A Guide to Recycling Plastics

Learn about the seven types of plastics —and products typically made from them — to make recycling plastics easier.

  • Plastic bottles are rarely turned back into bottles. Instead, the plastic is used for something secondary like fleece fabric or plastic lumber.
    Photo by Pixabay/hans
  • When recycling plastics it's important to keep in mind that they're often turned into something secondary, like fleece fabric, rather than what they were originally.
    Photo by Fotolia/photka
  • Amy Korst offers lessons and tips for sustainable, low-impact living based on her own yearlong experiment in “The Zero-Waste Lifestyle.”
    Cover courtesy Ten Speed Press

Trash is a big, dirty problem. The average American tosses out nearly 2,000 pounds of garbage every year. The Zero-Waste Lifestyle (Ten Speed Press, 2012) is a guide to a healthier, happier and more sustainable life by way of creating less trash. Author Amy Korst used lessons from her yearlong experiment in zero-waste living to offer hundreds of simple ideas and low-impact tips. Eliminate the unnecessary from life and help preserve the planet’s future. The following excerpt from Chapter 2 discusses everything you need to know about recycling plastics.

In the recycling world, starting a discussion about plastics is like waltzing through a minefield. The issues surrounding this material are laden with emotion, misunderstandings, and sensationalism. At some point in your zero-waste journey, you will encounter some of these issues.

Is Plastic Truly Recyclable?

The truest definition of recycling involves taking a material, melting it down, and turning it back into itself over and over. This can be done with glass and metal, which can both be remelted and remolded into jars or cans forever. This is a closed-loop system, and it’s very desirable in the world of recycling. On the other hand, some materials slowly degrade over time, meaning they can be reformed maybe once or twice, but after awhile the chemical composition of the original substance has changed and it can no longer be turned back into what it once was. This is called downcycling.

Plastic is similar to paper in that it downcycles, though it has a much shorter life in the recycling stream — sometimes it’s not even recycled once before it is turned into a less-valuable material. Plastic water or soda bottles, for example, are rarely turned back into bottles. Instead, the plastic is used for something secondary like fleece fabric or plastic lumber. This means that virgin plastic (made from fossil fuels) is still needed for the manufacture of new plastic bottles.

The downcycling of plastic is just one of the serious issues surrounding this material. The other is the fact that plastic never, ever biodegrades.

Many materials, newspaper included, will biodegrade at the end of their lives. This means they mineralize, or turn back into their respective chemical components. When paper enters the environment, given exposure to the air, it disintegrates, leaving the world no worse for wear. Plastic, on the other hand, photodegrades, and this is very concerning.

5/19/2020 10:35:24 AM

I've never been a fan of plastic packaging, containers, or bottles. Not from the environmentalist viewpoint, but through the eyes of an older person who saw the natural value of glass and waxed paper among other non-plastic packaging materials. Plastic must certainly change the flavor of liquid consumables, which means we are ingesting something not good for us. While not all glass was recycled 50 years ago, amber bottles for one was and of course, how many out there remember the cast aside soda bottles we kids would go looking for to cash in at a store to buy another soda or some candy? Coke bottles were like taking a trip across America with the bottling plant city of each bottle molded into the bottom of the bottle. We paid a small deposit on the reusable bottles and never thought twice about not returning them when we went grocery shopping, it was as natural as bringing our shopping list. We live in a plastic and chemical world today, even fresh produce sold in stores are grown with herbicides and pesticides not made in the years I was growing up. Never heard of cattle feed lots, cage eggs, jam-packed chicken and pig farm producing operations, although there must have been smaller scale versions of some kind back then. Ever seen the old John Wayne movie "Red River" with the scenes of a massive herd of cattle out on the open ranch? It was filmed on a ranch. That's the way beef was raised for market back then, before big commercial ag took over. Today's environmental movement is in many ways like the way things were just normal decades ago, it was just normal livin' back then.

3/17/2020 10:49:56 AM

There is no longer plastic recycling available within hundreds of miles of where I live in Montana. I think this is an expanding problem that needs to be addressed.

7/26/2019 9:55:22 AM

I'm a firm believer that incineration is the only way to go for most garbage. In this day & age there is NO reason that effective filters can't be made to make sure that no hazardous material escapes into the air from the smokestacks. Incineration was always the way it was done until so many chemicals went into the products & studies on the air revealed that incinerating was making our air toxic. But then, there were no high tech filters available either, like their 'should' be today with all our scientific resources. Incineration takes care of the need for the number of land fill sites needed for so much waste. C'mon!! How much land will there always be available for burying garbage? Along with recycling what CAN be recycled, the focus needs to be also put on creating effective filters for smokestacks. BURN IT!! --- BTW --Where garbage is buried in landfill sites there is a forever emission of methane that comes out of them -- tell me THAT is good for the air.



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