Over the weekend, I purchased a few plants from a local garden shop, Maypop. With Plastic Free July in full swing, I was SO excited to see that Maypop has started to go plastic free. Unfortunately, the three plants I bought were not yet a part of their plastic free line. Feeling a little guilty about the purchase, I quickly found a solution for my recently purchased plastic pots — the Missouri Botanical Garden. The Missouri Botanical Garden has been recycling horticulture waste for over 20 years, preventing over one million pounds of waste from ending up in a landfill. Although, I was thrilled to learn that my plastic pots could indeed be recycled, I realized there were still a few gaps in what I knew [or should I say, didn’t know] about recycling.
When it comes to recycling, I will admit — I knew the basics. I didn’t grow up in a household that recycled, it wasn’t something I did in college, and honestly, not something I did until recently. According to the EPA, “recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.” Okay, okay I got that much down. But what I didn’t know was that the all familiar recycling logo stood for the three steps involved in recycling — collection and processing, manufacturing, and purchasing products made from recycled materials.
COLLECTION & PROCESSING
In order to fully understand plastic recycling, what can and cannot be collected, I wanted to start by understanding plastic. Plastic, is a synthetic material made from polymers — polymer, meaning “many monomers.” The polymers are held together, typically by carbon atoms — imagine a strand of pearls. When this occurs, we get what is known as thermoplastic. This type of plastic can be melted back down (recycled). Examples include water bottles, milk containers, house siding, etc. When the carbon atoms begin to branch off from one another, creating a network, the plastic is known as thermoset plastic. Thermoset plastic cannot be melted back down. A few examples include automobile tires, bathtubs, jet engine blades, etc.
Beyond these two large categories of plastic, there are actually seven different types of plastic dependent upon the chemical characteristics and properties. You have likely seen the numbers on the bottom of your plastic — they represent the type of plastic and allow consumers to make more informed decisions when purchasing and recycling plastic (if you actually know what they mean, which I didn't). Lucky for me, my public recycling services will pick up all types of plastic — with the exception of number six which includes items like styrofoam, plastic utensils, packaging foam etc. Check out this short article for a full list of plastic types, examples and recycled uses. You can also visit your local county or municipality webpage to confirm what type of plastic is accepted for recycling. Of course, the most effective strategy would be to not use plastic at all.
After the recycled item is collected, it must first be sorted and cleaned. Since materials are going to manufacturers, they must meet a certain set of standards. Sadly, this means that not everything we put into the recycling bin actually gets recycled. For example, if a pizza box has a grease stain larger than the size of your hand, it’s going in a landfill. And because of this, it is also really important to rinse and dry your items before sending them off to be recycled. Contamination occurs when recyclables are mis-sorted OR items contain residue from their previous use. Studies show that 1 in 4 items recycled are contaminated. This could potentially ruin the entire bale of recyclables and has the potential to breakdown recycling machinery. When this happens, the items lose their value.
If recycled materials lose their value, there is no motive for manufacturers to purchase the recyclables in the first place. And if manufacturers don’t purchase recyclables they can’t produce materials from recycled products — ultimately, breaking the three phase process of recycling.
For example, in 2018, China implemented a ban on imported plastics and many other materials due to the large amount of contamination. Previously, China accepted nearly half of the world's recyclables. This creates a pretty big problem for many countries, including the United States where some recycling programs have completely stopped due to the accumulation of recycled products with no where to go. This means one of two things happen, recyclable items end up in a landfill or are incinerated (which leads to a completely different conversation on air pollution).
This is all to say, it's so important to educate yourself (and others) on how to appropriately recycle otherwise facilities cannot properly manufacture new goods from your recyclables.
Last but not least, purchasing — the third and final phase of the recycling process. As a consumer, look for items that are high in post-consumer content. By purchasing items made from recycled materials, we are able to directly impact consumer demand. The more in demand recycled products become, the more likely manufacturers will begin to invest in recycled materials.
Here are a few items that you can purchase made from recycled materials — these items are either those I have purchased OR those on my “once I need it, I will purchase from here” list:
Jewelry (Argent Silversmith)
Yoga, Beach, + Camp Towel (Nomadix)
Makeup & Hair Brushes (Eco Tools)
It is so fun to explore new and sustainable brands – especially for items that we use every day. What are a few of your favorite brands and/or items produced from recycled materials?