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Separating Fact From Fiction When it Comes to Recycling Single-Use Plastics

by Caitlin Reid

There’s a lot of confusion around what is or isn’t recyclable, especially when it comes to plastics. Ever stood uncomfortably long in front of a public recycling bin trying to decipher the images that tell you what containers can actually go in the bin and what shouldn’t? Maybe you’ve had that one friend call you out when you tossed something in your recycling bin that you weren’t supposed to. Here we separate fact from fiction to learn which plastics are actually recyclable. 

Myth 1: Plastic Is Easily Recycled, Like Aluminum and Paper

When it comes to recycling, not all materials are created equal. For example, recycling aluminum and paper is relatively easy. About one-third of aluminum is recycled, and around two-thirds of paper is recycled. Whatever isn’t recycled is largely due to food residue or special coatings added to the materials.

Recycling plastic is trickier. If you think your tossed soda bottles are getting transformed into more soda bottles, think again. One study found that only 9% of plastics were actually recycled. The sad reality is that it’s cheaper to make a new plastic item from oil than from other recycled plastic. This is because plastic cannot be placed together into one giant melting pot, it has to first be sorted by one of at least five types of plastic, including:

  1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is the clear plastic used for soda bottles, body care products and some vegetable and fruit packaging. These are recycled at around 30% as there are refunds for customers returning empties to stores in 10 states. 
  2. High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is an opaque plastic used in milk jugs, body care products and many brands of laundry detergents and dish detergents. They’re recycled at around 30%.
  3. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a tough, durable plastic commonly used in pipes and industrial settings like engines and building materials. It’s rarely recycled. 
  4. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is a malleable plastic used for shrink wrap, some produce bags and toothpaste tubes. It’s very difficult to recycle as they can interfere with sorting machines. Most ends up in a landfill. 
  5. Polypropylene (PP) is often used for more durable yogurt containers and heavy-duty shampoo and body butter containers. Their recycle value is low and they are usually not recycled at all.

What’s more, some plastic containers are a combination of plastics. Because they’re unspecific, these are rarely recycled. As you can see, the countless types of plastic add complexity to recycling them. And sorting and cleaning every piece is challenging in most U.S. facilities.

Myth 2: We Can Recycle Our Way Out of Our Plastic Problem

While recycling is of course a positive movement, the fact is, plastic never truly goes away. The better solution is to work toward eliminating our reliance on single-use plastics. 

The misconception that tossing single-use plastics in your recycle bin, means they are always reused has contributed to a hefty problem. Most recyclable materials, including all those single-use plastics, are shipped offshore to other countries to be sorted and processed. So why does this matter?

Until recently, around 429 large, 20-foot containers full of U.S. plastic waste were shipped overseas per day, according to 2018 Census Bureau data. These containers are key contributors to the 8 million metric tons of plastic waste added to the ocean each year. Sadly, these ships and their cargo are the chief culprits behind the ocean’s plastic pollution, and many of the world’s developing nations are left with these difficult-to-manage piles of waste. These plastics end up in our oceans, natural ecosystems and back into the food chain. 

Myth 3: There’s No Way Out of the Plastic Pollution Problem

Our current plastic problem may seem dire, but this sad reality coming to life may have been the push we needed to make impactful changes to our government policies as well as our personal daily habits.

For example, single-use plastics are now banned in eight states, such as straws at restaurants and plastic bags at venues and supermarkets. And while most state-level recycling-related bills were postponed because of the Covid-19 pandemic, a national recycling strategy is underway. Under the Biden administration’s environmental efforts, a draft of the new National Recycling Strategy aims to:

  • Reduce recycling contamination in recycling streams.
  • Improve the domestic markets for recyclables.
  • Improve recycling processing efficiency.
  • Increase the national recycling rate to 50% by 2030. 

And there are plenty of other reasons to be hopeful.

Single-Use Plastic Alternatives

There is a growing market for single-use plastic alternatives. Clever entrepreneurs and scientists have begun making useful products, such as Terravive, which makes take away food containers, cups, spoons, and forks. All Terravive products are compostable and cleanly break down in rivers, oceans, lakes, and landfills. 

Creating Behavior Change

Many of us are also considering what we can do to curb our individual dependence on single-use plastics. Changing our habits and behaviors may be the most effective long-term solution. What does that entail? Instead of simply looking for recyclable containers, use high-quality, reusable containers.

Cleanyst makes it easy to create safe and effective personal care and household cleaning products from the comfort of your home. The Cleanyst system features a countertop appliance, reusable mixing bottles and concentrates that are delivered directly to your door. By shipping only necessary ingredients in minimal packaging and harnessing the power of bottle reuse, our system helps reduce single-use plastic waste by around 80% compared to traditional products.

 

Sources:

  1. National Geographic - A whopping 91% of plastic isn't recycled
  2. Bloomberg - In the War Against Plastic, America Is a Big Threat
  3. Forbes - China Quits Recycling U.S. Trash as Sustainable Start-Up Makes Strides
  4. IUDN - Marina Plastics 
  5. Yale School of the Environment - Piling Up: How China’s Ban on Importing Waste Has Stalled Global Recycling
  6. Waste Dive - Environmental Efforts Key for Biden, but Industry Expects Limited Recycling Policy Movement in 2021
  7. EPA - Draft National Recycling Strategy and Executive Summary
  8. NCSL -  State Plastic Bag Legislation 
  9. PBS - When Does Recycling Your Plastic Make Sense? The Answer Isn’t So Simple
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