Yes, we do want (some of) your plastic

November 17, 2022 6:00 am

High Density Polyethylene or HDPE (#2 plastic) is a common rigid packaging plastic often used in milk jugs and detergent bottles. Photo courtesy of Eureka Recycling.

We interrupt the onslaught of election aftermath news with a lighter note: Reports of the death of plastics recycling have been greatly exaggerated.

While raising important points about plastics in the environment, a recent Greenpeace report may give people the impression that no plastics actually get recycled. A recent analysis points out some incorrect assertions about the report, but we all agree that we must do better.

However, many common consumer plastics have economic value and are “under-recycled.” Companies are willing to pay for them and make new products.

For example, we have several businesses in Minnesota that use recycled plastic bottles to make plastic lumber and landscape materials. They buy the material from recycling facilities that accept plastic from the recycling trucks in your neighborhood. A new plant is being built here that will recycle film plastic that can be used in new packaging. These are global commodities just like corn and soybeans, and prices ebb and flow.

In many of Minnesota’s recycling facilities, plastic containers can be detected with near-infrared scanners and separated with a corresponding air jet into a bunker. (Watch them work here.) Skilled recycling workers also recognize the value of milk jugs and laundry bottles and pull them out manually. Our latest need is sorting out more polypropylene containers like butter tubs and yogurt cups, which have value for many consumer brands seeking to incorporate recycled content into new packaging.

But I did say we want some of your plastics. When recycling facilities get plastics that aren’t accepted for recycling, they must pay to dispose of them. We understand that consumers find symbols and instructions confusing and a bit irritating.

Years ago, the Federal Trade Commission developed resin codes to help people identify what type of plastic was used to make packaging. Those codes lead one to believe that any plastic packaging with those symbols on them will be accepted for recycling — when in fact it may not be. 

This is a sore point for those of us in the recycling industry.

The good news is that three types of plastic containers are highly recyclable and in demand.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET): PET plastic is commonly used in bottles used for water, pop and condiments found in your refrigerator, as well as rigid packaging like some clamshell containers. Recycled PET is made into new bottles, packaging, carpet and other textiles, and strapping. Unfortunately, one type of PET packaging that isn’t accepted for recycling is black PET.

High density polyethylene (HDPE): HDPE is found in heavier plastic bottles used for milk, laundry detergent, health and beauty products like shampoo, as well as some food packaging.

Products using recycled HDPE include new bottles and packaging, plastic pipe, landscaping supplies, and patio furniture, among others. So-called “natural” HDPE that is translucent and has no added color is especially valuable.

Polypropylene (PP): Polypropylene is a resin used in packaging to withstand changes in temperature, such as a switch from the refrigerator to room temperature. Examples include butter tubs and yogurt cups. PP is not accepted in as many communities as PET and HDPE, but it is accepted throughout the Twin Cities region. It is made into new packaging, including many caps for plastic bottles, auto parts, paint cans, and housewares. 

Are there big environmental issues with plastic generally? Heck, yeah. Poor waste management around the world has led to the so-called garbage patches in our oceans. (In Minnesota, plastic in the trash ends up in waste-to-energy facilities or landfills. It’s not optimal, but it’s not heading to the Gulf of Mexico).

We can recycle plastic bags into products like plastic decking, but putting them in your recycling is a huge problem. They get caught up in equipment and force recycling facilities to shut down every day to cut them loose. Please recycle clean and dry bags at local retailers. 

Even in recycling circles, we fret about “downcycling” — when plastics get made into something that is not recyclable later. And should we develop more sustainable consumption habits that reduce our waste in the first place? Absolutely.

Good news: Consumer brands are also making more investments to get more plastics recycled into new plastic packaging. Several states have passed legislation to require them to pay for recycling, sometimes with industry support. That legislation can include incentives to make packaging that is recyclable and not disposable.

In the meantime, if you have a recyclable plastic item in your hand and your community says it can go in the recycling, please put it in the recycling and not the garbage. 

We’ll take it from there.

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