Whilst eco waste recycling is far better than sending waste off to languish in landfill, there are some instances when placing an item into the recycling bin can actually do more harm than good. This is mainly because materials that cannot be recycled or that cannot be recycled together are placed into the same bin. The main culprit is plastic, as there are many different types available. Unless you’re diligent about sorting all your plastics, you could be doing more harm than good.
Did you know that plastics are chemically categorised by numbers? These are often displayed inside the chasing-arrow icon that you will see on many different containers. The two most common types are plastic #1 (polyethylene terephthalate, or PETE), which is mainly used in soft drink and water bottles, and plastic #2 (high-density polyethylene, or HDPE), which is mainly used in things like detergent bottles. Whilst plastics marked with either of these numbers are generally considered recyclable, it’s important to note that not all containers displaying these numbers actually are.
This is because many plastics actually contain additives that have been blended into the original resin. These additives will create discrepancies, even within each category. Think of it this way – every container in the supermarket has been manufactured with a unique blend of chemicals (from moulding agents to dyes) that all combine to give them their shape, colour, strength and flexibility. As a result, they will all melt at different temperatures and will respond differently to new additives. This means that they cannot be melted down and recycled together in order to make a new product – they are incompatible.
Because of this, most plastics – apart from the clear bottles that we seem to find everywhere – cannot actually be recycled by most councils. This not only applies to #1 and #2 containers, it applies to #5 (which includes yogurt and takeout containers), plastic bags and hard plastic packaging (neither of which even earn a recycling number). All of this has made sorting critical to the eco waste recycling process, especially when it comes to plastic. This can either be done manually (which is accurate but labour intensive) or automatically (which is more efficient but less foolproof).
It’s important to keep in mind that any contamination in the recycling bin will compromise the strength and durability of the recycled plastic that is ultimately produced. This, in turn, compromises its future use as a manufacturing material. After all, a recycled container needs to be strong enough to hold the weight of whether is placed inside it. As many shapes already contain weak spots where the plastic isn’t as thick (such as around a handle), this has made it incredibly difficult for manufacturers to produce containers made from a high percentage of recycled plastic. Many, however, are doing their best to achieve this.
If you’re wondering whether you should continue to recycle your plastics or whether you should just start tossing them into the landfill, it’s important that you don’t give up on eco waste recycling. Just pay a little more attention to what sorts of plastics your council collects and bring all the other types to other recycling facilities so that they can be properly sorted. Stop tossing anything remotely plastic into the recycling, as it’s doing more harm than good.