Debunked Plastic Myths

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What’s your impression of plastic? Is it better or worse than other forms of packaging (such as glass, metal and paper), and how did you form this opinion?

There is a lot of information distributed throughout the green world about plastic, and not much of it is positive. Before you write this material out of your life, let’s evaluate a few of the common plastic statements to see how true they really are.

Myth #1: Resin code determines all

PET (plastic #1) or HDPE (plastic #2) often comprises plastic bottles, while PP (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? Photo: Amanda Wills, Earth911.com


Foundation: In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) developed a resin identification code to provide manufacturers a simple way of conveying what resin a plastic product was made from. The code was applied primarily to six different resins of plastic:

1. Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE)

2. High density polyethylene (HDPE)

3. Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)


4. Low density polyethylene (LDPE)

5. Polypropylene (PP)

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Each resin can be used to produce a variety of products, so without a code system, there would be no way of telling whether your plastic bottle was made of PETE or HDPE. This identification is also important during plastic recycling, since different plastic resins can’t be recycled in the same stream.


Rumor has it: When plastics are grouped by resin, it’s easy for one report or study to affect an entire group. For instance, challenges involving the disposal of expanded polystyrene (which you may know by the Dow trademarked brand Styrofoam) may have lead you to think that all polystyrene is bad for the environment. Or perhaps you saw a news report about the health impact of Bisphenol A in certain water bottles and assumed this additive is used on all products with that plastic resin.

The truth: Put simply, plastic resin codes should not be used to provide guidance on the safety or intended use of a product, or a guarantee that a product is included in your local recycling program. In addition, many programs do not accept all forms of a certain resin (such as plastic bags made of HDPE). Luckily, most haulers and recycling centers will give you specific details on what is accepted, such as “narrow-necked bottles” and “rigid plastics.”

Myth #2: Only plastics #1 and #2 are recyclable

Foundation: PETE and HDPE are the most commonly used resins of plastic to make bottles, and they are also the most commonly accepted forms of plastic for recycling. In Earth911’s Local Recycling Directory, there are more than four times as many listings that accept plastic #1 than those that take plastic #5. Plastics #3-7 are also where you will find many of the non-bottle plastics, which typically don’t come with a recycling symbol on them.

Rumor has it: One of the biggest supporters of this myth is the curbside recycling programs we all know and love. These programs are designed to make money, and PETE and HDPE provide the highest collection value. If you use Scrapindex.com to find current rates for recyclable materials, PETE and HDPE are the only plastics included in the curbside section, and the price will drop if you have a load of plastic with other resins mixed in. But that doesn’t mean other plastics have no recycling market.


The truth: According to Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council, municipal recycling programs are beginning to see the benefit of accepting more plastics. “These communities are noticing the value of non-bottle rigid containers,” said Christman, who referenced butter tubs as an example of this newly desired product. “They are finding that they get more material by asking for all plastic bottles, regardless of the resin type.”

Material recovery facilities (MRFs) can sort out the products by resin, as can plastic recyclers that use machines to identify the different types. The numbers don’t lie: Earth911’s Local Recycling Directory has increased its listings for plastic #5 more than 67 percent in the last year, and the number will only grow as more programs adapt to the demands for all plastic. If you live in an area that still only accepts plastics #1 and #2, there may be hope for you on the retail front.

  • Many Whole Foods stores accept plastic #5 that is turned into toothbrushes and razors by Preserve. This program also accepts Brita water filters.
  • Aveda stores accept any rigid plastic bottle caps that many recyclers request you remove from the bottle prior to recycling.
  • Check with your local grocery store to see if it accepts plastic bags for recycling. While no stores currently offer a national program, about 70 percent of the material collected is used by Trex to produce plastic lumber.

“Grocery stores are a great resource for bag recycling,” said Christman. “We’ve seen 27 percent growth in bag recycling in the last two years, as consumers realize they are a recyclable commodity.”

Myth #3: There is no market for recycled plastic

Foundation: Take a look at the recycling symbol. The third arrow represents the idea of “closing the loop,” or purchasing products made from recycled content. Without a market for the material to be reprocessed, there’s really no reason to recycle it because it will eventually end up in a landfill. So if you can’t find products made of recycled content, does that mean the material is not recycled?


