Why are Plastics difficult to Recycle?
We just received our ten-thousandth email inquiry about plastic recycling and thought we’d share a bit of insight that maybe even just a few will find helpful.
Long story short…plastic recycling is confusing and here’s why.
We often look at them as the same thing…plastic. Just because they are “plastic” does not mean they are remotely alike. We’ve been told that paper is paper. While that’s actually false, the collection, sorting & handling of most paper fiber materials is in fact similar. Plastics are an entirely different beast. ***Here’s the email we just received this morning, which highlights common issues.
“Hello, I am an employee at the —— Mall here in St. Louis and noticed that while we recycle cardboard, we do not recycle plastic. Plastic packaging makes up the majority of our trash at the mall and I was curious to see if recycling a large quantity of plastic was at all possible. I want to gather information before I bring this idea to the mall’s offices and your company is a great option. However, I am not sure if the type of plastic we use, or any plastic at all, is included in your single-stream recycling program. While unpacking shipments I saw plastic marked with a 4, 6, and an 8. Would it be possible for this type of plastic to be recycled with your company? Thank you, Rachel ——–”
The short answer to Rachel’s question is that while the #4, 6, and 8 plastics are recyclable in nature, they are specialized to a degree that they do not qualify for most single-stream recycling programs.
#1, 2, 3 & 5 are widely accepted, while #4 is becoming increasingly problematic, so much that many municipal and commercial entities have been either shying away slowly, or have altogether refused to accept #4. The reason is that this #4 plastic is the thin-film type that can easily melt around the high-speed sorting equipment, shutting down plant operations, in addition to the fact that its low-density requires 20+ times more material to become a viable product. It’s sad, but a fact of life, that the economics of things drive the feasibility of recycling.
Now, the #6, 7 & 8 plastics should really be treated as source-separated recyclables, with the expectation that the material is in bulk. #6 is polystyrene and most recycling centers and haulers do not accept. However, there are specialists that deal in polystyrene recycling when the material is handled separately. #7 plastic is a mix of polymers too long and boring to list here, but let’s just say that most centers don’t recycle it. It can be, it just takes a lot of volume and dedicated processors to turn it back into product again. AKA, costly.
#8. That’s the number plastic that Rachel provided above. And there appears to be some discrepancy over that RIC designation, or resin identification code. In some places, they don’t even list #8 and go straight to #9. Either way, most might consider this as ABS plastic, or the hard, dense plastic you see surrounding your TV’s, computers, coffee makers and many other electronic & mechanical housings. While ABS is recyclable, it goes the same way as #6 & #7, meaning it will take a lot of material in order for a specialized processor to turn that into a saleable commodity.
The long answer to Rachel’s question is this…how far are you willing to go in order to properly recycle your specialized plastics?
If they don’t qualify for single-stream, which a bunch do not, what are you then going to do about it? There’s not a plethora of choices unfortunately, because recycling is a volume industry. If you don’t produce enough of something and it’s not separated, you’re going to be paying someone to remove it 99% of the time. So what are Rachel’s top options?
A) if the goal is to actually recycle, than we’d recommend separating those materials out into separate containment solutions. The containers themselves will vary, based upon volume, but could range from gaylord boxes or 8yd dumpsters, to 40yd roll-offs, or even compactors and balers. There’s not just one answer because Rachel’s idea of large volume may differ from what the recycling industry considers large volume. We can assure you that there is a container size and collection frequency that can be matched with each separate material…the question is, what will that cost? And how will that cost compare to just throwing it away like they’ve been doing?
B) which leads us to the answer that many companies choose to employ. Trash it. *Disclaimer – we are not judging here, so please no angry emails from business owners about the economics side…we get it.* The sad fact is that more times than not, the separation of those non-single-stream recyclables is more costly than just tossing everything into one big waste container. When you mix them all together, you minimize the hauling costs from your current provider, saving on container spaces taken up, and you may save on internal costs by eliminating any sorting or handling time. Packaging and container manufacturers all have economic choices to make about what they wrap their packages in, so this plays an integral part. This proliferation of tough-to-recycle material is what helps drive the trash industry – which is big business and has an interest in your high collection fees to pay off those landfill costs.
The point is – every business must make a decision on how they’re going to approach recycling. Most times it’s a ‘no brainer’ because single-stream recycling is relatively inexpensive compared to trash. When you start talking about more difficult materials like those mentioned above? Well, then there’s a few options to consider. Speaking with an honest, qualified recycling provider like St. Louis Recycling & Waste Solutions can help, as we pride ourselves on giving your business the real scoop. Good news, bad news, so-so news…we’re here to help long-term and truly consult on real-word solutions that work.