Recycling Mystery: Plastic Bottle Caps

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Advances in technology and increased demand for recycled plastics is making plastic bottle cap recycling feasible for more communities. Photo: Alex Vietti, Earth911

To recycle or not to recycle: That’s the dilemma you face when you’re ready to toss out the plastic cap that came on your soda or water bottle.

For years, recycling programs across the country have told their residents that plastic bottle caps could not be recycled curbside with their other plastics and instead, should be disposed of in the garbage bin. But industry groups say that with advances in technology and increased demand for recycled plastics, bottle cap recycling may be coming to your city in the near future.

Plastic bottle cap recycling 101

Why haven’t you always been able to recycle plastic caps with plastic bottles, you ask? While most plastic soda and water bottles are made from PET #1 plastic, their caps are most commonly made from polypropylene, or plastic #5. These two different types of plastic melt at different temperatures during the recycling process and therefore, need to be processed separately.

The simple act of leaving a cap on the bottle has also traditionally created problems at the sorting facility. When bottles are crushed for shipment, caps can shoot off at high speeds, causing a safety hazard for recycling workers. Or if the bottles aren’t crushed but caps are left on, the bottles retain air and take up too much space, meaning fewer bottles can be transported for recycling.

But the Closure and Container Manufacturers Association (CCMA) and the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) say that many of these technical issues have been resolved and recently launched the joint “Caps On” initiative to educate consumers, cities and waste management companies about plastic cap recycling.

Recycling processing equipment has improved over the years, the organizations say, allowing bottles with caps on to be compressed without the projectile issue and the two materials to later be divided into their separate plastic streams. With these technical advancements, leaving caps on the bottles may actually make the recycling process run more smoothly for sorting facilities, the organizations found.

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Due to their small size, plastic caps not attached to a bottle may fall through the cracks of the facility’s mechanical sorting line, ending up with other debris headed for the landfill, says Mike Cappelli, marketing manager for NOVA Chemicals and CCMA board member. Cappelli also points out that workers on the manual sorting line, who have a split second to identify and grab a material, might also miss the tiny caps.

Both of these problems would be solved by allowing consumers to twist caps back on the bottles before tossing them in the recycling bin – which may have the added benefit of increasing the amount of material that gets recycled, he says.

“Studies show that when there are simpler instructions for recycling, consumers are more apt to recycle,” Cappelli says.

CCMA and APR are planning to introduce a pilot “caps on” recycling program in a few U.S. communities, which they hope can serve as a model for other cities to replicate.

NEXT: Your local recycling options

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