A brief inspection of the consumer plastics in your home would reveal pieces with numbers and recycling symbols on them. The recycling symbol looks like a set of arrows arranged in a triangle. In the center of the triangle is a single-digit number. Did you know that the symbols and numbers are rarely found on industrial plastics? And if so, do you know why?
For decades, people have misunderstood the intent and meaning behind numbered plastics. It is a safe bet that your average consumer automatically assumes that a numbered plastic product with the recycling symbol is fully recyclable. This is not necessarily true.
Developed for Industry
Both the recycling symbol and plastic numbering system were developed in the 1980s to help industry players. To understand why, you first have to know that almost all plastics begin as petroleum taken out of the ground. Plastics are made through the process of refining raw petroleum, also known as crude oil.
There are six primary types of plastic characterized by their molecular makeup. Then there are other types of plastics that get lumped in together because their volumes are so small. The numbers (1-7) assigned to all the different plastics tell both manufacturers and recyclers what they are dealing with.
At first, the point of the numbering system was to improve consistency across manufacturing and packaging. Using a single type of plastic for packing food makes it easier for packaging manufacturers to produce their pieces. That is just one example. Consistency and standardization make mass producing plastic products more efficient and cost-effective.
Later on, once plastic recycling was launched in earnest, the recycling symbol and numbering systems made it easier for operators to separate plastics. If one company only recycled plastic numbers one and seven, they could throw everything else into the waste stream. Numbering made separation easy.
Not All Plastics Are Recycled
The public was led to believe that any and all plastics with the symbol and a number can be recycled. Technically, this is true. Every product humanity produces can be recycled to some extent. But practically speaking, that’s not reality. Not all plastics are recycled. Indeed, most are not.
If your community isn’t home to at least one company capable of recycling #5 plastics, those plastics aren’t recyclable for you and your neighbors. They go in the trash even though they have the recycling symbol and a number.
Here is what it boils down to: plastics are only recyclable if there is a private or public sector organization willing to recycle them. Without a willing recycling partner, plastics are little more than garbage. They go in the trash with everything else. Putting the recycling symbol and a number on a plastic piece is of very little value to the recycling concept itself.
It’s a Money Thing
With this new discovery that recycling symbols and numbers are not what you thought they were, you might be wondering why so much plastic doesn’t get recycled. It is a money thing. Recycling is not a free enterprise. It costs money to sort plastics, run trucks, and reduce recycled materials so that they can be reused. If you cannot sell recycled material for a high enough price to recover your costs and make some profit, there is no point in doing it.
The industrial plastic recycling we are engaged in is doable because it is profitable. Incidentally, most of the plastic we buy isn’t numbered. You will not find the recycling symbol on the pieces being sent through our shredders. The symbol and numbers are not necessary because we know what kind of plastic we’re dealing with.