Know your plastics – our confusing recycling system

plastics, recyclingI find plastics very confusing. I don’t find it transparent which ones are recyclable, which ones are potentially harmful to my health and if degradable plastics really are any better. What do we do with these anyway? Do they go into the recycle bin? Do they go into the compost?

Then there is the confusing Green Dot franchise and intransparent classification of plastics into seven categories. Have you ever checked your packaging as to what type of plastic it is? If you were able to find the small triangle with the often badly embossed number – congratulations! But this still doesn’t tell you much – unless you memorise what each of these numbers stands for.

I am sure I’m not the only one who is confused about this. Doesn’t this make you wonder if there is method to it? Why is there no clearer way to distinguish between the good, the bad and the ugly and why is there no clearer strategy that will make it easy for consumers to separate their waste?

Unnecessary packaging

Ultimately, why is all this excess packaging needed in the first place? I wonder if I should simply start unwrapping and leaving all the plastics behind in my local supermarket – I easily fill my recycle bin just with unnecessary containers and wrapping – I would happily buy fruit and veg loose and if needed in a paper bag. But I guess this will require additional work at tills to identify items and weigh these. On the other side this seems to be working well in other countries where I have seen this in mainstream supermarkets. There often is a self service scales in the veg area and shoppers simply put the bar code sticker onto their paper bag. Not rocket science. Just the result of a ban on small cellophane bags? Or linked to a culture where shoppers are used to selecting, smelling, and touching food and veg individually? Why shouldn’t we be able to do something similar?

Seven types of plastics

But I am getting sidetracked. Back to plastics. My refuse collection company advises on their leaflets that all PET1, HDP2, and PP plastics can be put into the recycling bin. What the hell are these plastics? Looks like I have to do a lot of learning simply to sort my trash, hooray.

These little somewhat illegible triangular symbols at the bottom of any plastic container are the clue: All have a number, numbers 2,4,5 are considered relatively safe but 4&5 recycle poorly. plastic, recycling

Now, don’t think there is anything to feel good about placing your plastics into a recycle bin: We are only really fooling ourselves to some extent. All that can be done and only with some of the plastics is that they may see a re-incarnation as lower grade plastic, as flower pots, bins, carpet fibres, polyester fibre etc. Not really desirable

Recycable plastics:

Labelled with a ‘1’: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE or polyester)

plastic, recycling
Labelling difficult to spot

Used for foods and drinks packaging it should be a common one to come across, water bottles, meal trays e.g. for microwavable food or industrially used for tarps or textiles. There is some research indicating toxic chemicals are released into the contents, in particular when heated.

Wow I probably heat my lunchbox made out of this stuff every day.

Labelled with a ‘2’: High density polyethylene (HDPE)

Most commonly used for plastic grocery bags, yoghurt containers, shampoo bottles, cereal box liners.

Considered relatively safe, i.e. less harmful that PETE 1, that’s a relief that my shampoo bottle (just using this for drama, I’ve been using shampoo bars for years) is potentially less harmful than my water bottle and lunchbox.

Labelled with a ‘5’: Polypropylene (PP)

Heat resistant and used for hot food containers. Used for baby bottles, straws, take out trays. Relatively safe.

Not recycable:

Labelled with a ‘4’: Low density polyethylene (LDPE)

Plastic, recyclingWidely used in the household for plastic wraps for groceries, plastic cups, food storage containers. Relatively safe.

I’ve huge volume of such packaging and have loyally placed it into the recycle bin for years. Turns out these will all be fished out again and go to landfill or are incinerated. Both equally terrible thoughts. And worst: There is no need for these, it’s totally unnecessary. Should we start leaving these in store to vote with our feet?

Oh and bin contamination is a thing if soiled or the wrong plastics are mixed – this entire plastic recycling thing is a minefield!

Read more:

Green Dot

Are you still with me? It will be hard to remember these and get into the habit of checking containers for the symbols. Yes, I’ve done this and got the odd strange look for inspecting the bottom of a mushroom container. Ok, now for yet another classification system:

The Green Dot is an international symbol mainly used in Europe which originated in Germany. It really is a feel-good franchise/ marketing ploy from what I understand.

I thought any items with this symbol are recyclable. Wrong. It only means that the producer has contributed to the recycling costs. So what’s the point of this? Companies shouldn’t be able to buy themselves out of their obligations towards the environment. It just seems to be a useless badge for companies to muddle the message for consumers further (apologies for my rant).

The Green Dot symbol started with the same symbol as ‘Gruener Punkt’ in Germany. The Green Dot website states that hardly any other brand is connected with recycling by consumers more than the Greed Dot. Items with the Green Dot in Germany can be placed into recycling. Isn’t this interesting? Incoherent brand usage here, really confusing for consumers and I wonder if ultimately German Green Dot employees sift through the rubbish and pull out the LDPE plastics and send these to incineration or landfill. And consumers are fooled that everything is recyclable.

Have you ever heard of the Mobius Loop? No? Me neither. But this is the symbol to watch out for as this signifies that something is recyclable. A shame nobody has ever heard of it, nor have I noticed it on items either…

Plastic, BPA, Green dot, recycling, messBPA free plastic

So next I bought an aluminium water bottle to get rid of the potentially harmful PET plastic of my water bottle (which I am using to refill with tap water). We have learned that the empty bottle could go into the recycling bin. Turns out though that my aluminium water bottle is lined with plastic inside (boo, didn’t realise this!) – I assume this is PP plastic – but no sign anywhere to be found. However a sticker states that the plastic used is BPA free and a Green Dot is on it too. So what the hell is BPA free?

BPA is a chemical that occurs in plastics. Apparently in plastic containers (like my lunchbox?). Glad to know though that it’s not in the plastic of my water bottle lining. Wikipedia tells me that it’s used mainly in clear almost non shatterable plastics (I assume like food and drinks containers), dental fillings, sports and electronic equipment. BPA is not part of the numbered plastics classification system but mainly found in the catch all plastic numbered 7 which is non recyclable. (Have you ever tried to decipher these tiny numbers in the poorly embossed triangles in awkward spots on plastic containers?). So this really ads to the confusion. But I retain: Plastic labelled 7 is really bad – can’t be recycled and may be harmful to my health.

Plastic bags

Next confusing point is the decomposable, degradable, biodegradable and compostable plastic bag labelling. Can we not just use one that is really compostable, i.e. doesn’t just break down into smaller particles that ultimately go into the food chain? So I figure all regular plastic bags are of plastic type 2 which is recyclable. What’s the point in labelling it degradable if that’s just the nature of this plastic that it can reincarnate as flower pots? Just clever branding I guess. The only ‘good’ plastics here are biodegradable and compostable plastic bags – biodegradable take longer to break down, compostable means they could be added to your compost heap. Such bags seem rather exotic, I’ve seen them on the continent the odd time.

What next?

So we have multiple logics/systems and conflicting messaging in regards to recycling and aside from the recycling topic potentially harmful plastics. Is it this difficult to come up with (international) labelling that is clear for consumers? Introduce a Green Dot that really only applies to recyclable plastics, have a second symbol for non recyclable plastic. It will still be complicated enough for consumers to make the right health choice as to which plastic they use – some public education would help here.

Most importantly: Let’s just all try to live more sustainably and avoid these darn plastics – voting with ones feet can be powerful…