This article was originally published in Teton Valley News on July 4th, 2013. It is reposted with permission.
If there is one thing that I have learned during my time as the director of Teton Valley Community Recycling, it is that people want to recycle plastic. It is easy to see why. Plastic consumption has increased dramatically from less than 1% of the municipal solid waste stream in 1960 to more than 12% today (US EPA). Despite that increase, very few plastics are recycled. While almost all kinds of paper products can be recycled in Teton County, including cardboard, phone books, office paper, newspaper and magazines, plastic recycling is limited to #1 and #2 plastic bottles. In a recent survey of community members that asked what program change would increase their participation in recycling, 37% wrote in “accept more types of plastic”, making it more popular than any other response. Wouldn’t our recycling program be better if we accepted all types of plastic? Not necessarily.
Many cities accept all types of plastic in their recycling programs. However, just because a community collects plastic does not mean that they are recycling it. Rexburg, Idaho, for example, accepts all plastics to increase participation in recycling programs. Once recyclables are collected, however, #3-#7 plastics are hand-sorted by BYU Idaho student employees and discarded. In Teton County, we only collect plastics that we recycle, and we save resources by asking residents to do the sorting.
Other cities, such as Idaho Falls, bale and recycle all types of plastic. These mixed plastics are trucked to California and then shipped to China. Once the materials reach China, it is very difficult to track where they go, what they are made into, or if they are even recycled. In Teton County, we make an effort to ensure that the materials we collect are recycled at reputable facilities with adequate protection for workers and child labor laws. Currently, #1 and #2 plastic bottles are the only plastics that have strong domestic markets. Shipping our waste to China is neither environmentally sound nor traceable.
Recently, plastic recycling became even more challenging when China made it clear that they don’t want trash from other countries. They developed stringent new regulations, and have been sending back cargo vessels full of recyclables that don’t meet their requirements. Talk about a waste of resources! Municipalities that accept all plastics are now stuck trying to find new markets for plastics that have almost no value, and their options are limited. Recycling broker Brian Heuer said, “markets for #3-#7 plastics have dried up…Many processors that accept #1-#7 plastics will simply sort the #1s and #2s out of the mix and be forced to dispose of the #3-#7s as there are currently few alternatives.”
I, too, would love to recycle all plastics. However, reducing plastic consumption remains the best solution. Head to the Farmer’s markets for fruits and vegetables without plastic tubs, or grow your own at home or in the community gardens. Stock up on staples at the bulk bins. For the recycling enthusiast who loves dairy, #5 plastics can be shipped to a US-based company called Preserve for recycling. A few simple steps to reduce plastic, combined with increased participation in our #1 and #2 plastic bottle recycling program, will do a lot more good than pretending that all plastics are created equal.
Plastic recycling it is very important for our planet. Tons of plastic are use every day on our planet, so if plastic makes our life easier, way not recycling?
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Its estimated that recycling, re-use, and composting create six to ten times as many jobs as waste incineration and landfills. Only around 27% of plastic bottles are recycled. Learn more about plastic recycling at http://www.mrcpolymers.com