But the code on the bottom says #1 inside the “chasing arrows” symbol… it’s the same kind of plastic, so why can’t I recycle it? What’s the deal with this “Bottles Only” on the recycling bin?
We wish recycling plastics was simple. It would make our job easier and recycling on the whole much more successful. It actually is pretty simple, as long as you stick to only tossing clean plastic bottles (without lids) into the plastic recycling bin. No produce containers, no takeout containers, no bakery boxes, no berry clamshells, and no salad containers in the blue bin. And certainly not the new #1 plastic films we’re seeing in some of the mail delivery meal kits. We’re really sorry.
The confusion is real. And it is no accident on the part of the petrochemical industry who spent millions in litigation to retain the use of the very confusing “chasing arrows” symbol which is actually a “Resin Identification Code” but does not mean the item can be recycled economically – or even, in some cases, at all. For instance, the #7 designation quite literally means “OTHER” plastic which can be anything from compostable plastic to a random mix of resins. (Read more about Recycling Myths and Resin ID codes)
But if the RIC # is the same, then why can’t those things be recycled? Different plastic items might look the same on the surface, but they can be so very different. To understand, it’s important to learn something about the manufacturing process. The liquid plastic that will form a clamshell package undergoes a lot of alterations. It’s not just the clamshell’s shape that ruins its recyclability, it’s how the material has changed during manufacturing.
Take the example of a soda bottle and a berry package, both of which start as a base of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic resin. That means they’ll both end up getting a #1 resin identification code stamped on the bottom. But, to keep your berries fresh longer, plastics manufacturers add UV blockers, oxygen barriers, and possibly fungus inhibitors to the recipe for a clamshell container. To make the berries easy to see and more appealing to buy, the plastic resin has optical brighteners and clarifying agents added.
Next, a clamshell container is formed by pressing plastic into a mold (thermoforming) while a soda bottle is made by forcing air into hot plastic (blow molding). The two processes require plastic to behave differently which results in the finished products behaving differently too. When it comes to recycling, the altered forms of PET chip into different sized flakes, melt at different temperatures, and have a different viscosity, so they don’t mix together very well.
On top of all that, there are critical differences in how the packages are labeled. A beverage label wraps around the bottle and can be glued to itself with little to no glue touching the actual plastic bottle, so it comes off easily. But, that doesn’t work for clamshell packaging. A clamshell’s entire label gets glued directly to the container’s lid. The label, made from a different type of plastic, colored with inks, and attached by adhesive chemicals, will greatly reduce the clarity and quality of the plastic if it is melted for recycling.
In the end, two containers that started out from the same source material have become so different that one of them – a soda bottle (without a #5 lid) – can be sent on to a beautiful recycling afterlife, while the other item – a clamshell container – is doomed for disposal.
But wait, you say. I swear I’ve seen a “Food Container” collection bin at the Transfer Station. Indeed, you have. However, that is not actually for recycling. It is meant to prevent people throwing plastic food containers in with the recyclable plastic bottles. All plastic food containers should go into the trash (or be reused). This bin at the transfer station, once it is full of containers, heads straight for the landfill. This is not intended to be deceitful, nor to encourage you to buy more of those plastic containers. It is the only measure that has effectively reduced the quantity of contaminants in the recycling bins. Signs haven’t worked; on-site education campaigns haven’t worked; public service announcements haven’t worked. Teton County is trying to give you an easy option to do the right thing, but it’s even better to avoid buying this kind of packaging when possible or toss it into the trash if you can’t find a good reuse option yourself.
Dann O’Donnell, Teton County Solid Waste Supervisor, says that their plastics buyer will only purchase bales of #1 drink bottles – no other kind of #1 bottle or jar – because the majority of all beverage bottles in the US come from three main manufacturers, so the buyer is getting a known quality of PET material. The 0.5% contamination standard means that all #5 lids must be removed (the #5 rim that might remain is just under that 0.5% threshold.)
Neither Teton County, Idaho not Teton County, Wyoming has ever accepted plastic food containers for recycling. At many small recycling centers like Teton County’s, each plastic food container that you accidentally put in the plastic bottle recycling bin has to be picked out by hand by already overworked county staff and it ends up in the landfill anyway. This is expensive for taxpayers and doesn’t allow the Transfer Station staff time to pursue additional waste diversion initiatives. Several neighboring counties have eliminated plastic recycling altogether due to high contamination rates and the costs associated with transporting it.
Please follow the local recycling guidelines for wherever you recycle. There are no national standards as each recycling center relies on what their broker will buy, which is much less in rural areas. Most recycling facilities are under-resourced and are doing their best to educate the people in their area. They will NEVER fault you for asking.
Teton Valley Community Recycling offers a convenient TEXT TO RECYCLE HOTLINE (208-557-1193) for you to ask any of your local recycling questions. We’ll give you the quick and easy answer, but we’ll share additional details if you ask!
Remember: if it is not a Clean #1 or #2 Bottle with no lid, then it is NOT recyclable in our County. All other types of plastic (#3-#7) have no market regionally and cannot be recycled in Teton County.
Try some of these ideas to reduce your plastic waste:
- Avoid buying anything in a disposable plastic container. This includes all resin types, #1-#7. If it is not a bottle, it cannot be recycled in our county.
- Ask your grocer to seek options with less plastic packaging. This can include the option for bulk salads, glass, or cartons that can biodegrade.
- Bring your own container for to-go or take-out meals
- In the summer months, shop locally at the Farmer’s Market and bring your own bags.
- Rinse your bottles before depositing them for recycling. Food residue is another major contaminant.
- Read the signs at the Recycling Center so you know what can actually be recycled versus what is a contaminant.
- Please DON’T “WISHCYCLE” – or rely on what other people who didn’t read the guideline put into the bins.
- And please don’t look at the number on the bottom of a package to figure out “is this thing recyclable?” That number is a chemical code, NOT instructions for recycling.
Thank you for Recycling Right!