Why All Plastic Containers Can’t be Recycled

by Luke on February 23, 2011

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?”)

(Plastic recycling starts at 8:36)

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 nearly 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 get 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.

  • David Brown

    Hi Luke. I like your article. I’ve bought millions of pounds of aluminum and copper from the public in the Roanoke, VA area over the past 20 years. I field a variety of questions about recycling various products. Encouraging people to buy recycled containers is great, but above that, I encourage people to avoid containers whenever possible. And especially plastic! I know it’s light, and it doesn’t shatter like glass; but it’s a nasty OIL product!!! A great reason to avoid it, right? I have also told people time and time again that just because we take a container to a recycling center doesn’t mean it gets recycled. Many times, I’m sure they end up in landfills – although they may have been pelletized or shredded before they arrive.

    • Holly

      My recycler takes 1-7 at curbside service. If all plastics are 1-7 and 7 just means “other or mixed” why can’t they take unlabeled plastics as #7? And if they don’t have a use for #7, why offer to pick them up in the first place?

      • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke Vernon

        I knowing sounds crazy, but they pick them up usually because one of two reasons: 1) to make it easy for residents so they don’t have to worry about sorting which means the reclaimer gets a higher volume of overall material, or more commonly 2) the municipality requires that the hauler picks everything up so they can offer a broader program to residents.

  • Samantha Johnson

    Thanks for clarifying this. My husband (theflotsamdiaries.blogspot.com) is mulling this very topic over. It’s a shame that we are led to believe that putting the plastics we consume into the recycling bin is enough – it isn’t. You are exactly on point when you say that consumers need to be the driving force. We also need to take the responsibility of educating ourselves.

  • Dan Moore

    Thanks for the interesting post. I’ve forwarded it on to a couple of folks. It was jarring to me when I learned that the arrows on the bottom of a plastic container didn’t guarantee it could be recycled, so I’m glad to have a place to point people now.

  • Lilian

    Hi Lucke!
    Tks for share these informations!
    I had the same questions and sometime is hard to know the differences.
    Peace, love and health!
    Lilian

  • Kevin Castenbaum

    Might as well go back to buying styrofoam since recycling is just a myth. I never did buy into all this crap Sysco feeds me on these products being recycled or composted.

    • Luke

      Kevin, although it can be frustrating that not all plastic containers are actually recyclable, I definitely wouldn’t suggest reverting back to styrofoam. Compostable foodservice disposables are actually composted in many places and some can actually be recycled if the local MRF accepts those shapes. And in the end, it’s better to use products made from renewable resources and recycled materials as opposed to virgin petroleum like foam. If we keep asking questions and pushing manufacturers and legislators, we’ll collectively make progress.

    • Eco girl 123

      recylcing is not just a myth, you are obvioulsy just not educated

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  • Patty

    Dan, I agree with your conclusion that we should buy products made from recycled materials and ask retainers to carry them, but it is not from lack of demand that most plastic containers are not recycled, it is from lack of domestic infrastructure. In China they can (and do) recycle just about all plastic packaging. Many mixed resin bales generated in U.S MRFs go to China. In fact this study shows that more the 40% of the U.S. population has access to recycling all bottles and non-bottle plastic containers! The Chinese government has made the “Circular Society” reduce, reuse, recycle a priority in China and has invested in the infrastructure in the form of grants and tax breaks, while we here in the U.S. are not making those investments, but should be doing so to create jobs and retain our valuable resources!

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  • Turbo

    Every think can be recycled all it needs is a market and if that don’t exist create one.
    If we cant use the form think about changing it can it be changed? All this plastic must be able to be processed into blocks, blocks have a use. Construction, creation of boundaries and other such uses. I work in civils (Utilities) and see so much waste. If we cant sell it to be processed then bring the processing to the source.

    Lots of small processing can bring about 1 large change. Bring it to the house-hold. Small hand driven machines (we now have wind up lights) can be produced to reduce the plastic and paper to shreds this can be maybe reused easier. (not too small as it doe not need to get into the food chain. And does have to be manually driven as we don’t need to create more demand for electricity. There is enough energy in the over eating people in the economies of our modern countries.

    Don’t give up

  • Gigi

    Hi Luke,

    I just want to commend you on a thorough, concise explanation. I have been frustrated for too long over why the same darn plastic can’t be recycled when not “narrow neck” and couldn’t figure out what the problem was. My question is finally answered! Thanks for all you do.

  • Somebodies Dawn

    The alternative is to use less plastics. We managed for ages without plastics, so we could go back to use some packaging that isn’t made of plastic.

  • Bruce David

    The symbol number on the bottom of plastic containers, determine the resin material? So here’s a simple question, I open up a cottage cheese container and finish off the product and put some other food in it and into the fridge to store it! My “Ziplock” container has the exact symbol number on the bottom and I can reuse it to store food in it? So what is the difference???I am confused, some can reuse and some can not|? Clarification would be most helpful Bruce

    • http://www.ecoramblings.com Luke Vernon

      If it has the same number on the bottom, it’s made out of the same material. I know it’s confusing.

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