Rumor has it: For other materials you recycle at the curb (e.g. aluminum cans, cardboard, glass bottles), they are most likely recycled back into the same product. You can buy a soda can with confidence that the aluminum has been through multiple generations, but plastic bottles are still produced with a majority of virgin plastic. However, that doesn’t mean there is no value in plastic recycling.

The truth: “There are over 1,600 companies involved in plastic recycling in the U.S.,” said Christman. “These companies currently have underutilized capacity.” Think of plastic as the utility recyclable; it can be recycled into an abundant variety of products including automotive parts, carpet, lumber, piping and even the bins where you place all your recycling.

This demand for recycled plastic can also be seen financially. “Recyclable plastics are often worth 10 times more than paper,” Christman adds. According to Scrapindex.com, a ton of plastic #1 was also worth 10 times as much as a ton of clear glass and more than three times as much as steel cans in August 2009.

Myth #4: Recyclability is the only factor for eco-friendly packaging

Foundation: Seventy percent of plastic is made from natural gas, and it will take longer to decompose (if not recycled) than materials made with renewable resources, such as glass and paper. It is also frequently cited as one of the top forms of marine debris.


Rumor has it: There are so many variables when it comes to plastic recycling (resin type, rigid versus non-rigid), and every time a piece of plastic is not recycled, it goes to a landfill. So why would manufacturers use packaging that isn’t readily recyclable? The reality is there are other factors to consider when it comes to helping the planet.

The truth: Take the example of yogurt producer Stonyfield farms, which uses plastic #5 to package its products. As explained above, plastic #5 is recyclable but not as commonly accepted as plastic #2, which was also an option for the company. However, Stonyfield found that using PP resin resulted in 30 percent less plastic required than if it went with HDPE. That amounts to 100 tons of additional resin per year that would need to be manufactured, just to improve the chance of recyclability. Going with PP also reduced the weight of the cups, meaning less energy required to transport the cups to stores.

Myth #5: Bioplastics solve all of our disposal issues

Foundation: There are many kinds of bioplastics currently available for packaging, but they all share one characteristic: They are made with renewable materials. Some are biodegradable, some are compostable and others can be recycled with other plastics.

Rumor has it: Bioplastics do not require petroleum, so they can be seen as a way to reduce the dependence on oil. They also provide different disposal outlets that aren’t available for traditional plastics. Case closed: Let’s produce all future plastic from corn and sugar.


The truth: While bioplastics do have some green benefits, the jury is still out when it comes to disposal. For proof, call your local yard waste facility and see if it accepts these products for compost. “There’s currently a lack of infrastructure, and few communities collect these plastics for composting,” said Christman. “They also can’t be composted in your back yard.”

While these plastics may biodegrade in ideal conditions, there’s no evidence that they can biodegrade in the darkness and confinement of a landfill. So putting them in the trash may not be any more beneficial than throwing away a PETE bottle.

And since we’re on the topic of PETE, what about if you include these bottles with the rest of your recycling? While some have been manufactured to be compatible with PETE resin in recycling, including others will likely contaminate the entire load. This could mean that none of the plastic would be recycled.

Read more


Coke’s Plant-Based Bottle Hits Store Shelves
The Straight Story on BPA
What “Bio” Really Means

Earth911 partners with many industries, manufacturers and organizations to support its Recycling Directory, the largest in the nation, which is provided to consumers at no cost. The American Chemistry Council is one of these partners.

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Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.
Trey Granger

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Comments

  1. Thanks Trey – nice piece!

    One comment I’d like to add is that some plastics pose significant environmental health hazards.

    The worst plastic for our health and environment is PVC, which is dangerous to our health and environment at every stage of its lifecycle. PVC uses and releases highly hazardous chemicals such as phthalates, dioxins, mercury, vinyl chloride, and/or lead!

    In terms of recycling PVC, the recycling rates for PVC are much lower than some other plastics. PVC can even contaminate and ruin other recyclable plastics — which is why the Association of Post Consumer recyclers declared PVC a “contaminant” to other recyclable plastics. One PVC bottle can even contaminate a load of 100,000 recyclable bottles.

