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Recycling Plastics

If you look around, you’ll find at least one item that is made of plastic nearby. If you’re reading this article, it is very likely that you’re reading it from a device composed of plastic. Plastic is everywhere and forms an inevitable part of our lives, from the food containers, water bottles, oil containers, and credit cards to our cell phones, personal computers, PDAs and countless other knick knacks found in day-to-day life.
Recycle Plastic Sign
Recylcing signs remind and instruct consumers to recycle properly.
According to the data published by U.S Energy Information Administration for the year 2006, the country consumed nearly 331 million barrels of LPG (liquid petroleum gases) and NGL (natural gas liquids) to manufacture plastic products in resins and the plastic material industry.

The quantity consumed to make plastic is equivalent to 4.6% of the total U.S petroleum consumption. This plastic produced then becomes plastic waste and forms the part of the municipal solid waste stream. Plastics comprise 12% of this waste stream. In California, this figure is 9.6% while in NYC, plastic accounts for 7.5% of the residential waste stream. Not all plastic waste that is generated can be recycled. Some grades of plastic require more effort than the others, while some plastic cannot be recycled at all and end up in the landfill.

It is therefore important to see how different type of plastic can be classified in terms of their recyclability. Understanding the types of plastics and their recyclability will help you in recycling more efficiently.

You’ll find that each plastic item is marked by a symbol (three arrows chasing one another in a triangle). That, however, does not mean that the plastic is recyclable. The number inside the symbol determines the recyclability. These numbers or the resin identification codes were introduced by the Society of Plastics Industry (SPI) in 1988 to find out the content of containers and bottles dumped in the residential waste stream.
Symbol Polymer Type Examples Recyclable Recycled Into
PETE 1 PET or PETE* Polyethylene Terepthalate Water bottles; soft drinks; mouthwash; peanut butter, salad dressing, and vegetable oil containers. Yes. Easiest to Recycle Egg cartons, carpet, T-shirts, fleece etc.
HDPE 2 HDPE* High Density Polyethylene Milk and juice cartons, Detergent containers, shower gel bottles Yes Toys, pails, drums, traffic barrier cones, trashcans.
V 3 V or PVC Polyvinyl Chloride Plastic pipes, shrink wrap, windows, roofing, decking, credit cards, wire and cable products. Very difficult and expensive to recycle Vinyl notebooks & sleeves, shoe soles, construction material. boating & docking bumpers, automotive floor mats etc.
LDPE* Cellophane wrap, Not commonly Plastic bags, landscape
LDPE 4 Low Density Polyethylene disposable diaper lines, cable sheathing. recycled timbers, Trash can liners, shipping envelopes, lumber, and floor tiles when recycled.
PP 5 Polypropylene Drinking straws, yogurt containers, butter and margarine tubs Not commonly recycled Signal lights, bicycle racks, trays, battery cables, ice scrappers when recycled.
PS 6 Polystyrene foam – aka Styrofoam Egg cartons, cups, plastic forks, spoons, knives Not commonly recycled Egg cartons, foam packing, light switch plates
Other 7 All other resins or mixture of resins Mixed plastics or multi layer plastics like food containers. Not commonly recycled
*HDPE, LDPE, and PET are warm models which mean that after recovery, these plastics can be recycled back into the original products.

Why should you recycle plastic?

  • Plastics made out of recycled materials consume two-thirds less energy during the recycling process, than manufacturing products using raw materials. This means that this energy can be utilized to make other products and for different uses.
  • When recycled materials are used in place of raw or virgin materials, the level of greenhouse emissions due to extracting, processing, and producing materials is significantly reduced.
  • "Recycling one ton of plastic saves 7.4 cubic yards of landfill space." Via Earth911.
  • Recycling results in availability of plastics and purchasing recycled plastic creates pushes its demand which leads to more supply of recycled plastic and the chain continues. This momentum gives rise to green buying behavior while creating new markets for recyclable plastic, consequentially favoring the economy.
  • The increased demand of recyclable plastic products from the consumers’ end and that of recycled plastic from the manufacturers’ end will bring about R&D efforts in creating advanced recycling methods.

States and their efforts on recycling plastics

There is no federal law regarding recycling plastics or recycling in general. However, state and local governments govern recycling of waste generated. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees environmental implications of disposal of waste and recycling procedures but specific recycling rules are regulated by the state and local governments. California, for example, through its California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery’s (CalRecycle), implements mandatory plastic programs to alleviate the adverse environmental implications of plastic discards.
One of the department’s programs is the California’s Beverage Container Recycling Program. Anyone with an interest to recycle a beverage container can redeem the empty bottles and cans for cash. The practice is covered under the CalRecycle California Beverage Container Recycling and Litter Reduction Act, which assigns a California Redemption Value (CRV) to the containers returned--five cents for containers weighing less than 24 ounces, 10 for containers weighing 24 ounces or more.
New York, with a New York State Plastic Bag Reduction, Reuse, and Recycling Act, mandates retail stores and chains with a space of 1000 square feet or more operating five or more stores spanning across 5000 square feet of retail space and which offer plastic bags to set up a plastic bag recycling program. Shoppers can drop off plastic bags at shopping malls, large stores, and medium to large chain stores that offer plastic bags. “If a store refuses to accept your plastic bags, the NYS DEC (not the NYC Department of Sanitation) is responsible for enforcing New York State's plastic bag recycling law.”

How Can Signs Help in Enforcing Recycling Law?

While the state and local governments have passed laws to regulate the recycling of plastics, it is necessary that residents know exactly what to do while they are disposing of plastic products. Information about what, where, and how to recycle should be readily available to them. And signs are a great way to pass on that information.

"The simple act of leaving a cap on the bottle has also traditionally created problems at the sorting facility. When bottles are crushed for shipment, caps can shoot off at high speeds, causing a safety hazard for recycling workers. Or if the bottles aren't crushed but caps are left on, the bottles retain air and take up too much space, meaning fewer bottles can be transported for recycling."
- Earth911
Posting of signs notifying the public about recycling is also mandated by law in some cities. In New York City, for example, all commercial businesses and commercial tenants in a contract with a recycler or carter must place signs informing employees/residents about what and how to recycle. Signs must clearly display/describe the recycle or collection procedure. Moreover, containers where specific materials are routinely disposed of should be properly labeled, for example, in cafeterias and self-serve restaurants where customers buy bottled water or drinks.
Failing to comply with posting of signs can lead to hefty fines payable by business owners and commercial tenants.
Recycling Instructions Sign
A NYC recycling sign providing recycling instructions.
A sample recycling sign for maintenance or refuse storage area as described by the NYC govt.

How You Can Recycle:

  • It is advisable that you rinse plastic containers and sort them out by their type. Recyclable plastic should be separated from non-recyclable plastic at this stage to avoid contamination when actual recycling begins.
  • Type 1 and Type 2 plastic containers (see table above)are accepted for curbside recycling. Local regulations must be followed to adhere to curbside recycling regime. It is a good idea to remove bottle caps from plastic containers before throwing them out since caps are made from a different kind of plastic (usually type 5).
  • Flatten plastic bottles before disposal. This saves space in the recycling bin, making room for more plastics to be recycled at one time.
  • Plastic bags made of Type 2 or Type 4 plastic should be dropped off at local retail stores, grocery stores etc. Stores have collection boxes or bins where you can deposit your plastic bags but remove the contents of the bag before you deposit them.
  • Recycling other types of plastics varies in different cities. While LA accepts everything plastic, Philadelphia accepts only type 1 and type 2 plastics. It is therefore important to contact the city hall or your local recycling centers to find out what plastics are accepted for recycling.