Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Recycling Plastics: Part 1

If there is one thing we’ve learned in the last three months, it’s that throwing your trash in the garbage is not enough. Most everything that's not biodegradable can be recycled. It’s just a matter of setting up a recycling plan that works for your home or business.

For the last three months, Jenny has been saving all her household and office plastics. The reason for doing this was simple. The Future Weather Productions office needs a recycling plan that can be easily implemented.

Plastics #1 and #2 can be recycled curbside, but the rest of our plastics need to be sorted and then connected with an appropriate recycling center. This was also a good way to visualize how much packaging we were using on a daily basis to see where we could decrease our consumption.

It required a vigilant watch over everything we threw away – there is plastic everywhere. And it entailed washing food containers – take-out, hummus tubs, and meat packaging being the biggest offenders. When our bin started to overflow, we decided it was time to SORT.


Before starting on the project, I knew that I was a plastics novice. So the first thing I did was brush up on my terminology. What is the difference between all those little recycling symbols?

I read through previous blogs we'd posted on recycling (see bottom for a list) and combed through info on the web. Earth911 and Midwest Recycling Company offer specific descriptions of what characterizes the different plastic codes. The Daily Green offers pictures and generic examples of what types of products fall under each code. And National Geographic's Green Guide offers a list of common food storage containers and packaging and what their codes are.

Once I felt confident in my understanding of the plastic codes, I began sorting. First, I separated the plastics into two categories: solids and films. The solids were any type of hard plastic ranging from old deodorant tubes to take-out containers. The films consisted of grocery bags, food wrappers, cereal box liners, and other generic bags.


I tackled the solids first, making a pile for each code. One thing we learned from Recycling Services, Inc. is that the screw-tops on many plastic containers, including #1s and #2s, are made from a different material than the container itself. So Jenny had been separating those as soon as she dumped a #1 or #2 into her curbside box.

For the most part, I was pretty impressed by how many plastics were actually labeled. (Sometimes difficult to read, but often there. Just search for the little triangle!)

In the end, our solids were mainly made up of #4s, #5s, and #6s. Once I got a rhythm going, I caught on that clear food tubs (think grated parmesan or store-bought hummus) are #5s. The lids that go on top of those tubs are #4s. Many of the clear take-out containers and all of the Styrofoam were #6s.

If you're ever in a pinch, check out the website of the material's manufacturer. I even emailed Dixie, who promptly replied that their condiment cups are a #6.

At the end of the solids, I had a relatively small pile of plastics that were not labeled. These unknowns were a broken Ikea lamp, a retractable pen, plastic netting, and other broken bits. We'll hold these items until we can get someone at a recycling center to help us identify which code they belong to.


Next I tackled plastic films. According to a worksheet called Determining the Type of Plastic Film on PlasticBagRecycling.org, "Plastic film is typically defined as any plastic less than 10 mm thick. The majority of plastic films are made from polyethylene resin and are readily recyclable if the material is clean, dry, and not pigmented black."

From my research, I knew that grocery bags and the smaller produce bags you can find at the grocery store were both #2s. I separated those and went back to the pile. I was surprised by how much generic food packaging is not labeled, including Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods brands. I started to notice that the bags that were labeled were #4s: mostly bread bags, baby carrot bags and toilet paper packaging. However, after all this, I still had a large pile of bags that were un-labeled. So I went back to the internet.

According to PBR's worksheet, #4 includes three types of polyethylene:

  • Low-density (LDP) has "moderate stretch and strength" e.g. bread bags, Ziploc bags, and bubble wrap
  • Linear low-density (LLDP) has a "slightly tacky feel to the touch, stretchy" e.g. thin newspaper bags and dry-cleaning film
  • Medium density (MDP) has "poor stretch and strength characteristics" e.g. consumer paper packaging (like toilet paper, paper towels, etc.)

So for the rest of the unknown bags and film, I had to make the judgment call. The stretch factor described in LDP and LLDP helped me weed out our Septa token bags, produce packaging and deli meat bags as #4s.

But there were still some bags whose film was not consistent with polyethylene descriptions above. I had a pile of very thick, tough clear plastics used to vacuum seal meat products. Were they #4s or Nylon #7, "typically thick, high-strength plastic films"?

And I was still unsure about a pile of tough, crinkly film that packaged things like pasta, corn chips and bread (as a bag-liner). Were they OPP#5: "high clarity, fairly stiff, crinkles to touch"?

Jenny turned me on to Eco-Cycle, a Colorado organization with a great website that strives to produce Zero Waste communities. I decided to contact them and ask about the crinkly plastic packaging that was causing me so much trouble.

Micki Folmar of Eco-Cycle told me the type of packaging I was describing was cellophane and therefore unrecyclable. However, she gave me a good rule of thumb (literally!) to distinguish cellophane products from other plastic films: the Tear Test.

"Push your thumb into package. If it stretches or you poke a hole through the package, then it is recyclable. If the packaging tears in an almost straight line, then it is cellophane and therefore not recyclable.” By using the Tear Test, I was able to separate a few cellophane bags from the rest of the crinkly plastic films. But what about the rest?

As the PBR worksheet suggests, we did a burn test for both remaining piles. The tough clear plastics smelled pretty foul, that familiar burnt plastic smell, so we decided they were not #4s, which should smell like a candle burning. The tough crinkly pile smelled slightly sweeter and less acrid. Again, not #4s.

We are following up with Nina Butler at PBR to confirm that we're looking at #7 Nylons and OPP#5. The market for these plastic films (non-#2s & #4s) is smaller, so in the end, we may not be able to recycle them.

Now that we've sorted, the next leg of this project will be to distribute the remaining plastics to recycling centers and answer any remaining questions about what materials can and can't be recycled. Once that's finished, we will be able to execute an effective recycling system within the Future Weather Productions office. So stay tuned for Part Two of Recycling Plastics!

For more on plastic recycling, visit our blogs:

Plastic Codes: A Visual Guide
Recycling FAQs
Recycling Services, Inc.
Clean Vibes
Plastic Bags: Just Say No

Waste Defined
Online Waste-Sorter

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