    The GrassRoots Recycling Network published a great report on PVC and recycling a few years ago: http://www.grrn.org/pvc/

    There’s no mistake about it — PVC is the most toxic plastic for our health and environment.

  2. The question of why curbside programs only recycle certain plastics is a lot more complicated than profitability. As a government program, we are not always concerned about the bottom line when it come to meeting our envrionmental goals (though I will say that every dollar we spend on recycling odd plastics is one less dollar for day care, visiting nurses, etc. so we try to be responsible).

    Some plastics are very hard to market in different regions of the country. It does not make environmental sense for me to truck Styrofoam to Flordia to get it recycled because of the carbon footprint of the drive.

    You also have to have markets that are reliable and will be able to take the volume of material you have 52 weeks a year.

    A final point is that the photo sensors used to detect plastic resins are very expensive and it often does not make sense to make a large investment to capture a small amount of material. Recyclers, such as I often perfer to make our investments in other projects that can divert much more material or that can remove more toxic materials form the waste stream.

    That said, Trey’s article is very good at pointing out that there are resources in our waste stream that are yet to be tapped.

  3. Your example on plastic resin myths : “Or perhaps you saw a news report about the health impact of Bisphenol A in certain water bottles and assumed this additive is used on all products with that plastic resin.” is not the best example to use, since virtually all PC is made from BPA.

    According to http://www.alliancepoly.com/polycarbonate.asp

    “Polycarbonate is most commonly formed with the reaction of bis-phenol A (produced through the condensation of phenol with acetone under acidic conditions) with carbonyl chloride in an interfacial process. PC falls into the polyester family of plastics”

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  5. Wonderfully informative article, Trey! It’s unfortunate that not every plastic container, etc., can be a #1 or a #2 recyclable that would be readily recyclable in the most places, and #6 plastic (polystyrene, a.k.a. Styrofoam) should be done away with altogether in its present form. Science should try and develop an eco-friendly, biodegradable type of Styrofoam made from something other than polystyrene.

    As for recycling plastic grocery bags, that’s a very good idea for those, who, like I, can’t seem to get into the routine of using reusable bags. Even though reusable bags are available pretty much everywhere these days, I’ve yet to see many people using them in my area. I recycle my plastic bags instead.

  6. I clicked on the link in Mike’s comment above to get more information on PVC. I find all this helpful and yet frightening. Most people who recycle plastics according to the haulers specs feel they are doing “the right” thing. I get very overwhelmed with the chemical specificities of these types of collected plastics. I could be guilty of contaminating the entire load since I do not know enough to recognize the contaminates. My hauler accepts 1-7 and sorts on site. I take some confort in knowing a process is in place to lessen the possibility of contaminates in a given batch or load. But this is no guarentee that all is being kept from the landfill. All the while, I think I’m being “a good citizen.”
    I throw my weight behind those who say the plastics industry can develop safer product. I don’t accept the excuse that they don’t know how to do that. I get it that people want an easy solution to this problem of recycling plastic. Many are waiting for the industry to provide the answers by creating safe mateials. In the meantime, recycling has a low conpliance rate in neighborhoods and communities because of this confusion over content. We know buying habits are hard to change. People will continue to purchase items they are used to buying however they are packaged. Until the consumer realizes he/she can influence the outcome by demanding safer reclycable containers, there is no end to this problem.

  7. Linda A: Styrofoam could be phased out completely as a biodegradable (in fact, edible!) alternative exists. Styrofoam-like pellets of potato starch have been in use, albeit on a limited scale, for years in conscientious packing operations. If you’re wondering why you haven’t heard about this yet, follow the money trail. The primary reason that we don’t get to enjoy a safer, cleaner world is greed. Corporations that have been pumping out Styrofoam for decades don’t want you to have the safe alternative that is readily available, they want to continue selling the old stuff. Cars are still gasoline-burners even though the Tesla Motor Company proved to the world that one doesn’t have to sacrifice power or range (or style!) with a fully electric car. Municipalities still burn coal for energy despite the glaring fact that the Sun could do it all, cleanly, for free, maybe with a little help from the wind (also free and non-toxic). Reusing grocery bags is good, but replacing them with permanent grocery totes is better, and is in fact already a popular choice for many. Here’s another trick: Reuse your plastic and aluminum wraps and your resealable plastic bags. Just rinse them off, pat them dry (with a permanent cloth, not a paper towel), and they’re ready to reuse. You can do your part to help change the situation, but you have to be diligent. Why wait for recycling to evolve to an acceptable level? With more humans and more waste to process, it never will catch up. The landfill industry won’t let it. I repeat: Follow the money trail!

