Mad ... about plastic?

So you've decided to start recycling: newspaper in this box, cans in the 'ant-proof' plastic bag, mixed paper over there, glass in the big can, and the plastics ... what about the plastics?

by Adriana A. Alba
hereas recycling most materials is relatively simple, plastics cause the most headaches. On the bottom of most plastic containers you've probably noticed an embossed triangle of three arrows enclosing a number from one to seven. You also may be aware that only certain "numbers" are recycled in your area. Where did these numbers come from? How should you deal with them?
Most important, don't ignore them! To sort or not to sort - that is not the question. By mixing plastics with different codes, some of which are not recyclable in San Diego County at all, you unintentionally will be polluting the recycling system. A clean, sorted materials stream with a minimum of contamination is necessary if recycling is to be economically viable.

The numbers game

This numbering system was created by the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc. in 1988 in order to assist material separators and recyclers in identifying and correctly sorting the different types of plastics for recycling. The SPI system identifies the plastic item's primary component, technically called a resin. The variety of resins is what makes plastic recycling so complex.
In San Diego County, plastics stamped with codes 4, 5 or 7 are not recyclable. Codes 1 and 2 are the easiest to recycle; code 3 is recycled only at certain places. Certain items stamped with code 6, known to most as "Styrofoam," can be recycled through a program at Ralph's grocery stores.
To find out which plastics are recycled and where, call the San Diego County and City Recycling Hotline, coordinated by I Love a Clean San Diego County Inc. at (619) 467-0903.
In addition, the American Plastic Council has established a toll-free Plastic Hotline to provide communities with information, such as locating handlers, reclaimers, and manufacturers of recycled plastic products. The Hotline phone number is 800-243-5790.

Consumer confusion

Coy Smith, former executive director of the San Diego Recycling Company, says this complexity can become a negative factor in plastics recycling.
"People do want to recycle their plastics and they want simplicity," he says. "Plastics recycling is not simple. Plastic is the most frustrating. The majority of the angry calls we get are about plastic recycling, which can turn people off."
Part of the problem is the difference in demand for the different types of recycled resins. Krista Henkels, recycling specialist of the Solid Waste Division of the San Diego County Department of Public Works, shares Smith's concern.
"People are anxious to recycle their plastics," she says. "Industry is happy to recycle for them. The only problem is that we don't have the infrastructure to provide a market for these recycled materials. It is very grim. Recycling locations aren't accepting plastics if they know it will not be recycled. They are very aware of what is happening in the market."

Taking off the wraps

In a recent Environmental Times survey, over 62 percent of the participants said that when they buy products packaged in plastic at the store, and see the recycling symbol on it, they assume it is recyclable. A nationwide group of consumers and officials have created the "Take the Wrap" campaign to persuade the plastics industry to stop using the recycling symbol on plastics that are rarely recyclable.
"Take the Wrap" is a project sponsored by the California Resource Recovery Association, Solana Recyclers, and I Love A Clean San Diego County Inc. Loads of nonrecyclable plastic packaging have been mailed to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the SPI which is responsible for the labeling system.
According to "Take the Wrap" sponsors, the recycling symbol appears on virtually all plastic, even though the vast majority of it cannot be recycled in the United States.
"Last year, 6.8 million tons of plastic packaging was sent to landfills and incinerators across the country," states Brooke Nash, executive director of Solana Recyclers and "Take the Wrap" organizer. "Nearly all of it sported the recycling symbol. The plastics industry has spent millions on national advertising. Their latest effort is an $18 million campaign featuring prime time television ad urging consumers to 'Take Another Look At Plastic.' "

Back to oil

The current state of plastic recycling demonstrates a classic paradox: A market for these unrecyclable plastics won't be developed until there is a reliable, economic source, yet there won't be a source until there is a market for it. However, pioneering technologists and enterpreneurs are hard at work on the problem.
The September 29th issue of the Wall Street Journal reports that researchers at the University of Kentucky's Institute for Mining and Minerals in Lexington have developed a process that turns plastics back into crude oil. By heating the plastics in a stainless steel reactor containing a catalyst, the plastic is converted to oil that "is like any crude oil extracted from the ground," according to Dr. Mehdi Taghiei, an engineer at the University. The oil then can be refined into fuel or used to make new plastics. Work is currently underway to make the process more economical. Dr. Taghiei estimates that "over 80 million barrels of oil a year" could be recovered from U.S. plastic wastes alone, about 1.3 percent of the U.S. consumption.

Adriana A. Alba is a high school student at Torrey Pines, and is editor of her school newspaper.

Plastic Recycling Codes and What They Mean

# 1 - Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
23 percent of all plastic bottles.
Used in boil-in bag foods, meat, cosmetics, soft drinks.
Recycled in fibers, textiles, fiberfills, polyester, engineering plastics.

#2 - High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
62 percent of all plastic bottles.
Used in milk bottles, liquid detergents, juices, some bottled waters, shampoos, antifreeze.
Recycled into garden furniture, drainage pipes, toys, milk bottle crates, flowerpots

#3 - Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
6 percent of all plastic bottles.
Used in: liquor, mouthwashes, shampoos, edible oils, floor polish.
Not recycled in San Diego.
When recycled, used in drainage and sewer pipes, floor tiles, truck bed liners.

#4 - Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
4 percent of all plastic bottles.
Used in: toiletries, cosmetics, food products.
Not recycled.

#5 - Polypropylene (PP)
4 percent of all plastic bottles.
Used in "hot filled" foods such as syrup (foods which are hot when put into the bottle).
Not recycled.

#6 - Polystyrene (PS)
1 percent of all bottles.
(Styrofoam - a trademark of Dupont)
Used in tablets, ointments, salves (products not sensitive to oxygen and moisture). Packaging, cups and plates, carry out containers.
Not easily recycled. Locally, you can take your 6 to Ralph's.

#7 - Miscellaneous
Everything else
All other resins and items made with mixtures and layers of different types of plastics.
Not recyclable.
Thanks to The Green Consumer, published by Penguin Books