Trash or Recycling Why Plastic Keeps Us Guessing

Trash or Recycling Why Plastic Keeps Us Guessing

Did you know the recycle symbol doesn’t mean something is actually recyclable? Try out our trash-sorting game. Continue reading to learn how we got here and what you can do.

Numerous items use the “chasing arrows” emblem, which is a ubiquitous sign for recycling. However, that does not imply that they are recyclable.

Almost any product can have the logo printed on it by the manufacturer. This is due to the fact that its primary function is to identify the kind of plastic it is composed of, rather than to indicate whether it is recyclable. (For instance, if the center of the piece is a “3,” it is made of PVC, which is not accepted by most curbside recycling systems.) Because the emblem is so often misinterpreted, California outlawed its use on non-recyclable items last year.

There are efforts to improve the system. But first, the central question:

Why is this so hard?

The regulations are unclear.

One component of a recycling system that is simply too complex to be widely used is the misleading symbol. It places the onus on individuals to decipher a coded language and determine if an item is truly accepted by their local recycling program, in addition to determining whether it is recyclable.

Only a limited percentage of recyclable plastics are actually recycled for reasons such as these.

This system mainly depends on us, the users, acting morally. However, it’s easy to get tripped up by the details.

Consider the numbers in the middle of the symbol, for instance. Here is the complete list of the seven types.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that in the United States, items tagged 1 and 2 are commonly recyclable, with roughly 30% of them actually being recycled. An increasing number of curbside recycling programs also accept Type 5. However, curbside programs do not take other numbers, especially for soft plastics like snack bags, shopping bags, or resealable sandwich bags, which are typically labeled 4. Furthermore, category 7 is hardly ever recycled since it is a catch-all for several types of plastic.

One of the biggest recycling companies in the US, Republic Services, has vice president of recycling and sustainability Pete Keller, who stated that the basic rule of thumb is this: rigid plastic packaging belongs in the recycling. Anything not inflexible doesn’t.

“We like to suggest, put it in the recycling bin if it is a tub with a lid or if it has a cap and neck,” he stated. Additionally, confirm that everything is dry, clean, and empty.

You are not done yet, though. You might have just wasted your time and work even if you sort everything flawlessly and then place the sorted plastics in an opaque bag to be picked up. This is due to the possibility that full bags may be thrown out rather than recycled when using opaque bags, which make it harder to see what is inside.

Based on estimates from the United Nations Environment Program, only around 9% of all plastics ever made have been recycled. The remainder? The remaining percentage is burned, creating emissions that contribute to pollution and global warming, with the remaining portion ending up in landfills, dumps, or the natural environment.

According to Patrick Krieger, vice president of sustainability at the Plastics Industry Association, “we just do not recycle enough plastic.” Furthermore, he stated that “there is so much more we need to do,” even if recycling rates were gradually rising around the world, especially for some forms of plastic. “The industry is breaking records and introducing more recycled content at a record rate in an effort to make our products more recyclable.”

Plastics have undoubtedly improved daily living in terms of affordability, convenience, and safety in certain situations. Even in the fight against climate change, plastic has proven beneficial. Plastic packaging can use less energy to make and transport than alternatives like glass or metal, and lightweight plastic auto parts have made cars more fuel-efficient.

However, there is also a serious issue with plastic trash worldwide. Furthermore, the issue is greater than you.

Plastic continues arriving in new forms:

Plastic is being produced worldwide at an exponential rate.

The output of plastics has increased about a hundredfold since 1960. According to one metric, the total weight of plastic generated to date exceeds the combined weight of all land and marine species. Furthermore, the United Nations reports that over half of plastic products are made to be used just once. Consider travel-sized shampoo bottles, single-use dental floss tips, and all those self-testing COVID kits.

Furthermore, after being thrown away, plastic lingers for generations before disintegrating into ever-tinier fragments that travel great distances and may contain hazardous materials. These tiny plastic particles have been discovered in rainfall, table salt, drinking water, and, most recently, human blood.

This increase has been supported by the world’s ample supply of gas and oil, which are the building blocks for plastics. Plastics is expected to grow in importance for oil and gas firms as more people attempt to reduce their use of fossil fuels in an effort to slow down global warming.

Greenhouse gases and other pollutants that warm the globe are produced during the plastic’s production. According to a recent research, plastics accounted for 4.5 percent of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions in 2015—more than all the airplanes put together.

Carroll Muffett, the director of the Center for International Environmental Law, claimed that plastic manufacturers had pushed recycling as a justification for carrying on with production. He clarified, “But in actuality, only a very small portion of those plastics are commercially recyclable.” “Recycling will not get you out of this situation.”