  8. Plastics are highly useable in our society, however few consider that after our common uses they can be recycled into products that not only save a lot of trees but can make a far better product. Point in case are the composite railroad ties they can make now.

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  10. Pingback: Plastic Myths And What Plastics You Can Recycle | Green Eco Services

  11. Hi Trey,

    Your article on “Plastic Mythis And What Plastics You Can Recycle” was a real eye-
    opener. With curbside recycling; you can only put plastics with coding numbers 1 & 2
    out for recycling. I have been wanting to recycle other containers and plastics with
    the other numbers you mention in your article; but until I read your excellent article
    and this newsletter I didn’t realize that there is room for expansion on reusing the
    other plastics. Thank you for writing this article and taking the “myths” out of
    recycling other plastics and materials.

    I think recycling should be a integral part of everyone’s thinking!

  12. When discussing recycling programs no one ever seems to tackle the issue of why taxpayers and municipalities bear the brunt of the costs of these programs. Is this another example of the unwritten corporate rule of privatize the profits, socialize the costs? My understanding is that many municipal programs barely break even depending on the market value of each recyclable. It makes sense to me that a recycling levy could be implemented on the front end. Use a lot of batteries? Pay up front. Hit people where it hurts (the pocketbook) and give them an incentive and option to buy packaging that is less harmful to the environment. Also, businesses could be incentivized to use more recycled materials, especially when it is demonstrated to them that it goes directly to the bottom line.

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  14. Thank you Trey. This is a very informative article, and I appreciate your lean toward recycling which creates usable products, as opposed to biodegradation, which creates soil. Our society seems to have a tendency to use many products, so a stream of recyclable products once we’ve used any natural resource makes sense. I think the idea is that once we use something, we reuse it, and reuse it for as long as possible. There is a trend to use biodegradable products, but the product produced through this is a lot of soil. I know there is a need for soil, but I don’t think it justifies using any natural resource just once. I would like to see a footprint comparison of these plant based products to a well planned plastic stream. I’m also wondering if we have enough biodegradation landfills to keep the eco-cost of transport reasonable. Currently there is a possibility that we would use more petroleum to transport the biodegradable products to proper composting facilities than it would have to produce the alternative plastic product. Complicated issue.

  15. Hey if you live in Kentucky- you can recycle #6 now……Dart Container Corporation is one of the largest PS makers for cups, plates, etc…and they are now recycling post consumer…..they even offer it to their customers that buy their products like KFC, Dunkin Donuts and ETC….and they have a community drop off and stuff…..I use it a lot because if you’re going to eat fast food…you’re going to have PS….so I recycle it at their location!

  16. Why can’t plastic be deconstructed back to petroleum and the other chemicals from which it is made?
    There would be nothing more profitable and encouraging for recycling than seeing a gallon of oil coming out of recycled plastic. Can it be done?
    Also, to increase awareness of what happens in the recycling process, sanitation companies and government trash departments should have an educational program for all schools and community groups so everyone can see what happens when waste is most efficiently disposed ofand recycled. This can be speakers, videos and tours of facilities.

  17. I was told that recycling milk jugs isn’t worth anything and is pointless to waste your time and bring it to the recycling place because it will be rejected and that people only recycle for the extra change. Although I believe in recycling all plastic when you plan on bring it to a center. I just want to know why centers are so particular in what it collects and if milk is a staple in the markets. Why isnt the type of plastic a staple in the local centers?

  18. If the recylclers would pay people (like they do for aluminum cans) to bring plastics for recycling…I bet there would be more recycling going on. I don’t see too many cans along side of the highway anymore..but I am seeing a lot more plastic bottles now. If it was more profitable for individuals to pick these up and sell them then you might see a cleaner environment.

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