Why All Plastic Containers Can’t be Recycled

Feb 23, 2011 by

I frequently get asked 2 important questions about recycling.

  1. If a plastic container has a recycling symbol on the bottom of it, doesn’t that mean it’s recyclable?
  2. Why can some plastic containers be recycled and others can’t?

Both are very good questions.  Unfortunately, the answers aren’t as simple as people would like.

If a container has a recycling symbol on the bottom, doesn’t that mean it’s recyclable?

No.  Believe it or not, the recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic containers has nothing to do with if the container is recyclable or not.  The numbered symbol on the bottom is an ASTM (formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials) resin identification code that is used to help sort the type of plastic a product or package is made from – it doesn’t mean that it is actually recycled though.

Most Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs – where trash haulers take the stuff people recycle) are manually-operated and the line employees sometimes look at the bottom of containers to see what number they are and to sort them into the proper like-resin bin.  However, that’s not their primary method of sorting.  Just because a container is made from a certain resin doesn’t mean it actually gets recycled.  There are other factors involved that I’ll discuss in a minute.  Having seen MRF operations, the resin code isn’t even looked at the majority of the time by the laborers who manually sort the reclaimed materials.  (This is where questions usually start flying like “why even have the symbol then?”)


So let’s say a container has a #1 on the bottom (PETE) which is one of the most widely accepted plastics for recycling.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the container is going to be recycled which leads to the second question.

Why can some containers be recycled and others can’t?

At the MRF level, a container’s recyclability is determined by two non-mutually exclusive factors: (1) what resin it is made from (indicated by the ASTM code and triangle symbol on the bottom), and (2) the shape of the container.  However, at the macro-level, a container’s recyclability is determined by the market demand for that specific type of reclaimed product (taking into consideration both resin type and shape).

MRFs have two primary functions.  They sort collected materials and then they bale (and sell) those materials.  They can sort all the materials in the world, but if there isn’t a market to sell the materials they sort, then they are sorting just to sort – there’s nothing to do with the materials once they are nicely organized.

Since MRFs rely on people to buy the sorted materials, they are paid on the quality of the bales they produce.  The higher the quality (READ:  less contamination), the more they can typically get.  With limited resources that MRFs have, they don’t have the time or bandwidth to carefully sort every type of resin/container that comes in.  So they have to pick and choose.  And one thing they do know is that nearly all water bottles and clear narrow-neck bottles (i.e. soda bottles) are made with PETE.  They have come to trust that as near fact which also means their buyers of bales also trust it as fact.

For efficiency reasons, they collect, bale and sell all of the narrow-neck PETE bottles, but most MRFs do not do the same for odd-shaped containers even if they are made from the same PETE (i.e. plastic containers that spinach or mixed greens come in). The simple reason is that there are so many containers made from so many different types of resins that the manual laborers on the sorting lines at MRFs can’t sort every single container.  The lines move too fast and there are too many types of containers.  Even further, the economics aren’t as good for bales of containers even if a MRF claims to have a bale of just PETE containers.  The reason is because the contamination of other materials is likely to be higher in “container” bales than “bottle” bales so MRFs (1) can’t get as much money for them and (2) there aren’t as many buyers for them since buyers want clean, uncontaminated bales.

What This All Means to You the Consumer

We can put all the containers we want into our recycling bins, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be recycled when they get to the MRF.  In fact, if a container actually can’t be recycled but is sent to a MRF, it will end up being sorted by the MRF and sent to a landfill which ends up costing the MRF money (they have to pay to dump the stuff instead of getting paid to sell good quality reclaimed materials).  What’s driving this is two things:  (1) lack of widespread optical sorting technology to better sort resins and materials at MRFs, and (2) the nonexistence of a market that is willing to pay more for mixed bales.

Ultimately, however, the major driver in all of this is not enough demand for recycled materials.  If greater demand for recycled materials existed, better sorting technology would be developed at a lower cost and there would be a market willing to buy mixed bales at good economic prices.

What does this mean for consumers?  Plain and simple, BUY PRODUCTS MADE FROM RECYCLED MATERIALS! And ask retailers to carry more recycled products.  Be an activist with your wallet.  Consumers ultimately dictate what retailers sell and we need to let them know that we want more recycled materials.  The long-term effect will be that you’ll be able to recycle every shaped container in the future.

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