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

Plastic Codes: A Visual Guide

This guide is a work-in-progress, our end-goal being a comprehensive sorting aid that can be used as part of your own home or office recycling plan. As we collect more information, we will add it here. Please comment with your recycling questions and contributions and we'll try to incorporate them.


#1 Plastic Solids: PETE
Clear plastic to-go cups and lids, soda bottles, take-out containers

#2 Plastic Solids: HDPE
Shampoo bottles, deoderant tubes, tofu containers, milk jugs, household detergents

#3 Plastic Solids: PVC
Hard yet flexible clear plastic, commonly used for toiletries, computer and electronics packaging (e.g. toothbrushes, hard drives, videotapes, USB cords)

#4 Plastic Solids: LDPE
Flexible lids to plastic food tubs

#5 Plastic Solids: PP
(SOFT) Yogurt containers, flexible take-out tubs, fruit baskets, straws; (HARD) plastic screw-tops, DVD/CD spools, hard take-out lids

#6 Plastic Solids: PS
Styrofoam, coffee lids, condiment cups, clear plastic take-out boxes, cutlery, opaque lids to fast food cups

#7 Plastics: Miscellaneous
This category is plastics made up of multiple resin layers or parts (in our case a toner cartridge sleeve and fruit container) but also includes three to five gallon water bottles and sunglasses

Metro card, misc. hard cards, broken plastic Ikea lamp, plastic netting, retractable pen, contact lens case, rubbery container, etc.


#2 Plastic Bags: HDPE
Grocery bags, film-like opaque colored bags, cereal box liners

#4 Plastic Bags: LDPE, LLDPE, MDPE, HDPE
Ziploc bags, bread bags, toilet paper packaging, dry-cleaning bags, bubble wrap, and other stretchy yet tougher bags

Crinkly Plastic Packaging: (Code TBD)
Pasta bags, corn chip bags, seals for DVDs and other containers, bread liners, and other films that are tough, crinkly, and either don't tear or tear in a straight line

Thick, Tough Plastics: (Code TBD)
Plastic film that is not easily stretched or torn, often used for vacuum sealing meat

Friday, August 15, 2008

The Future is Planted By Hand

e bond is an artist, graphic designer and dear friend. When she showed me pictures from her vacation to Scotland, I was ecstatic. There before my eyes were countless photogenic Tsugas - the tiny Hemlock sapling that Laduree raises in Future Weather. But what was e doing with Tsuga? Read her story below...

In early May of this year, I traveled to meet my friend Sherry for an adventure in the Highlands of Scotland. She was headed there to work for Trees for Life, a non-profit we had raised money for in Philadelphia through our arts group, so I thought I would tag along for a volunteer holiday.

After much traveling on both our ends, she coming from Vietnam, me from Philadelphia, we ended up right outside of Inverness, Scotland, in a small area called Invermoriston. This upper region of Scotland contains small remnants of what is known as the Caledonian Forest. This forest was formed after the last ice age and once covered over 1.5 million hectares of Scottish Highlands. These ancient forests, now fragmented, are home to a wide variety of wildlife, much of which is not found anywhere else in the British Isles, all of which is in danger because only 1% of these forests remain. Trees for Life is dedicated to the regeneration and restoration of these forests, and this is where we would spend the next 7 days.

A typical “work week” with Trees For Life can consist of various jobs ranging from collecting seeds and berries to putting up fences to protect seedlings from animals. Our amazing group of 7 volunteers and 2 leaders would be planting Scots Pine seedlings in an area of the forest that was not able to regenerate on its own due to overgrazing by large populations of deer. For 7 days, these 9 so-called “strangers” lived, ate, and worked together outside planting trees.

Now planting trees in the Highlands isn’t as simple as it may seem, or at least not in the beginning. Each morning we would each pack 90 seedlings into our bright yellow planting bags, pick up our equipment and head out into the vast tree graveyard that we were trying to re-generate by hand. We would trek out to the planting site over wet, uneven terrain in search of good, viable earth for the seedlings to be planted. We learned in our training that in order for Scots Pines to have a fighting chance, they need to be planted in soil that is primarily dry, which always means looking for higher ground.

We spent our mornings planting under clear blue skies, and when it was time for tea breaks, we would lay under centuries old pines that shaded us from the heat while we talked and drew and lounged. In the beginning of the week, I thought I would never be good at planting because I spent so much time trying to find a good spot for each seedling and talking to them, ushering them on their way.

If I must be honest, I think Sherry and I took more photographs, drew more diagrams, and sang more made-up planting songs than we actually planted. But our leaders were kind and assured us that we were doing fine. And believe it or not, each day we were getting better despite our slow pace. By the end of the week, the 9 of us had planted 3,540 trees, and even us “slow” members had gotten pretty adept at planting. It was amazing. I couldn’t believe we accomplished so much in such a short time.

