I am a proponent of recycling. It is probably safe to say that you are too.
However, I have realized that over time, I have no idea what I am recycling. Like, what are all those numbers inside the arrows on the packaging? What the hell do they mean?
Remember when you first learned about recycling in school? It was pretty straightforward, paper with paper, cans with cans, and plastic with plastic.
Ah, what a simpler time it was back then (or quite possibly I didn’t know what I was doing and just didn’t know it). Now, I am confused when it comes to recycling. We don’t need to separate anymore (or do we?) Some plastic containers don’t even have the recycling symbol on them. Do I assume they are recyclable?
What happens after the recyclables (at least I hope they are all recyclable) leave my curb?
Needless to say, I have a lot of questions about recycling that I would like to clear up.
Please join me on my recycling education adventure where I answer these questions and more.
Together, we will learn:
- What exactly recycling is
- Why we should recycle
- What we can actually recycle
- What the recycling codes mean
- What happens to the items we recycle
- What the recycling logo means
- Common recycling mistakes
What is Recycling?
According to the EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency),
Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. Recycling can benefit your community and the environment.
Before you click out of this article and fall asleep, I promise it will not be all boring definitions. I mean, there will be some, but I will do my best to spruce them up a bit.
Alright, so, I don’t think there are any surprises in this definition. I actually think it’s vagueness is partly what is contributing to my confusion of the subject.
Ok, let’s proceed.
Why is Recycling Important?
Recycling is good for the environment, right? I mean, that’s why I recycle. However, I have lost the meaning of “good for the environment” somewhere along the way. What does it actually entail?
According to Conserve Energy Future, there are numerous benefits that come with recycling:
- Reduce the size of landfills: Makes sense, items being diverted to recycling plants will cause a decrease in the number of items sent to the landfill.
- Conserve Natural Resources: Recycling allows items such as junk mail and soda cans to be used over and over again so that new resources do not have to be exploited. It conserves natural resources such as water, minerals, coal, oil, gas, and timber. I can get on board with that.
- More Employment Opportunites: The collection and sorting of recyclables provide jobs for the community members. This is a good thing.
- Offers Cash Benefits: It’s all about the Benjamins. Take some cans to a recycling plant, leave with some scrilla.
- Saves Money: Recycling contributes to a strong, efficient economy. This ties in with the conserve natural resources where recycling reuses products instead of depleting more of our natural resources.
- Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions: Recycling products helps to save energy, resulting in lower greenhouse gas emissions
- Stimulate the Use of Greener Technologies: The use of renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal helps to conserve energy and reduce pollution
- Bring different groups of communities together: A community that recycles together stays together. Community clean-ups and recycling programs help build a tighter knit community.
- Prevents loss of biodiversity: Less raw material is needed for manufacturing, helping to conserve resources and prevent loss of biodiversity, ecosystems, and rainforests
Well, this was certainly a nice reminder of why I started recycling in the first place. I think we can get so wrapped up in the routine of daily living that sometimes we just do things because we have always done them. We forget about the reasons behind why we started to do them to begin with.
Now that we have been reminded why we recycle, let’s clarify what we recycle.
Let’s begin with Plastics (I know, it’s hard to contain your excitement, isn’t it?). So, what do the numbers on the bottom of plastic containers and bags mean?
I’m not going to lie, this stuff is pretty dry, but I think it’s important to know why these codes exist. There must be a point in the recycling grand scheme of things, right?
Why do Recycling codes exist?
There are a few reasons:
- to identify what material made the product (not all plastics are made from the same material)
- to facilitate easier recycling (not every municipality recycles all plastics)
There is a big caveat to these recycling codes. They are not indicative of a material that is recyclable, rather what the material is comprised of.
The ABC’s of RIC’s
The industry term for these is Resin Identification Codes (RIC). You are probably familiar with the Resin Identification Codes (RIC), even if you didn’t know the name for them They are located on various types of plastic items. You know, the confusing look-alike recycling symbol with a number inside of it.
Plastics are included in codes 1 through 7, I will briefly explain them here: (and don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz after!)
Since I don’t have all of the RIC’s memorized (for shame, I know), I will be using the internet’s most trusted resource, Wikipedia for some additional information.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET(E)): The most common thermoplastic polymer of the polyester family. Commonly found in clothing and food and drink containers.
High-density Polyethylene (PEHD or HDPE): A polyethylene thermoplastic made from petroleum. Commonly used in the production of plastic bottles, piping, and plastic lumber.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): The world’s third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer. Commonly used in bottles, plumbing pipes, and inflatable products.
Low-density Polyethylene (PELD or LDPE): A thermoplastic made from the monomer ethylene. Commonly used in dispensing bottles, tubing, and plastic bags.
Polypropylene (PP): A thermoplastic polymer. Commonly used in bumpers, car interiors, and carry-out cups.