How did we get here?

The original plastics were not intended to be thrown away. Indeed, they were praised as a more environmentally friendly substitute for depleting natural resources in the early 1900s, such as animal horns, ivory, and tortoise shells, which were then extensively employed to create items like combs and eyeglasses.

Plastic, a word that originally meant “easily shaped or molded,” is strong, lightweight, and flexible. It has transformed modern life by enabling numerous inventions, including cell phones, transistor radios, polyester clothes, and advancements in medicine. Plastic helped to establish the consumer economy by making a large range of household items and appliances widely and affordably available in a few decades.

However, the industry started to capitalize on a tactic around the middle of the 20th century that increased plastic output even further: single-use plastics. When consumers threw things away and then bought new ones, manufacturers saw a virtually endless way to increase sales.

At a 1956 industry meeting, Lloyd Stouffer, the editor of Modern Packaging magazine, declared that plastics’ future was “in the garbage can.”

Too much waste became a new issue as a result of it.

Politicians started putting forward ideas like single-use product bans. But lobbying from the industry caused many of the legislation to fail.Instead,manufacturers of plastics pushed governments to adopt a new strategy: taxpayer-funded curbside recycling.

These kinds of changes in the second half of the 20th century were advantageous to corporations in a number of ways. Have a look at soft drink producers. Glass bottles were used before plastic, and they were valuable enough that businesses paid to collect, clean, and reuse them. By using a less expensive plastic, beverage manufacturers may continue producing new bottles rather than hoarding old ones.

Counties and localities implemented curbside recycling initiatives in response to the growing amount of waste. The onus of gathering and reusing the plastic bottles fell on taxpayers.

Around this time, industry-funded television commercials began to emphasize the point that it was up to the individual to keep America beautiful and free of waste. One such commercial from the 1970s features a Native American character crying amidst a strewn landscape. The “chasing arrows” campaign was introduced by the plastics industry in the 1980s to encourage recycling.

More of this garbage was eventually shipped to nations like China. However, China declared in 2017 that it would no longer take in the world’s plastic waste. More plastic has since been shipped to nations like Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand. If not, it has just been burned or landfilled. The world’s rivers and seas are also contaminated with plastic debris.

What can be done?

What else can be done if recycling is not enough to make things better? Numerous solutions are being examined.

Transfer accountability to businesses.

A legal concept that has gained traction in the US is “extended producer responsibility” legislation.

By virtue of these rules, producers would be required to pay a fee to support recycling initiatives, as opposed to taxpayers bearing the entire cost of recycling.
The cost of the package would depend on factors including its weight, how simple it is to recycle, and whether or not it contains dangerous materials like PFAS.

These kinds of regulations may also encourage businesses to modify their goods to make them more recyclable. Out of almost a dozen states that introduced measures, producer responsibility rules were passed by Maine and Oregon last year.

According to Judith Enck, the founder of Beyond Plastics, an organization that promotes better plastic policies and a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, “there is only so much that you can do, as an individual, in an American grocery store” to make decisions that would reduce plastic waste because many products are not recyclable, which makes these laws crucial.

Regulate single-use plastics.

Single-use plastic bag bans are in place in an increasing number of states and localities. Others have outlawed products made of non-recyclable plastic foam.

Some jurisdictions are considering banning specific plastics, mandating the use of recycled materials, or limiting the use of composite materials, such as papers coated in plastic, which make recycling more difficult.

How about you?

Communities and people will find it difficult to alter the way that all of this operates on their own, according to Ana Baptista, an associate director of The New School’s Tishman Environment and Design Center and a professor of environmental policy.

Nevertheless, there are things that people can do. Continue recycling metals, paper, cardboard, and category 1 and 2 plastics. The ones marked 5 may also be recyclable, depending on where you live.

Since that most curbside recycling services do not accept bubble mailers, think about switching to different products or brands (ones with more recyclable packaging) or reducing the number of online purchases you make.

To the greatest extent feasible, consuming fewer consumer items overall can help to lower the waste stream of plastics. Participating in neighborhood initiatives to enhance recycling or decrease plastic consumption is an additional choice.

Dr. Baptista remarked, “They are little things, but they start to create some resistance against a system that is flooding our society with cheap plastic.”

The management of plastic garbage is still a difficult and complex problem, leading us to speculate on the best course of action. The multiplicity of single-use plastics, restrictions on recycling, and the variety of plastics make it more difficult to lessen the impact on the environment. To navigate this uncertainty and promote a more sustainable future, creative thinking, teamwork, and public involvement are essential.

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