Green Insider: The truth about plastic recycling

By Laura Turner Seydel

In a recent visit to Atlanta to meet with the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, Dr. Marcus Eriksen of the Algalita Marine Research Foundation spoke to us about the unknown truths of plastic recycling. Just like the documentary Bag It (www.bagitmovie.com) proved, speaking with Dr. Eriksen shed even more light as to just how overwhelming plastic recycling can be.

When it comes to plastic, we have been conditioned to flip over the container and check for a number surrounded by the three arrow recycle icon. If it is there, we toss it into the recycling bin to be recycled. But as it turns out, there is more to that little number than we once thought.

Categorized in numbers 1-7, the number represents the resin identification code associated with the type of plastic used and indicates the item’s ability to be recycled. Items with a number 1, like water and soda bottles, are easily recycled, while number 5-7 items, like yogurt containers, medicine bottles and CD cases, are more difficult to recycle. And just because a plastic item has one of these identification numbers on the bottom, it does not mean it can necessarily be recycled. For example, most Styrofoam cups have a number 6 on the bottom, but Styrofoam is recycled on a limited basis in Atlanta and should not be included in your curbside recycling.  Publix stores, however, have collection bins for Styrofoam and will recycle it in the city of Atlanta.

Styrofoam, plastic lids, caps, lotion and soap pumps, biodegradable plastic, plastic bags and plastics containing liquids are all forbidden in your curbside recycling because of their contaminating nature. Plastic bags and liquids, for example, can clog or ruin recycling machinery and easily shut down an entire operation. Adding these items to your recycling can resort in your whole load being diverted to the landfill, but there are alternatives to help you recycle responsibly.

In many cities, plastic number 5 items, which include butter, yogurt, hummus and ketchup containers, cannot be recycled because of their difficult to recycle resin type. While many city recycling centers accept these types of plastics, it is hard to know if they are actually being recycled as they are bundled with other plastics and sold for very little value. To ensure these items get a second life, Whole Foods grocery stores throughout Atlanta have “Preserve Gimme 5” collection bins for these items. Whole Foods then ships this plastic to Preserve, which uses it to make an array of products, like tooth brushes and razors (www.mygimme5.com).

And there is hope for plastic bags, another Atlanta curbside bin no-no, too. Every year, Americans use 1 billion shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste. While only about one percent of bags are actually recycled, most grocery stores, including Publix, have plastic bag recycling drop off centers.

The scary reality of plastic is that because of its longevity and the fact that most of it is not being recycled, we have plastic polluting our planet at every turn: clogging storm drains, accumulating in our rivers and streams, and, worst of all, making it into our oceans. Twice the size of United States, the Great Northern Pacific Garbage Patch is just one of the five floating islands of plastic whose existence threatens the ecosystem and marine life. The plastic concentration in these gyres overwhelms the food supply, causing marine life to feed on plastic instead of plankton (5gyres.org).

The best way to combat this issue is to eliminate single-use plastic, like water bottles, bags, utensils and straws, from our everyday lives. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov), over the past 45 years, single-use packaging has increased by more than 10,000 percent.

Each day, the United States uses 500 million plastic straws. My family’s restaurant, Ted’s Montana Grill, has made a commitment to eliminating plastic straws and uses recycled paper straws as an alternative, but if you do not have this option, think twice before accepting a plastic straw when at a restaurant.

Another big pet peeve of mine is cigarette butts. If smoking is not bad enough for you and those around you, the single-use cigarette butts that people so carelessly flick to the ground are made of plastic. They easily make their way to our water ways and become little floating boats of plastic that can be consumed by marine life or contribute to our gyre population.

Make a commitment to kick the cigarette habit, refuse a straw and carry reusable bags (instead of contributing to the 500 billion plastic bags used worldwide each year), water bottles, and coffee cups. Some responsible companies will even give you a discount on your purchase for doing so.  You can also take your own containers when going for takeout, and instead of buying 10 individual servings of yogurt, you can buy a larger tub.

If you must use plastic, make sure you recycle it responsibly. Follow city guidelines and rinse food residuals from all accepted plastic, eliminating lids and Styrofoam, before adding to your curb-side recycling collection. Make an extra effort to drop off your number 5 plastic to Whole Foods and your plastic bags off at the grocery store to ensure a healthy world for future generations.

For more eco-lifestyle tips, visit: www.LauraSeydel.com.

1 Comment
  1. Hello Laura,
    Good article. I am a STYROFOAM expanded polystyrene recycler and also sell equipment for this application. White STYROFOAM is actually EPS, expanded polystyrene. STYROFOAM is a trademarked name by Dow Chemical an is actually the blue foam you see on new housing contruction. It is XPS or extruded polystyrene. EPS is 100% recyclable. Wesell it to a company that can turn it back into expandable polystyrene to be remolded. We also sell it to plastic recyclers who turn it into CD cases, picture frames, desk top products, etc. EPS uses no CFC, contains no harmful bi-products, and does not leach out when in landfills. I will be the first to tell you it does not biodegrade. But nothing does in a landfill. They are covered and compacted in dirt every day blocking the sunlight and air needed for biodegrading. They dig down into a landfill until no more trash is present and start looking for a newspaper headline to tell the age of the landfill. We all need to live a “sustainable” life style. Recycle everything we can to protect our natural resources.
    A few EPS facts:
    EPS only taks up 0.7% of our landfill space
    EPS is 98% air
    We can build homes from EPS Insulated Concrete Forms. These home are moisture resisant, mold resistant, tornado, hurricane, and earthquake proof. They save 60% on energy and only cost 5% more to build.
    EPS is less expensive to recycle than paper. Paper can only be recycled a few times before the fibers become to small.
    Thanks for your time.

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