Polystyrene (PS): A synthetic aromatic polymer made from the monomer styrene. It is naturally transparent. Commonly used in CD and DVD cases, containers, and disposable cutlery.
All Other Plastics (O): Essentially, this category is a catch-all for plastics including polycarbonate (PC), polyamide (PA), styrene acrylontrile (SAN), acrylic plastics/polyacrylonitrile (PAN), and bioplastics.
Wow. That is a lot of information. While I don’t expect you to memorize this or anything, I just think it is important that we have some sort of idea of what these plastics are and why they have their own symbols and not the generic recycling symbol.
WAKE UP! THERE ARE MORE EXCITING RECYCLING FACTS TO LEARN!
Here, this should help de-glaze your eyes.
I hope you enjoyed all that goat cuteness.
Back to business.
So, now we know what the RIC’s represent. Why is this important? What is the point in identifying 7 categories of plastic?
According to the Canadian Plastics Industry Association, while the plastic containers may look similar, they are not because each resin consists of very specific chemical molecules (yes, in case you fell asleep, we just learned that).
Some resins mix well together, but for those that don’t, recycling them together is like oil and water and the resulting resin can’t be used.
Alright, so improper recycling and sorting can lead to an unusable end product.
Just what happens at the recycling plant anyways?
Plastic Recycling Process
The recycling process looks something like this:
- Pick-up: Recycling is picked up from the curb and transported to a recycling plant.
- Sorting: The plastic recyclables are sorted (by RIC), separated and compressed into bales.
- Re-located: These pre-sorted bales (which weigh up to 1200 pounds) are transported to another facility that tears them apart.
- Bath-time: The bottles are run through a gigantic washing machine to remove labels, dirt, and debris.
- More Sorting: Since lids and bottles were previously sorted together (step 2), they must now be separated since they are different RIC’s (I feel like I am speaking recycling lingo now, cool!). To separate them, the bottles and caps are chopped up into small flakes and placed into a large tank of water. The cap flakes float and the bottle flakes sink since the plastics are of differing densities.
- Melting Time: The dried sorted flakes are then heated into a gooey (too technical?) liquid and formed into long tubular strands. What happens next? Well, the strands are cooled and hardened in water and chopped into pellets the size of peas.
- More Relocating: The pea-sized pellets are then shipped to companies that make products from recycled plastics.
Let’s move on to da,da,ta,da……
Fun Fact: Paper can be recycled 4 to 6 times.
Since I do not know the paper recycling process, I am outlining the process found at bir.org.
It’s a pretty thorough article, so if you just can’t get enough paper recycling in your life, check it out.
Paper Recycling Process
- Sorting: Paper products are separated based on their composition and degree of deterioration.
- Bailing: Large quantities of paper are compacted into blocks for easier and cost-effective transport.
- Shredding: Recovered fibre is shredded into smaller pieces and mixed with water to make pulp.
- Washing: Pulp is washed, refined and cleaned.
- Slushie Time: The cleaned pulp is turned into a slush that gets filtered through screens to remove contaminants (ink, clay, dirt, plastic, and metals).
- Bleaching: Whitens paper with hydrogen peroxide and chlorine.
- Pressing: The resulting paper sheet (called a web) is pressed between massive rollers to get as much water out as possible and to ensure uniform thickness and smoothness.
- Dry Time: The somewhat dried web is run through heated dry rollers to remove any remaining water.
- Rolling: The finished paper is processed into large rolls.
- New Again: These rolls are ready to be manufactured into new consumer products.
There is one major contaminant that will render your paper product UNRECYCLABLE, and that is:
Food residue is the major contaminant for paper products. You know that big greasy cheese stain on the pizza box from that delicious pizza you ate on Saturday night, please don’t recycle it.
The oil from food does not dissolve in the water during the processing (oil and water do not mix) and causes oil splotches on the recycled paper.
This results in an unsellable product that will more than likely end up in a landfill.
What about metals? Funny you should ask…..
Welcome to Metal Recycling 101!
Again, I am not an expert in the process of metal recycling, not to be deterred, I have interneted some help from my friends (at least I hope they will be my friends) at Conserve Energy Future.
Metal Recycling Process
- Collection: Pretty self-explanatory, it involves collecting all materials made of metal.
- Sorting: Separating what is recyclable from what is non-recyclable.
- Processing: All recyclable materials are compacted using machines to make them smaller and take up less space.
- Shredding: The metals are broken down into tiny pieces to allow further processing.
- Melting: A large furnace melts the scrap metal.
- Putrifaction: Metals are purified using different methods. Metals pass under a powerful magnetic system that separate metals from other recyclables. That is one method, there are different methods depending on the type of metal.
- Solidifying: The molten metal is then carried by conveyor belt to a cooling chamber where it cools an solidifies.
- Chemical Addition: Chemicals are added into the molten metal to make it acquire its density among other properties.
