Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling
If you take plastic bags when you go to the store, you NEED to read about plastics!
Misconception # 1: Plastics that go into a curbside recycling bin get recycled.
Not necessarily. Collecting plastic containers at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new containers. In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers from Berkeley are being made into containers again but into new secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all unrecyclable products. This does not reduce the use of virgin materials in plastic packaging. “Recycled” in this case merely means “collected,” not reprocessed or converted into useful products.
Misconception # 2: Curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled.
Not necessarily. If establishing collection makes plastic packages seem more environmentally friendly, people may feel comfortable buying more. Curbside plastic collection programs, intended to reduce municipal plastic waste, might backfire if total use rises faster than collection. Since only a fraction of certain types of plastic could realistically be captured by a curbside program, the net impact of initiating curbside collection could be an increase in the amount of plastic landfilled. The Berkeley pilot program showed no reduction of plastic being sent to the landfill in the areas where the curbside collection was in operation. Furthermore, since most plastic reprocessing leads to secondary products that are not themselves recycled, this material is only temporarily diverted from landfills.
Misconception # 3: A chasing arrows symbol means a plastic container is recyclable.
The arrows are meaningless. Every plastic container is marked with the chasing arrows symbol. The only information in the symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. The attorneys general of 11 states objected to false and misleading claims about plastic recyclability. The recent settlement that they reached with the American Plastics Council paves the way for a first-ever definition of what claims can or cannot be made about plastic recycling and recyclability.
Misconception # 4: Packaging resins are made from petroleum refineries’ waste.
Plastic resins are made from non-renewable natural resources that could be used for a variety of other applications or conserved. Most packaging plastics are made from the same natural gas used in homes to heat water and cook.
Misconception # 5: Plastics recyclers pay to promote plastics’ recyclability.
No; virgin resin producers pay for the bulk of these ads. Most such ads are placed by virgin plastic manufacturers whose goal is to promote plastic sales. These advertisements are aimed at removing or diminishing virgin plastic’s greatest challenge to market expansion: negative public conception of plastic as unrecyclable, environmentally harmful, and a major component of wastes that must be landfilled or burned.
Misconception # 6: Using plastic containers conserves energy.
When the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers from virgin materials, and much more than making glass containers from recycled materials. Using refillables is the most energy conservative.
Misconception # 7: Our choice is limited to recycling or wasting.
Source reduction is preferable for many types of plastic and isn’t difficult. Opportunities include using refillable containers, buying in bulk, buying things that don’t need much packaging, and buying things in recyclable and recycled packages
Plastic packaging has economic, health, and environmental costs and benefits. While offering advantages such as flexibility and light weight, it creates problems including: consumption of fossil resources; pollution; high energy use in manufacturing; accumulation of wasted plastic in the environment; and migration of polymers and additives into foods.
Plastic container producers do not use any recycled plastic in their packaging. Recycled content laws could reduce the use of virgin resin for packaging. Unfortunately, the virgin&endash;plastics industry has resisted such cooperation by strongly opposing recycled -content legislation, and has defeated or weakened consumer efforts to institute stronger laws. Plastic manufacturers recently decided that they will not add post consumer materials to their resins used in the USA.
There is a likelihood that establishing plastics collection might increase consumption by making plastic appear more ecologically friendly both to consumers and retailers. Collecting plastics at curbside could legitimize the production and marketing of packaging made from virgin plastic. Studies of garbage truck loads during the recent plastic pick-up pilot program showed no reduction of “recyclable” plastic containers being thrown away in the pilot areas (in fact, there was a slight increase). Due in part to increased plastic use, glass container plants around the country have been closing, including Anchor Glass Container Corporation in Antioch, putting 300 people out of work
Plastic recycling costs much and does little to achieve recycling goals. Our cost/benefit analysis for implementing curbside plastics collection in Berkeley shows that curbside collection of discarded plastics: involves expensive processing; has limited benefits in reducing environmental impacts; and has limited benefits in diverting resources from waste.
Processing used plastics often costs more than virgin plastic. As plastic producers increase production and reduce prices on virgin plastics, the markets for used plastic are diminishing. PET recyclers cannot compete with the virgin resin flooding the market.
Increasing the capture rates of glass, paper or yard debris in Berkeley could divert more resources from landfills than collecting plastics at curbside. The “recyclable” plastic to be collected in Berkeley at most would only amount to 0.3% of the waste stream.
Five Strategies to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Plastics
- Reduce the use Source reduction Retailers and consumers can select products that use little or no packaging. Select packaging materials that are recycled into new packaging – such as glass and paper. If people refuse plastic as a packaging material, the industry will decrease production for that purpose, and the associated problems such as energy use, pollution, and adverse health effects will diminish.
- Reuse containers Since refillable plastic containers can be reused about 25 times, container reuse can lead to a substantial reduction in the demand for disposable plastic, and reduced use of materials and energy, with the consequent reduced environmental impacts. Container designers will take into account the fate of the container beyond the point of sale and consider the service the container provides. “Design for service” differs sharply from “design for disposal”.
- Require producers to take back resins Get plastic manufacturers directly involved with plastic disposal and closing the material loop, which can stimulate them to consider the product’s life cycle from cradle to grave. Make reprocessing easier by limiting the number of container types and shapes, using only one type of resin in each container, making collapsible containers, eliminating pigments, using water-dispersible adhesives for labels, and phasing out associated metals such as aluminum seals. Container and resin makers can help develop the reprocessing infrastructure by taking back plastic from consumers.
- Legislatively require recycled content Requiring that all containers be composed of a percentage of post-consumer material reduces the amount of virgin material consumed.
- Standardize labeling and inform the public The chasing arrows symbol on plastics is an example of an ambiguous and misleading label. Significantly different standardized labels for “recycled,” “recyclable,” and “made of plastic type X” must be developed.
Other Fact Sheets:
Toxins, endocrine disruptors and carcinogens that migrate from the molecules of different plastic containers to their contents
Plastics Task Force Ecology Center
Thanks to the ecology center for this information-