastic that’s recycled into new products can cause issues. For example, repurposing a soda bottle into a fleece sweater or plastic sandals requires more time and energy than using new plastics.

Sandals made from recycled plastic bottles.
Image by Erik Hersman via Flickr

Not only that, but these kinds of recycled products result in massive amounts of plastic microfibers being released into the environment; with these hard to avoid microplastics infesting our food, our water, and floating about the air we breathe.

Are there solutions besides recycling?

Removing recycling from the equation seems to leave us with a few poor options: leave it in the ground or sea, or burn it. So what else can you do in your daily life to help prevent a future filled with more plastic?

Buy less plastic. An incredibly obvious solution, I know. But I’ve found it much easier to focus on supporting brands that minimize or eliminate plastic from their products, instead of focusing on recycling plastic. For example, sustainable skincare brands tend to use materials like cardboard, paper, and glass or metal instead!

Even the fashion industry is starting to change, with plenty of alternative materials in use, ranging from bamboo and cotton to more niche things like hemp. There are a ton of other ways to reduce your plastic use as well, so make sure to read up on them.

Reduce your consumption in general. Buying our way out of the plastic crisis isn’t a very realistic plan. The only thing that’s guaranteed to reduce the impact of waste is an overall shift in mindset, a philosophy hard to adopt when every media outlet is yelling at us to do the opposite.

Final thoughts

The problems with recycling plastic go beyond the issue of money, with the myth of effective plastic recycling peddled by big oil for decades.

Figuring out exactly what is recyclable and what isn’t can be incredibly annoying, and the most reasonable solution seems to be consuming less in general.

Do you find yourself obsessing over recycling bottles and other plastic trash?

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