Is It Really Recyclable?

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The availability of recycling (both in general and for specific products) depends largely on where you live.Photo: Flickr/Rasmin

One of the most common questions we receive at Earth911 is: “Is Product X recyclable?” If only this could be answered with a “yes” or “no.”

It’s a question asked by consumers, members of the media, manufacturers/retailers and even recyclers on a quest to divert as much waste as possible from landfills.

But the truth is – no matter what the product – there is no easy answer to this question. The reason is that the answer changes depending on what information you are looking for. So let’s figure out a better way to ask the question in order to get the best answer.

Defining “recyclable”

Recycling involves processing a used material back into a raw ingredient that can be used to make something new. This is not to be confused with reuse, where a product is used for the same or a different purpose without any reprocessing required.

Recycling can be as simple as melting down aluminum cans into a sheet of aluminum and then manufacturing a brand new can, or as complex as creating flakes from plastic bottles and using the material as lining for a fleece jacket. The goal is to create a new, useful product to justify not throwing the material away in the first place.

So, according to the above definition and examples, most products can be deemed “recyclable.” The important catch is that recycling is a business, so recyclers must factor in the costs of collecting and processing material against the value of reselling it to determine whether it will be collected for recycling.

The local impact

Like it or not, the availability of recycling (both in general and for specific products) depends largely on where you live. If you recycle through a curbside or drop-off service provided by your local government, accessibility is going to be based on what materials it can sell off to pay for pick-up service.

While most curbside programs accept the “Big Five” (aluminum cans, glass bottles, paper, plastic bottles and steel cans), your community may have decided that the transportation costs and/or worker safety risks of accepting certain materials, such as glass, don’t justify the profits. This doesn’t make the material any less recyclable, but it does mean recycling access is not available in your area.

Let’s go one step further and talk about the different forms of these products. Earth911′s recycling directory includes 20 different materials under the category “paper,” and just over 1 percent of the curbside programs listed will take more than 75 percent of these paper types. Does that make the other five materials any less recyclable, or is your city less green for not accepting them?

Again, it’s important to remember the business side of recycling when answering these questions. Some forms of paper, like greeting cards or juice cartons, are a mixture of paper and other materials like plastic linings which need to be removed prior to recycling. That plastic is important to keep your orange juice in the carton, but it comes with an additional disposal cost.

Don’t live by the code

Many forms of packaging feature a recycling message, and perhaps the most notable is plastic that uses the resin identification chart. These plastics feature a number inside a recycling symbol, which was designed by the Society of the Plastics Industry to tell consumers what type of plastic resin they have. This is necessary for recycling, since different resins have different melting points that can’t be recycled together.

This system creates two primary issues for the recycling public:

  1. By putting the number in a recycling symbol, consumers may assume that the product is recyclable in any program, which is often not the case.
  2. If all forms (bottles, bags, etc.) of a certain resin use the same symbol, consumers may assume that any program which accepts the resin in one form will take it in all forms.

This thinking also leads to myths, such as claims that only plastics #1 and #2 are recyclable. While these two plastics are more commonly accepted for recycling, the gap is shrinking.

Earth911′s recycling directory currently features nearly five times as many listings for #2 plastic as #5 plastic, which is another common resin for plastic containers such as butter tubs. But in the past year, the listings for #5 plastic have increased by more than 67 percent, showing that other resins are growing in popularity for recyclers.

All plastics are recyclable no matter what resin or form they come in, but your local program might be restricted based on the markets available once material is collected.

The rules you should obey

The next time you’re trying to figure out where Product X is recyclable, here are a few important tips for getting a more accurate answer:

  • Look beyond curbside. In many cases there are plenty of items that can be recycled conveniently, just not through your curbside program. See if your town’s recycling center accepts other products, or look into a retailer recycling program or a mail-in program.
  • Know the ingredients. For products made of only one material (e.g. an aluminum can), recycling is pretty straightforward. But a computer monitor is a mix of glass, metals and plastics, which means recycling involves determining a market for all three materials. If your product doesn’t contain at least one valuable material, it will lessen the chances of universal recyclability.
  • Read the fine print. In recycling, it’s rarely an all-or-nothing scenario when it comes to what is accepted. Learning what specifically is and isn’t accepted in a program is a good rule of thought for preventing contamination. If your product is not mentioned by name, it’s a good bet that it isn’t accepted.

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