- Cooling Stage: The molten metal is carried by conveyor belt to a cooling chamber where it is cooled and solidified into various shapes and sizes.
- Relocation: The final product is packed and transported to different factories and people who require the metal.
And last, but certainly not least, we have….
You probably thought I forgot about glass, but how could I do that?
Thanks to my other new friends at gpi.org, and Recycling Guide I am able to outline the steps involved in glass recycling.
Here goes nothing.
Glass Recycling Process
- Pick-up: Recyclables are picked up from the curb and brought to the local recycling plant.
- Separation: Glass is separated from the other recyclables.
- Relocated: It is sent to a glass processing company.
- Separation 2.0: Then it is separated from trash and other contaminants.
- Sorting: The glass is sorted by color.
- Sold: Recycled glass is sold to glass container manufactures.
- Wash Time: Glass manufacturers wash the glass to remove impurities.
- Crushing: Manufacturers crush the glass, melt it, then mold it into new products such as bottles and jars.
- Full Circle: Consumers purchase food and packages in glass packaging, then recycle them…
Fun Fact: Glass bottles and jars are 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without any loss in purity or quality.
So fare, we have covered the recycling process of plastic, metal, and glass.
Now let’s bring it back to basics and examine what the recycling symbol means, and what products are or are not recyclable.
What Can I Actually Recycle?
Fun Fact: The recycling symbol is called a Mobius loop.
What if there no Mobius loop on the package?
I admit it, I included this question in the article because I didn’t know the answer and I wanted to find out. I generally recycle anything that is plastic, but when it doesn’t have the Mobius loop it’s hard to know if that is the right move.
Well, trying to find the answer to that question was a lot harder than expected. I thought it was going to be a pretty clear yes you do, or no you don’t recycle it.
However, I would be wrong….again.
The answer is: It depends on your municipality. It’s up to us as consumer’s to head on over to our local recycling website or actually use the phone and talk to someone (WHAT?!) to find out what you can and can not recycle.
In my opinion, I think this is a major reason why recycling is so daunting and why some people don’t bother to do it. Honestly, after doing the research for this article, I feel better about being confused about recycling before I wrote this.
There is so much to know that unless you are actively searching for the proper way to recycle on a daily basis, there is no way an average person could keep up with it.
What Can You Do?
The main takeaway from this article (besides exciting plastics facts) is that if you want to recycle properly and contribute less to the contamination pile at the recycling plant, you have to do your own homework.
Google your municipality’s recycling regulations. That is the only way you will know for sure what to do with that shampoo bottle with no Mobius Loop (look at me using recycling lingo!).
As we know, each municipality recycles different materials.
After a quick google, this is a what I found on my municipality’s website. Please, please, please call or internet the information from your municipality specifically.
What IS recyclable:
- Mixed paper – e.g. office paper, junk mail, envelopes, and flyers
- Telephone books
- Corrugated cardboard
- Boxboard – e.g. cereal boxes, shoe boxes and tissue boxes
- Number 1 to 7 plastic containers and lids – e.g. yogurt cups, detergent containers, food platter trays, and plant pots.
- Metal cans
- Glass jars and bottles
What can NOT be recycled:
- Aluminum foil
- Ceramic/clay pots
- Windows or mirrors
- Carbon or wax paper
- Gift wrap
- Paper towels
- Plastic bags, food wrap or bubble wrap
- Styrofoam – e.g. cups, packaging and egg cartons
- Unnumbered plastics – e.g. toys, dishes, and cutlery
- Household hazardous waste – e.g. gasoline containers, motor oil containers, paint cans, propane tanks, and fertilizer, herbicide or pesticide containers
It did not take me very long to find out all of this information. I am very confident that you are able to do the same.
Again, I reiterate, this is one municipality, yours may be different.
Once you find out what is recyclable in your community, there are still a few things you need to keep in mind when you recycle.
Common Problems at the Recycling Plant
- Improperly cleaned containers (Just rinse your container out before recycling it, please!)
- Contamination with unrecyclable items eg. clothing
- Contamination with recyclable items BUT are not recyclable in your municipality
What happens with the contaminated recycling?
- It gets sent to the landfill
- It lowers the value of the recycled end product, which makes it harder to sell to manufacturers who repurpose the recycling
If you are not sure if an item is recyclable or not, please google it.
That being said, if you don’t have access to the internet or are in a hurry, take a chance and recycle it.
Although a higher quality of recyclable products would be achieved if items were recycled properly, there are employees at the recycling plant who can determine whether or not it is recyclable and sort it accordingly.
Congrats! You made it all the way through this exhilarating recycling article. I hope you refreshed your knowledge of recycling as well as maybe learned some new information.
If you have any comments, questions, constructive criticism, I would love to hear from you.
Here is a reward (and thank-you) for making it all the way through this fascinating article! I hope you like cute animals, enjoy!