Why Can't All Plastics Be Recycled?!

Of all the things accepted for blue-bin recycling, plastics by far the most complicated material. There are many various categories of plastics, and even within a single category, different packaging types do not have the same physical and chemical properties, and so will not recycle equally. Don't get overwhelmed by all the confusing labels and infinite packaging types, just follow these two simple rules:

  • Only recycle plastic bottles, jugs, jars and tubs. That's it. Nothing else.

  • When in doubt, throw it out.

Following those two easy guidelines will set you on the path to recycling right. If you want to have a better understanding of why these rules exist, or see some common mistakes, read on...

Those numbers on the bottom of a package do NOT tell you if something is recyclable.

Don't trust manufacturer's labeling or recycling instructions. They do not know regional recycling rules, and, they want you to feel good about their packaging so you'll keep buying it. The number on a plastic package only serves to identify what type of chemical resin the base material is derived from. The "chasing arrows" symbol wrapping around the number is a manufacturing trick, a misleading design intentionally used to make plastics appear recyclable, even when they are not. Read more here: https://how2recycle.info/news/2016/recycling-numbers .

Most types plastic items are not made to be recyclable.

Manufacturers are not required to make their products sustainable or to consider the end-of-life disposal and recycling options, so, they typically don't. Design consideration favors things like production efficiency, aesthetics and cost-reduction. In general assume that most plastic objects don't have a pathway to recycling. Want to know why? Add this this excellent show to your playlist: https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/plastic-wars/

Here are common recycling mistakes; NONE of these are recyclable in a blue bin: cups, straws, plastic cutlery, plastic plates, bakery/produce clamshell containers, salad bins, takeout containers, rotisserie chicken bins, plastic bags, frozen food bags, chip bags, candy or snack wrappers, food or juice pouches, which items humans have figured out how to efficiently, economically, recycle in an environmentally-friendly way is still pretty short. Please stick to the short list:

Only recycle plastic bottles, jugs, jars and tubs in a blue bin.

We accept those types of plastics because we have the systems and infrastructure (contractors, technology, factory equipment, etc.) able to transport, identify, sort, separate and sell those specific items. It would be disingenuous to accept other items, like takeout containers or produce bins, because there is no market in this region for them and no reliable, eco-friendly way to process or recycle them- yet. In our program, we want you to feel confident that the things you put in a blue bin will actually get recycled, not disposed.

Tip: Screw-on plastic caps may be left on empty plastic bottles, jars and jugs.  

  • Bottles = container with a narrow opening and a screw-on top. 
  • Jugs = has a molded handle as part of the container, such as a milk jug. 
  • Jars = has a wide opening and a screw-on lid, such as a peanut butter jar. 
  • Tubs = a sturdy wide-mouth container with a snap-on lid. Discard lid, recycle tub.

Here's a handy poster: https://www.frederickcountymd.gov/DocumentCenter/View/320812/2019-Recycling-Poster

Follow the Money...and the Science

Sadly, it's typically just cheaper for manufacturers to produce poducts made with virgin/new plastic. Made from petroleum, plastics represent the single largest growth sector for the heavily subsidized petrochemical industry. Recycling often cannot compete, and so, many products are just doomed and designed for disposal. 

If you really want a solid understanding of how plastics are made, how the categories differ, and what makes so many of them not recyclable, check out our staff's deep dive class, Plastics 101. Contact us to schedule a presentation for your group, or, watch a recording of the class here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t2AiEoSCUQA&feature=youtu.be

Use Less Plastic

OK, so that's way easier to say than do, we know, but here's a great guide to get you started: https://www.frederickcountymd.gov/DocumentCenter/View/332095/Life-Less-Plastic

Learn More:

Here are some terrific resources to further expand your knowledge:

FRONTLINE: “Plastic Wars” https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/plastic-wars/

• NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC: “Planet or Plastic?” https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/topic/planetorplastic

• NPR: “The Plastic Tide” https://www.npr.org/series/684530164/the-plastic-tide

• THE AMERICAN CHEMISTRY COUNCIL: “Plastics 101” https://www.americanchemistry.com/chemistry-in-america/chemistry-in-everyday-products/plastics

POPULAR SCIENCE: “How It Works: Inside The Machine That Separates Your Recyclables”: https://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2013-07/how-it-works-recycling-machines-separate-junk-type/

“America Has a Recycling Problem”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojK1Oyhr3pg&feature=emb_logo