I will never forget the first time I learned about the scientific magic called recycling. As an African, I have a complete understanding that nothing should ever go to waste and every material should be reused until its “life cycle” is over. When I first moved to the United States, I couldn’t help but see all the blue trash cans which boldly stated “we recycle”. Even more ironic was that even the recyclable bins were made of plastic! Sometimes, the containers listed rules to follow teaching us how to recycle correctly. The moment you did not follow the rules of recycling, some people would look at you like you just committed a heinous blunder. With all this in mind, it is not to say that I am not in support of “going green”. I just think it is time that we understand the true consequences of our unapologetic plastic life with the excuse of recycling. Sometime ago, while I was trying to sell the idea of using reusable water bottles and tote bags rather than disposable plastic water bottles and bags to my friend, she said “Joyce, it is not like I do not recycle. I recycle every plastic that I use, so do not make me feel guilty. I am all for going green in America.” Those words, which echoed in my mind, could only helped me to believe that recycling helps people justify their actions when they use plastics.
According to the American Chemical Association, plastics are synthetic polymers that are made from several smaller molecules known as monomers. Different plastics contain different combinations of around 500 to 20,000 repeating units of monomers made using a polymerization reaction. In the 1950s, after the Second World War, plastics were seen as expensive and classy products only obtainable by the rich. Today, the production cost of plastics have greatly reduced, making them inexpensive commodities available to everyone in some form or another. In America, many products, including our cars, phones, clothes, utensils, homes and medical equipment, are made up of different types of plastic. While there are many good uses of this synthetic polymer, a key disadvantage is the creation of more non-biodegradable waste. In order to tackle this problem, recycling was introduced in society. Recycling promises a “great” alternative for us to use plastics while convincing ourselves that “because we recycle” we are not creating harm to the environment.
The truth, however, is that not all plastics recyclable. Just like molecules, different plastics have different melting points, meaning that they can only be recycled together if they contain the same type of synthetic polymer. According to Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), there are major classifications of plastics: low density polyethylene found in plastic bags, high-density polyethylene found in milk bottles, polyvinyl chloride found in shower curtains and medical IV bags, polypropylene found in Monobloc chairs, polystyrene found in hard plastics or foam, polyethylene terephthalate found in soda bottles, and polycarbonate found in hard clear plastics. All plastic materials are given an identification code issued by the SPI, in order to determine the type of organic compound used and how to better recycle them. For instance, polyethylene terephthalate has an identification code of 1, high-density polyethylene has a code of 2, poly vinyl chloride has a code of 3, low density polyethylene has a code of 4, polypropylene has a code of 5, and polystyrene has a code of 6. The American Plastics Council (APC) states that about 50% of the communities in the United States have recycling centers for plastics. Although these programs support recycling, some of them only collect certain types of plastics while others get disposed in the landfill. Cleanup organizations report that in most communities, only plastics with identification codes 1, 2 and 3 are recycled. Low density polyethylene (plastic bags) are rarely recycled because they can easily get stuck in the sorting machine, causing it to potentially break down.
Have you ever observed how the cap of the disposable water bottle is thicker that its body? According to the American Chemical Association, lids and bottle caps are not recycled with their significant bottles because they are not made of the same plastic that is used to make the body of the bottle. Another group of synthetic polymer that cannot be recycled is the polystyrene foam. While it is important to you to have that hot coffee in a polystyrene (Styrofoam) cup, always note that it is impossible to recycle it because the recycling process is not economically feasible. According to the cleanup organization, polystyrene can only be made into Styrofoam trays, and to make one tray, many foam cups will have to be used, leading to consumption of more resources and the creation of more pollution.
Another one of the major setbacks to recycling is contamination. When plastics are contaminated by food, cooking oil, and grease, recycling costs are affected as the contaminants have to be washed out before the plastic can be recycled. This can also affect the water usage in the United States, and seeing that California is in a drought, our water can be used for other, more important chores. Sometimes, contaminated plastics can pollute other materials in the recycling bin, which can lead to these materials not getting reprocessed. Disposable nappies and syringes are two other plastic based products which cannot be recycled as a result of contamination and processing costs. According to Good Housekeeping, polycarbonates and polylactides with code number 7 are not consistently recycled because they have a different organic composition from other plastics. Polylactide plastics are made from plants, so they are considered to biodegradable and hence not recycled.
Next time you walk over to a recycling bin to put in your plastic material, always remember that there are hidden rules that recyclable plastics follow, beyond those on the written on the bin. While we pat ourselves on the back every time we recycle, it is important to know that recycling will not completely solve the issue of our dependency on plastics. It is time we pay adequate attention to what we buy, use and recycle. As a consumer, we have the power to change what big corporations are selling. If we make a pledge to gradually switch from being plastic dependent individuals to investing in other non-plastic alternatives, companies will likely invest in the production of strong, reusable containers and plastic free materials. Also, while we are campaigning for recycling and feeling good about it, we should all be campaigners of “stop the plasticity” and “free the plastic” as well.
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Washam, Cynthia. “Plastics Go Green.” Www.acs.org. American Chemical Association, n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
The Society Of The Plastics Industry (SPI) Established A Classification System In 1988 To Allow. Different types of plastics and their classification (n.d.): n. pag. Web.
Plastics Recycling. Hartford: Connecticut Dept. of Environmental Protection, 1993. Web.
“What Plastic Recycling Codes Mean.” Good Housekeeping. N.p., 25 Nov. 2008. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.
“LessIsMore.org: Santa Barbara County’s Recycling Resource.” Plastics Recycling. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Nov. 2015.