Recycling Mysteries: #5 Plastics

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If you’re trying to be more eco-conscious, chances are you’re already recycling plastic bottles (or using reusable ones!). But what about yogurt cups, hummus tubs or cottage cheese containers? What’s the best way to dispose of those?

Items like these, as well as medicine bottles and some microwave-safe take-out containers, are typically made from #5 plastic, or polypropylene. This type of plastic is lightweight, yet durable and can withstand high temperatures, moisture and oil, making it ideal for food and other containers.

This type of plastic is lightweight, yet durable and can withstand high temperatures, moisture and oil, making it ideal for food and other containers. Photo: Dustbowl.wordpress.com

This type of plastic is lightweight, yet durable and can withstand high temperatures, moisture and oil. Photo: Dustbowl.wordpress.com

So, What’s the Problem?

Up until recently, most community curbside recycling programs didn’t accept #5 plastics. And while 28 of the 100 largest U.S. cities now collect plastic containers beyond bottles, many areas still do not.

“[#5 plastics] are not mainstream, but that’s because it takes a while for things to catch on,” says Judith Dunbar, the director of environmental and technical issues (plastics) for the American Chemistry Council. “In the early stages of recycling, like the ‘90s, it was mostly about bottles. Ninety five to 96 percent of the bottles that are manufactured are either #1 or #2.”

Of that remaining 4 percent, she says, polypropylene represents maybe 1 percent. But she explained that because #5 has a similar type resin to that of #2, many reclaimers are starting to find ways to incorporate it into other products. Garbage and recycling bins, water filtration systems, shipping pallets, sheeting and automotive battery casings are just a few of the products that can be made out of recycled polypropylene.

Where Can I Recycle #5?

If your community doesn’t have curbside #5 recycling, or there arn’t plastic #5 recyclers near you, here are two programs that can help:

1. Preserve Gimme 5
Preserve, a maker of household goods that utilize 100 percent recycled plastics and post-consumer paper, has partnered with Organic Valley and Stoneyfield Farms to help capture #5 plastics before they end up in landfills. You can either drop your #5 plastic containers off at designated Whole Foods locations or mail them directly to Preserve, where they will be remade into items such as razors, toothbrushes, cutlery and mixing bowls—all of which are fully recyclable.

While former instructions told us to throw the caps away before recycling, the new rules say to keep them on. Photo: Transfigurationpittsford.org

While former instructions told us to throw the caps away before recycling, the new rules say to keep them on. Photo: Transfigurationpittsford.org

2. Recycle Caps with Aveda
Even though they typically aren’t printed with a #5 symbol, most plastic caps (like those on water and soda bottles) are made from polypropylene. Aveda created this program to ensure they don’t end up harming birds and other marine life when discarded on beaches or in water sources.

Besides collecting plastics caps from participating schools and stores, Aveda is encouraging people to bring in clean tops from shampoo, beverage and condiment bottles (such as ketchup and mayonnaise) to its retail stores. Aveda will then ship the caps to its own recyclers and use the material to make new caps for its hair and beauty products.

Keep the Cap On

Remember those bottles you were recycling earlier? If you’re not already taking the caps to Aveda, screw them on loosely before you toss them in the bin. While former instructions told us to throw the caps away, the new rules say to keep them on. Dunbar explains that if polypropylene caps travel to a recycling plant and are not attached to a bottle, it’s very easy for them to jam machines or slip through cracks and get lost, defeating the whole purpose.

“During the grinding and wash process for #1 or #2 bottles, the bottle material will sink and the cap material will float,” says Dunbar. Then it’s just a matter of skimming them off the top and either selling or utilizing the caps for something else.

The same as any movement, the more people try to recycle polypropylene, the more widespread and easier it will become. “It’s really a volume issue, just like anything else,” Dunbar says. “If you don’t have a lot of volume, then it’s not going to sell.”

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