Sometimes figuring out what can or can’t go in the recycling bin can be quite frustrating. It seems to change with enough regularity that keeping up with the “ins” and “outs” can take some time. But why is it that something we couldn’t put in the blue bin last year is now acceptable?
This issue most often comes up in relation to plastics. A few years ago, most people in Minnesota could only put #1 or #2 “bottles with necks” in their recycling bins, while most other plastics like yogurt containers and clamshells (like the clear kind you get with cookies from a bakery) went in the trash, even if they had the same #1 or #2. Those numbers, called Resin Identification Codes, indicate the type of plastic the item is made out of, but they don’t tell us if a plastic can be recycled. This can be confusing, as the number is usually enclosed in the familiar “chasing arrows” which many people recognize as the recycling symbol. Due to the confusion this has caused over the years, it was decided in 2013 that manufactures should switch to a solid triangle and not use the arrows. While this transition does not yet seem to be widespread, we will hopefully start to see the change in the coming years.
Additionally, while the number on a plastic tells us the type of plastic, it does not tell us how the plastic is made. For example, all plastics with the #1 are made from polyethylene teraphthalate, commonly known as PET. However, there are various ways of molding different PET plastic containers and bottles, and that can impact how and into what they can be recycled later.
Beyond the plastic type, once a plastic item is collected from your home or workplace, it goes to a facility known as a material recovery facility (MRF) or “murf.” It is here that all the different materials are sorted. Depending on where you live and where your recyclables go, this sorting may happen by hand, by machine, or a combination of the two. While the technology has gotten quite good, it is also expensive, and has limits in the effectiveness of sorting, sometimes requiring additional sorting later. It is this technology that has largely allowed single-sort (all recyclables in one bin) to become more widespread.
Ultimately, what can or can’t be recycled has less to do with if an item can be recycled, but if someone (a recycling company), somewhere, is able to do it economically. Like most industries, if the recycling of a particular item cannot be achieved in a way that allows a business to pay its bills, pay its employees, and to a certain degree, make a profit, then the availability will be limited. This requires that the item to be recycled can be collected efficiently and in large enough quantities to sell. In addition, there needs to be product manufacturers down the line who want to use the recyclable materials to make new things. And, of course, there need to be people who want to purchase those items. An example is PET carpet that is often made from water and soda bottles. This is a very good use of these plastics, but if there is no interest in the product, it is unlikely to be made. This point emphasizes the need for those of us who want to support recycling to also support the items that are made from recycled materials.
When we put items not included on our “acceptable” list in our recycling bin, we create more work, which costs more money, down the line. As a generator of recyclable materials, it is hopefully helpful to know that what you put in your bin really does matter. By only adding the items accepted in your program, you help keep the recycling stream clean and support healthy recycling systems.