Plastics Recycling in 4 Simple Steps

Plastics Recycling in 4 Simple Steps Image

Stop! Before you throw away that empty plastic bottle, think about recycling it. 

When it comes to embracing environmentally friendly technologies, recycling may not be as exciting as solar panels or hybrid cars, but it’s one area where consumers can make a huge difference.

Since the early days of recycling back in the 1970s, the nation’s recycling infrastructure has grown considerably.  Surveys suggest that, today, approximately 80 percent of Americans have access to a local recycling program1, be it residential curbside collection or a community drop-off center. 

Through these programs, specific types of post-consumer plastics are collected, processed for recycling, and used to create an array of second-generation products – everything from fleece jackets and bottles for beverages and detergents to carpeting and even high-end composite lumber for outdoor decking2.

Message in a Bottle
Take bottles. The number of bottles collected in the United States has increased every year since plastic bottle recycling was first calculated in 1990. In 2005, that number jumped to over 2.1 billion pounds of post-consumer plastic bottles, and the overall plastic bottle recycling rate climbed to 24.3 percent.  While this is all good news, it’s clear that there’s a tremendous opportunity to recycle even more – namely, the remaining 75.7 percent of plastic bottles used in this country annually.

Consider this: In most areas, the demand for recycled plastics exceeds (sometimes far exceeds) the available supply.  The message to consumers, especially those of us with access to community recycling, is that we can all work a little harder to make sure that our bottles and other recyclable plastics make it into the recycling bin when we’re finished using them.

The following tips can help make it easier to maximize the plastics you recycle:

  1. Learn what items and materials are accepted for recycling in your community.

    On the one hand, all major types of plastics (#1 through #7) are recyclable, meaning that technologies to recycle these materials have been developed and are in use in some areas.  Community recycling programs often collect plastic bottles made from PET (#1) and HDPE (#2), which, together represent approximately 96 percent of all plastic bottles produced in the United States.  Although a growing number of communities have started to collect other types of plastic containers, such as tubs, trays, lids, buckets and so on, opportunities to recycle plastics vary widely.  The only way to know what materials are accepted in your area is to check with your local recycling or solid waste facility.

    How to check: One way to get started is to search the Web.  Using your favorite search engine, enter the name of your municipality (usually a county, city or township) and the word “recycling.”  Many municipalities list the types of materials they do and don’t accept on their websites, and some provide the names of locations of where residents can drop off specific items for reuse or recycling. Even if this information isn’t available on your municipality’s website, you should be able to locate a phone number so you can call and ask.

  2. Recycle often and recycle right.

    In other words, once you know the rules, follow them.  There are two keys to making any recycling system functionally and economically viable:  (1) a continuous and dependable supply of incoming material, and (2) the ability to control the quality of the materials being recycled.  Consumers are absolutely essential to making both parts work.

    In addition to making sure that plastic recyclables end up in the recycling bin, consumers can help keep out potential contaminants.  Mixing the wrong types of materials (even other types of plastics) with recyclable plastics can lower the quality of recycled material.  This is why it’s so important to learn which types of plastics are – and are not – recycled in your area, and to sort things accordingly.

  3. Deposit bottles in the bin – not the trash.

    A “bottle” is a container that has a neck or an opening that is smaller than the base3.  Plastic bottles are among the most readily recycled plastics, but there’s still a lot we can do to recycle more of them.  Here’s the problem:  Lightweight, shatterproof plastic beverage bottles are ideal to take on the go – to work, to school, to the gym, on errands, and just about anywhere.  But because more beverages are being consumed away from home, a smaller percentage of empty beverage bottles are making it into our recycling bins. 

    One remedy:  Place the cap back on and temporarily store the empty bottle in your briefcase or backpack or simply leave it in your car until you get home. This will prevent any residual liquid from leaking out until you can properly recycle the bottle. 

    Below is a list of suggested “dos and don’ts” to help you maximize the bottles you recycle while avoiding mistakes that can contaminate the material collected.

  4. Bring bags back.

    Most community recycling initiatives don’t accept plastic retail bags in curbside collection programs because they tend to get tangled in processing equipment or become heavily contaminated with residual liquids during the collection process.  However, plastic bags are very recyclable, and many local and national retailers now offer drop-off programs that allow consumers to return their used bags to be recycled.  Participating retailers typically place bag collection areas at the store entrance or near checkout areas. Check with your local grocers and other retailers to see whether they take back plastic bags for recycling.

    Below is a list of suggested “dos and don’ts” to help you maximize the bags you recycle while avoiding mistakes that can contaminate the reprocessed material.

Did You Know?
  • Recycling a ton of plastic bottles can save about 3.8 barrels of oil. 
  • It takes one quarter pound of plastic to deliver one gallon of soda.
  • It takes about fourteen 20-ounce beverage bottles to make an extra large T-Shirt.
  • One Adirondack chair can be made from approximately 240 recycled milk jugs.

1  Recycling facilities may not be available in all areas. Check to see if recycling facilities exist in your area.

2  Recycling rates and content may vary by product.

3  For recycling purposes, jars are considered bottles and are accepted in recycling programs that collect plastic bottles.  Although a jar’s neck is typically shorter than a bottle’s, both jars and bottles have openings that are smaller than the base of the container.

Resources and Links


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