360: Bottle Caps

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Earth911′s 360 series breaks down the ins and outs of your everyday items.

Bottle caps are often so small that it’s easy to overlook the impact they have on the environment. If you drop one on the ground at the park or the beach, you may think it’s not a big deal.

But the Beach Environmental Awareness Campaign Hawaii (B.E.A.C.H.) found that “plastic bottle caps are one of the top 10 items found during marine debris beach clean-ups and are the second most littered item after cigarette butts.”

Recycling seems like a good option, but did you know that many cities don’t accept caps for recycling? Let’s get down to the bottom of the bottle cap mystery and find out how they’re recycled, where they’re accepted and what to do if your city doesn’t take them.

Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

Discarding bottle caps doesn’t have to be a lose-lose situation. If you can’t recycle with your city, there are options with other organizations for turning them into valuable products. Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

All Plastics are Not Created Equal

Just by physical touch, you can tell the texture and durability of most plastic bottles is different from their caps. This is because bottles and caps are made from different types of plastics.

Polyethylene terepthalate (PET), or plastic #1, often comprises plastic bottle,s while polypropylene (PP), or plastic #5, often makes up the caps. So, what’s the big deal if the bottle is a #1 and the cap is a #5? They’re both plastic right?

It all comes down to the melting point, which has a difference of nearly 160 degrees Fahrenheit between the two. If a cap gets mixed in with bottles, the entire batch may be ruined because there is un-melted plastic in the mix.

Plastic Pays

All plastics go through the same recycling process. They’re sorted, baled, screened to remove contaminants, washed, ground into flakes, separated from contaminants, dried, melted, filtered and formed into pellets. This is an expensive and time-consuming process, and recyclers want to make sure it’s worth it financially.

Markets for different types of plastic vary around the country, but based on the recycling rates posted from the 2007 U.S. National Postconsumer Plastics Bottle Recyling Report, it’s easy to infer that there’s a larger market for PET, which has a recycling rate of nearly 25 percent, than PP, which has a rate of less than 9 percent. So, if your city does not accept bottle caps, it could be because the benefit is not large enough to support the cost.

What Major Cities are Doing

Let’s take a look at some cities that are taking steps to create bottle cap programs and others that do not accept caps for recycling.

  • San Francisco accepts caps even if they’re left on the bottles.
  • Washington, D.C. accepts emptied #1-7 plastics and lids.
  • Houston also accepts lids, but unlike the two cities above, it asks that the lids be removed from the bottle. Also, be sure to rinse before tossing them into the bin.
  • While New York City does not accept plastic caps, metal caps can be removed from bottles and placed in the bin for recycling.
  • The City of Phoenix does not collect caps because #5 plastics “can damage the sorting equipment, be harmful to workers in the sorting facility or are too small to be sorted or make the sorting process inefficient.”
  • San Diego also asks its residents not to recycle caps due to the differences in types of plastic. It does, however, accept metal caps.

To check if your city accepts caps for recycling call or visit the Public Works or Department of Sanitation section of its Web site. You can also search Earth911.com for plastic #5 or plastic bottle cap recycling locations.

How Private Companies are Stepping In

If you’re in an area where plastic cap recycling is not available, seek out retailers that accept them. A few of companies are taking the lead when it comes to tackling the issue of recycling #5 plastics.

Aveda, a company known for its commitment to improving its impact on the environment through its naturally-derived products, eco-friendly packaging and production processes, is now accepting #5 plastic bottle caps for recycling at its stores and salons. Any Aveda network salon or store will accept the caps to be made into new Aveda caps. Aveda recycles the caps into new packaging for some of its product lines.

Types of Caps Accepted

  • Twist caps on threaded neck bottles (shampoo, soda, milk, water, etc.)
  • Flip caps on tubes and food product bottles (condiments, etc.)
  • Jar lids (peanut butter, pickles, etc.)
  • Laundry detergent lids

Caps Not Accepted

  • Pharmaceutical lids
  • Metal lids
  • Plastic pumps or sprayers
  • Bendable or breakable lids

Preserve, in partnership with Stonyfield Farms and Organic Valley, is another company that accepts #5 plastics for recycling. You can mail in your caps to Preserve or drop them off at your local Whole Foods location.

What’s Accepted?

  • Any plastics clean and stamped with the number 5
  • Filters from Brita water pitchers
  • Used Preserve products

What Do They Make From RecycledCaps?

  • Preserve products
  • Personal care items, such as razors and toothbrushes
  • Tableware, such as plates and cutlery
  • Kitchenware, such as measuring cups and cutting boards

Home Page Image: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com

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