Doing my research for a post on plastic, I found an article on Earth 911 that says “Most plastic jugs and bottles are 100% recyclable.” This sounded like a pretty bold statement to me.
I’ve heard that plastic is recyclable, but I’ve also heard that there are many kinds of plastic and not all of them are recyclable. So here’s a run down of what I’ve learned about plastic recycling.
The EPA describes the process of recycling plastic this way: when you put an approved plastic in the recycling bin it is collected and taken to a materials recycling facility where the materials are sorted into broad categories. The plastics are separated by category and baled and sold to a reclamation facility. Here they are further sorted, with contaminants such as paper and dirt being filtered out. The flakes are then separated by density, melted and reformed into pellets. These pellets can then be used in the manufacture of new products.
In a 2012 article the Earth Institute at Columbia University said that Americans recycle only 6.5% of the 33.6 million tons of plastic discarded every year. They say that so little plastic is recycled because “there are various types of plastic with different chemical compositions, and recycled plastics can be contaminated by the mixing of types. Plastic waste is also contaminated by materials such as paper and ink.”
ThomasNet, a resource for plastic supplies, says “contamination can render a batch of material un-reusable,” they also have an interesting article on the various machines used in the plastic recycling process.
This WiseGeek entry says that plastic is usually downcycled, because “it cannot be used in the same way twice,” and that plastic is difficult to recycle because of contaminants such as biodegradable plastics and dyes.
A Minnesota non-profit called Eureka Recycling! says that “combining different types of plastic renders it useless for manufacturing,” and that “plastic resin has a limited value as a commodity because its quality degrades every time it is reheated,” and that “most plastic is only reprocessed once before it goes to a landfill.”
Most recyclers I’ve spoken with or read about say that PET (the type of plastic that most jugs and bottles are made of) loses at least 20% by weight when it is recycled back into flake or pellets.
What exactly does 100% recyclable mean? To me, 100% recyclable means all the material of the product you start with can be turned into another product without any loss. So what does Earth 911 (owned by Infinity Resources Holdings, and frequently featuring advertising from the American Chemistry Council) mean when they say that most plastic jugs and bottles are 100% recyclable? I sent them an email, but haven’t heard anything back yet.