Let's talk about plastic...

Dear Wicked Smart Recycler,

I recently watched a special about plastic recycling and now my head is spinning. I found out that all of the plastic that I’ve been recycling is either ending up in the ocean or going to developing countries where it is being burned or dumped. When I go to the grocery store everything is packaged in plastic. Help! What do I do? Should I even bother to recycle plastic anymore?


Struggling Zero Waster

Dear Struggling Zero Waster,

I feel you. As we learn more about the environmental and health consequences of plastic, there is a growing mistrust of this ubiquitous material made largely from natural gas, oil and coal. What was once touted as the “miracle material” in the 1950’s, is now making headlines like “Thousands of tons of micro-plastics are falling from the sky” or “From national parks to the deep sea, plastic pollution is showing up wherever scientists look.”

But before you give up on plastic recycling altogether, let me share what the Recycle Smart MA team has learned from the experts about plastic recycling.

  • Not all plastic can be recycled. You may have been told at one point that plastic labeled #1-7 is recyclable; it’s not true.  The “chasing arrow” symbol with a number inside (known as the “resin code”), was designed by the plastics industry to identify the type of plastic it’s made of.  But that doesn’t mean it’s actually recyclable. Our advice: forget about the numbers, think about the shape.  If it’s a plastic bottle, jar, jug or tub, recycle it (after you’ve emptied and rinsed it). Still in doubt? Check the Recyclopedia.
  • Recycling markets are regional. What’s recyclable in California or Oregon may not be recyclable here and vice versa.  Recycling markets are based on the sorting technology at the local recycling facilities as well as the proximity to reliable end markets (businesses that can use the plastic as a manufacturing feed stock). In Massachusetts – plastic bottles, jugs, jars and tubs are all recyclable since our recycling facilities can and do sort these items, and sell them to recycling end markets in the U.S.
  • Exporting plastics for recycling is not inherently bad; exporting trash labeled as recycling is. China and other international markets historically bought a lot of mixed (unsorted) plastics from the U.S. for recycling. But the plastic that U.S. companies were exporting had increasing amounts of trash mixed in.  China got fed up with this low-quality product and in 2017, they put an end to it. This was a huge wake-up call for the U.S. recycling industry! Recent investigative journalism portrayed plastic waste throughout Southeast Asia, making it seem that little recycling is actually happening. However, this is only part of the story (and remember, “bad news” sells). Quality recyclable material is a valuable product that many legitimate export markets need.  That’s why they pay a fair price for a manufacturing feed stock they will convert into new products. Bottom line:  exporting the material in itself is not the issue.  It’s the quality of the material that matters, whether it’s sold to a domestic or export market.  And that quality starts with what we put into our recycling bin.
    • U.S. companies want our recycled plastics. There is a growing demand for sorted plastics here in the U.S. Currently, Massachusetts recycling facilities are sorting your plastic bottles, jugs, jars and tubs and selling them to plastic recyclers right here in the USA.  Companies like Aaron Industries, EFS Plastics, KW Plastics, Buckeye Plastics and Trigon Plastics buy, clean, flake, or pelletize plastic into a raw material for making new consumer products, packaging, automotive parts, construction materials, and even 100% recycled Adirondack chairs. For a 1 minute overview of what happens to your plastic after you place it in the bin, check out this video.
  • You can help ensure your plastic gets a second life by:
    • Keeping it clean!  As a Smart Recycler, you’re careful to empty, rinse and recycle only those plastic items that manufacturers can use – bottles, jugs, jars and tubs.  Avoid the “wish-cycling” trap:  just because that fork or spoon is made of plastic, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable.  Your plastic is part of a reverse supply chain that supports the manufacturing of new products made from old.
    • Driving demand. By choosing products made out of recycled content, we have the power to drive demand for more recycled feed stock. Check out the Buy Recycled Products Directory to find products made with recycled materials, which is known as post-consumer resin (PCR).

In the end, you can rest assured that plastic recycling is worth the effort as long as you follow the rules.  If you can’t recycle it, consider not buying it and using an alternative (reusable bamboo forks and spoons for example).  Recycling is not the silver bullet for our plastic pollution mess. Tune in to our next newsletter to find out what to do when your favorite products come in non-recyclable plastic packaging.

Until then,

Wicked Smart Recycler

This summer we will run a series of articles and social media posts all about plastic recycling. Ask us your pressing plastic recycling questions by emailing us at RecycleSmartMA@mass.gov

What does it become? Your plastic bottle can be recycled into a new fleece jacket and that milk jug may just end up as part of the Adirondack chair you’ve been eyeing for lounging on your patio this summer.

Partner Spotlight: City of Salem

Members of SalemRecycles recycling committee with some of their Repair Café “tinkerers”, 2017

A diverse group of volunteers have been working hard to reduce waste in the City of Salem. SalemRecycles  just celebrated their twelfth year of organizing successful recycling, reuse, and repair events for residents. From Textile Drives, to Repair Cafés, to the popular Book Swap, this dedicated team has been working tirelessly towards a greener community.

SalemRecycles also produces an e-newsletter that’s chock full of current recycling topics. Recently, they echoed Recycle Smart’s message about putting PPE (gloves and masks) in the right place – the trash. This dynamic group is active on social media too, connecting residents to upcoming events and recycling tips, and sharing the Recyclopedia and Recycle Smart social posts. We love that their Facebook page even uses Recycle Smart images to show what’s recyclable!

“Everyone has a special role,” Salem Recycling Coordinator Micaela Guglielmi said about the committee.  “They’re talented people with different backgrounds coming together for one goal.” The committee has won numerous awards since its creation and doesn’t show signs of stopping now. We’re excited to see what’s to come – and we are proud to have the City of Salem as a Recycle Smart partner.

What We're Reading:

Happy 4th of July, recyclers!

The Recycle Smart Team at MassDEP