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Is your life too plastic? More on recycling
Recycling plastic can be more complicated than it sounds.
WRITTEN BY :   Lars Clutterham, Contributor

DOWNEY – We closed last week’s discussion with a website list of recyclables from CalMet Services, which provides trash collection and recycling for the City of Downey. That list is a rudimentary introduction to the subtleties of recycling. It includes metals, such as aluminum cans, foil, tin cans, and metal coat hangers. Also on the list are paper products such as magazines, brochures, newspapers, wrapping paper, phonebooks, cardboard, cereal boxes, junk mail, and cardboard, but not foam, egg cartons. Glass bottles and jars are mentioned as well.
Finally, with a single word, “plastics,” the CalMet list sums up all seven categories of plastic chemical configurations, each of which must be separately processed in the world of recyclable plastics. You will have seen these numbers inside the nearly ubiquitous triangle-shaped recycling arrows printed on the bottoms of plastic containers and on many types of plastic wraps and packaging.
There are six plastic resin formulas, each one with a number designation. These varieties of plastics must be reprocessed separately in order to maintain their particular characteristics upon remanufacture. Plastic designated with a “7″ constitutes an “Other” category, which is a hybrid formula that comes from remanufacturing recycled plastic that is a mixed combination of resins, and therefore is only recyclable for usage not requiring the specific properties of the pure resins.
Lest this article devolve into a chemistry lesson, it’s sufficient to say here that #1 PET and #2 HDPE plastics are the most recyclable, constituting over 50% of all plastic recycling recovery. Incidentally, according to the EPA, plastic waste generated 12 percent of the entire U.S. waste stream in 2010–31 million tons–of which only 8% was recycled. Obviously those of us committed to plastics recycling have a big job ahead.
Curiously, CalMet alludes to another plastic category on its website, which it calls “unsoiled foam cups/plates.” This reference seems to be to the plastic known to most of us by its brand name, “Styrofoam.” Styrofoam is actually expanded polystyrene (EPS), #6 PS by its category label as described above. EPS is considered not recyclable in many communities because it is both too light and therefore too expensive to reprocess in volume. So CalMet’s reference to cardboard only egg cartons on its website, as mentioned above, seems to contradict its other suggestion that foam cups and plates are recyclable.
Another ambiguity on the CalMet website is that “bottle caps” are on the list. CalMet doesn’t specify whether it means metal or plastic bottle caps. But plastic bottle caps have long been a problem for recyclers for three reasons: first, they’re small and can clog machinery; second, they are almost always of a different plastic configuration than the bottles to which they’re attached; thirdly, attached plastic bottle caps can explode and become projectiles in some recycling facilities when compressed by machinery, thereby creating a hazard to workers.
Local cities, such as Lakewood and Long Beach, provide more complete information on their websites than is available for Downey. This writer also stumbled on an impressively thorough recycling guide for Morris County, New Jersey, which addresses some of the questions raised above. So, until we can provide more specific local information, what follows is a synthesis of recyclable plastics and paper derived from other sources.
First, paper, as spelled out in detail by the Morris County recycling guide: “Recycle office paper, file folders, junk mail, envelopes, flyers, newspapers and inserts, magazines, catalogs, paperbacks and phone books, wrapping paper, paper bags, tissue and cookie boxes, paper towel cores, toilet tissue rolls, frozen food boxes, cartons and boxes used for milk, juice, soup, broth, etc., clean pizza boxes [or their clean tops], 6-pack and 12-pack cartons from soda, clean paper ice cream containers. No need to remove stamps, address labels, staples, cellophane address windows. Corrugated cardboard must be flattened.”
Less complete, but still useful, Morris County recommends recycling plastics coded #1, 2, 4, 5, and 7. This excludes #3 PVC (which has an entirely different set of recycling issues), and #6 PS (polystyrene), as discussed above. Morris County also reminds customers that containers must be empty and requests that those problematic plastic bottle caps be put in the trash.
Finally, Los Angeles Times online archives offer a fascinating and instructive photo gallery under the title, “Can I Recycle…?” which provides information on recycling everything from Ashes and Bubble wrap to Zip-loc bags. Just log onto latimes.com and search for “Can I Recycle…?”.

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Published: January 3, 2013 – Volume 11 – Issue 38



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