When you volunteer for Trees for Life you become immersed in the nature of your surroundings and you are constantly learning more about the land as you work it. I felt especially lucky, because not only were our group leaders smart and generous with their knowledge, but each member of the group brought their own expertise to the collective experience. It made the planting so much more enjoyable, because our days were filled with impromptu nature walks, bird watching, and wildlife lessons initiated by our own group members!

Since I’ve gotten home, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of my group or my time in Scotland. I think of open spaces filled with heather, aspen, birch and pine, and I remember air so clean that lichen grows on anything that will stand still. I think of how old the trees were that shaded me and that they are still standing after hundreds, maybe thousands of years. I also think of what we left behind, which was 3,540 chances at making another forest for someone else to sit under one day. Which is a nice thing to leave behind.

These images were a group effort, as was everything on this trip, so thank you kindly to Rob, Sherry, Danielle, and crew for the beautiful photos they've shared. You can also check out my dear friend Sherry’s account of this same adventure here. Lastly please, please support Trees for Life. They are doing incredible work and they just rock!

bond is an artist living + working in philadelphia. her days are spent as catalog designer for anthropologie, while her nights are spent drawing, making handmade books & dreaming up new ways to see the world.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Alternative to Store Bought Soda

I must be overtly verbal about my war on plastic now, because recently my roommate came home and handed me an article from USA Weekend. This article is about a healthier alternative for all you fellow soda addicts out there to reduce the amount of packaged soda you purchase. Soda Club USA offers a machine that allows you make your own soda at home by using the provided reusable bottles.

The Fountain Jet home soda makers run for about $70, and a start up kit, which includes mixers to create your own flavors, will run you about $94 (plus shipping and handling, of course). What’s nice about this product is that it only takes 30 seconds to make your soda and the provided container is reusable! Also the Fountain Jet runs on compressed air in the machine, so no electricity is needed. If you choose to dispose of any of the equipment, most of the products and parts are recyclable, and you can see the specific codes on their website.

The flavors provided range from your run-of-the-mill Cola and Root Beer to your not-so-common flavors like Diet Pink Grapefruit and Cranberry-Apple. Also, the regular flavors are a healthier alternative than store-bought regular soda because they are made with a combination of Splenda and sugar thereby reducing the amount of sugar by 2/3.

For somebody like me who consumes diet soda like it's my lifeline, this product could be a nice replacement to store-bought soda. It would definitely reduce the amount of plastic I end up having to recycle. And the idea of not having to lug two liter bottles of soda from the store to my apartment sure is appealing.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Is Grass Really Green?

Apart from serving as a haven for kids, dogs and tacky ornaments, what’s the real purpose of a lawn? Keeping your grass manicured might be more trouble for the environment than good. Here are a couple of recent articles on lawns to tickle your toes...

Turf Wars
Elizabeth Kolbert recounts the invention of The Great American Lawn.

The Incredible, Edible Front Lawn
About an eco-friendly experiment commissioned by Baltimore's Contemporary Art Museum.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Street Movies

Find your favorite lawn chair and blanket and head down the block for Street Movies, a drive-in movie experience without the cars. Back for its 12th summer, Street Movies is a showcase for independent filmmaking organized by Philadelphia's Scribe Video Center. This year’s focus is on youth-produced works in a range of genres that explore a gamut of social issues including environmental justice.

“We’ve got an animated film called E-Wave which illustrates human damage to the environment as a result of electric energy waste," says Street Movies Program Coordinator, Boone Nguyen. "We also have Eve’s Garden, a piece on a community garden in Camden, N.J. that is bringing the community together as they reclaim green spaces.”

So give your wallet and the environment a break this August and check out these free, family-friendly outdoor screenings around your neighborhood. Screenings start at 8:30pm and include post-film discussions.

Wednesday, August 6 - CAMDEN
Host: Walt Whitman Arts Center
Location: 2nd & Cooper Streets

Thursday, August 7 - MANTUA
Host: Montesorri Gensis II
Location: 3510 Brandywine Street

Host: Centro Pedro Center
Location: Eagles Park, 7th and W. Schiller Street

Thursday, August 14 - GERMANTOWN
Host: Why Not Prosper and Social Re-entry
Location: 717 E. Chelten Avenue

Host: Friends Neighborhood Guild & Friends Housing Cooperative
Location: 8th and Fairmount

Friday, August 22 - WEST PHILADELPHIA
Host: Jubilee School & Neighborhood Bike Works
Location: Clark Park, 43rd & Baltimore Avenue

Saturday, August 23 - SOUTH PHILADELPHIA
Host: First African Baptist church
Location: 16th & Christian Street