Recycle or Compost? Plastic Products

Plastics: Recycle or Compost?

Traditional plastics are manufactured from petroleum, meaning not only are they environmentally damaging to produce but they are also non-biodegradable: it’s estimated that most plastics will take hundreds or even thousands of years to decompose. Many plastics also release toxic chemicals like phthalates and BPA when they do start to break down. Unfortunately, plastics are a mostly unavoidable part of everyday life, so it’s important to know the best types of plastics to buy and how to dispose of them in order to minimize your impact on the environment.

When to Recycle

The best way to discard plastic is to recycle it. This not only keeps plastic out of landfills but also reduces the resources that go into producing new plastic. The recyclability of plastics depends on the type of resin used in production, which is indicated by the resin identification code found on plastic products (the familiar interlocking arrows around a number 1-7). In general, plastics marked #1, 2, and 3 are the most easily recycled and are accepted by most city recycling programs. Unfortunately, while the technology exists to recycle plastics #4, 5, and 6, it is less economically feasible, and so it can be harder to find recycling centers that accept these products. (#7 is for miscellaneous plastics and these products are also not usually accepted at recycling centers.) Of the 33.6 million tons of plastic discarded in the U.S. in 2008, only 6.5% was recycled. Another 7.7% was burned for energy, and the rest ended up in landfills.

Recycling isn’t a perfect solution, however. Most recycled plastic is turned into lesser quality items, a process known as downcycling. For example, the plastics in common household goods like soda bottles cannot be recycled back into more bottles. Instead, they are downcycled into lower quality products like plastic lumber, bags, or textile fibers. Eventually, the quality of these products degrades to the point that they are no longer recyclable, and they too will eventually make their way to a landfill.

When to Compost

Until recently, recycling was the only way to keep plastic out of the waste stream, but the development of bioplastics is poised to change that. Bioplastics are similar to petroleum-derived plastics, but they are manufactured from natural sources like corn starch or sugarcane. These plastics are compostable, meaning that under compost conditions they will break down into CO2, water, and biomass. The most common of these is PLA, which is used mainly in food takeout containers and disposable kitchenware. Otherwise, bioplastics are not widely available, although large companies like Coca-Cola and Frito-Lay are slowly starting to incorporate bioplastics into their packaging. The important thing to remember about bioplastics is that they must be composted in order to biodegrade – if they end up in landfills they will take about as long as other plastics to decompose. So if you chose bioplastics, make sure you can compost them correctly.

What Kind of Plastic to Buy

When possible, it’s best to choose biodegradable plastics: both their production and disposal are more eco-friendly. But if you do need to rely on petroleum-derived plastics, make sure to choose ones that are recyclable in your area. And whether you chose biodegradable or recyclable, it’s important to keep the two plastics separate. Bioplastics like PLA cannot be recycled alongside traditional plastics, and it costs recycling centers both in terms of money and efficiency to sort out bioplastics. Finally, make sure to encourage companies to use recycled materials by purchasing products made from recycled plastic.

Biodegradable and Recycled Plastic Products to Consider:

2 Responses to “Recycle or Compost? Plastic Products”
  1. We agree in the UK the level of plastics recycling is way too low, reduce then reuse then recycle should be the steps followed with plastics especially packaging.

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