In my eyes, single use plastics are one of the biggest evils of the modern world. I encourage trying to eliminate their existence in every situation possible. The most common excuse or rebuttal I get from people using a plastic water bottle, for example, is – “but it’s recyclable!”
And it hurts my heart.
Because here’s the dirty truth about recycling…
Less than 9% of plastics actually end up being recycled (according to ongoing reports from National Geographic). In order to effectively recycle, you have to be a lot more intentional, careful, and aware than you probably ever thought about. Here’s why —
1. Not all plastics were created equal
Have you ever heard of soft vs hard plastics? Soft plastics are thin, flexible or film plastics which include plastic bags, plastic wrapping, or flexible packaging material. Unfortunately, soft plastics can’t go in your recycling bin, and when they end up there, it ruins the sorting of that batch. When you place a plastic bag or other soft plastic item in your recycling bin, the plastic bag ends up at the city’s recycling facility and jams the machinery. The facility shuts down, sometimes multiple times a day, and workers have to cut bags out of the machinery. So, moral of the story: learn to identify soft plastics, and make sure they don’t end up in your recycling bin!
There is good news here, these soft plastics can be recycled in *other* ways. For example, Target has a take back program where you can bring your plastic bags back to the store for reuse. There are also recycling centers made specifically to handle soft plastics, and you can find one near you here. 🙂
2. Food ruins everything
For the longest time, I did not know you’re supposed to clean out the containers you’re recycling (I’m really embarrassed about this, but I’m sure I’m not the only one). This is a crucial step because if you don’t do this, they won’t be recycled. Yikes, what a waste! Now you don’t need to spend a ton of time thoroughly scrubbing every item, but make sure they are clear of food items, well rinsed, and not mixed with anything that isn’t cleaned.
3. Even if it can be recycled, doesn’t mean it will be
The process of recycling, and recycling centers, are driven by a demand of recycled goods. When there’s a market for it (meaning someone will buy those recycled materials and turn them into something new), then the process runs optimally. But when the demand goes down, or if there isn’t a current need for certain materials, they no longer get recycled at the rate at which they come in. This means all those water bottles you think you’ve recycled may have ended up in a landfill anyway.
What Can We Do
(1) Avoid those single-use items when you can, because now we know recycling doesn’t always turn out how we think [or hope].
(2) Choose items that have longer life and can be melted down and recycled over and over again and in many different ways – glass is a great example of this!
(3) Consciously look to buy items made from recycled materials so we can keep the demand up. 🙂