Smarter: ♻️Which Plastics Are Actually Recyclable?

Top shot of circular diagram made out of different kinds of garbage separated for recycling from each other on blue background. Photo: Getty Images

In a perfect world, all the plastics we put in our recycling bins would get recycled, but (spoiler alert!) we don’t live in a perfect world. This week, I’m examining an uncomfortable truth about plastics, namely, how only certain plastics really get recycled, and the do’s and don’ts of recycling. I’m also going to talk about why you shouldn’t store your fire extinguisher under a sink and have you guess which state has accumulated the most trash in its landfills.

THE BIG STORY:

“I Was Doing Recycling All Wrong”

The time: That inevitable moment every month when your fridge forces you to do a reality check. 

The scene of the crime: A fridge half-excavated. A kitchen littered with leftovers in various stages of metamorphosis. 

The suspect: Me, disgusted, staring at a takeout container with contents that have gone past the food stage and are now squarely in the surreal stage. Mold has laid claim to my once-lunch, made a whole thriving civilization out of it, really, and its smell is, to put it in one word, memorable.

Get Smarter About Recycling & More

I have two choices. I can toss the container into the trash can and forget about it. Or I can be responsible. And by responsible I mean wash out what I’d aptly called “The Thing”—because if Stephen King could see what my lunch had turned into, he would have written about it—so I can recycle the plastic container. At that time, I believed all dogs go to heaven and everything we put into recycling bins gets recycled.

I was wrong. Well, wrong about the second part, not the first part (that will forever be indisputable, incontrovertible truth). Though perhaps wrong isn’t the right word, as it’s complicated. Turns out, plastic isn’t that easily recyclable. As I very recently found out, only about 9 percent of plastic waste is recycled, according to 2018 data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Why such a low percentage?

Before I dive into this, it’s worth noting first that some consumer plastics, such as soda and water bottles and milk jugs, do have a recycling rate that’s close to 30 percent, which is higher but still far from ideal.

The problem stems, in part, from the design. Overall, plastic is “not designed with circularity in mind,” says Jeremy Walters, sustainability ambassador for waste collection and management company Republic Services. “These products are intended to be used one time and then discarded.” 

The many additives and colorants used in the production of plastic products make the recycling process difficult, says Judith Enck, a former regional administrator at the EPA and president of Beyond Plastics, a group committed to ending plastic pollution.

Plastics as a category is also very diverse, says Patrick Krieger, the vice president of sustainability at Plastics Industry Association, an organization that represents plastics makers. There are many different applications, forms, and sizes when it comes to plastics, which makes the recycling process a bit more challenging, though currently, there are new technologies aimed at converting some of the plastics that are difficult to recycle into new plastic products. More than $7.5 billion has been invested in projects and facilities that use these advanced technologies, although more infrastructure still needs to be built to grow these technologies to a larger, more commercial scale, according to American Chemistry Council, a trade association for American chemical companies.

At this stage, these advanced technologies are still not economically viable because it’s still cheaper to make plastic from new materials than it is to reuse old plastic, according to reporting by Kevin Loria, my CR co-worker who has written extensively about plastic waste and recycling. There are, however, a few types of plastic that are easier to recycle than others. 

Which types of plastic are they?

PET plastic bottles (the bottles that water and soda are usually sold in and are labeled as number 1 in the recycling triangle) and HDPE milk jugs (the plastic jugs milk is sold in that are labeled as number 2) are recycled most consistently among the different categories of plastic due to their economic viability.

There are reliable markets for both that transform their plastics into new products. Soda and water bottles can be recycled back into more soda and water bottles, as well as fiber products such as carpets and sweaters, says Chaz Miller, who has worked for the National Waste & Recycling Association and is a member of the Maryland Recycling Network Board. HDPE milk jugs, Miller says, can be recycled into HDPE products such as detergent and shampoo bottles. 

Plastics labeled number 3 through 7 in the recycling triangle are the least recyclable, Loria says. The same thing goes for the majority of plastic bags and packaging film.

In the meantime, how should we recycle?

If not all plastics are actually easily recyclable, should we still be throwing everything into the recycling bin, as I did with that takeout container, which if I recall now was very likely not a number 1 or 2 product?

The answer is no. In fact, the act of chucking every kind of plastic into the recycling bin actually decreases the amount of plastic that gets recycled because it makes separating out the easily recyclable materials more difficult. You might think you’re helping, but you’re actually hurting the whole process.

Instead of doing that, the safest rule to stick to is recycling only number 1 and 2 plastics. But you should also check with your local recycling program to see which types of plastics it accepts, as some facilities recycle, for example, polypropylene (number 5), the plastic commonly used in yogurt containers.


DOUBLING DOWN

We now know that we shouldn’t be tossing every plastic product into recycling willy-nilly, but what are some other missteps we should avoid in our recycling?

1. The plastic bag problem. One thing you shouldn’t be doing is putting plastic bags in your curbside recycling bin, because grocery or produce bags and bubble wrap can’t be recycled in residential recycling facilities, says Walters from Republic Services.

And if your local government hasn’t specified that you should put your recycling in plastic bags, it’s best to avoid doing so, as the bags often cause problems to the equipment in recycling facilities, says Enck of Beyond Plastics.

What to do instead: When it comes to bagging your recycling, consult the regulations of your municipality. And for the recycling of plastic bags, check your grocery store to see if it has collection bins for plastic bags, as the recycling of these materials requires a special commercial process. 

You can also take your bags to a drop-off location in your neighborhood, says Perry Santanachote, a CR writer who covers recycling and whose passion for the subject has her re-sorting the contents of her apartment building’s recycling bins every time she takes out the trash.

2. Not keeping it clean. Having leftover food and liquid in your plastic containers not only is unpleasant but also might make your plastics unfit for recycling. It’s worth noting that recycled goods are a marketplace, Santanachote says, and any product that is contaminated is going to sell for a lot less or not at all.

What to do instead: Always remember to empty and rinse your recycling before you place it in the bin. 

While it’s important to recycle the right way, perhaps the most powerful thing we can do as consumers is cut down on the use of plastic to begin with. Here are some first steps to take if you want to quit plastic and reduce your environmental impact.


QUIZ

I don’t like to trash-talk people, but I don’t mind trash-talking entire states. Between you and me, which state do you think has accumulated the most trash in its landfills on a per capita basis? 

A. Texas

B. Michigan

C. Nevada

D. California


Red Fire Extinguisher

Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

DID YOU KNOW THIS?

Today I learned that you shouldn’t store your fire extinguisher under your sink, even though it might seem like a convenient place, because water leaks could damage the device. Not to mention you wouldn’t want to rummage through a mess of cleaning supplies when you’re trying to retrieve your fire extinguisher.

Here are some other things you might not know about your fire extinguisher:

🧯tip: Fire extinguishers have life expectancies, and you should replace them after about 12 years. 

🧯tip: Keep the fire extinguisher near your stove but not right next to it. Why? Because if smoke or fire is coming out of the stove, it might block your access to the fire extinguisher.


ASK AN EXPERT

Question: 
“If my phone ever goes missing, what should I do?”

Answer:
A few years ago I lost my phone in a New York subway station, and while I was fortunate enough to retrieve it hours later from a kind stranger who had found it (who said New Yorkers aren’t nice? I know, well, one person who is), not everyone gets so lucky when their phone is lost. 

If your phone has gone missing either from loss or theft, don’t panic. Here are the steps you should take, according to Melanie Pinola, a CR tech writer whose very first smartphone was 

impressively a Nokia 9000 Communicator (remember those chonky things?).

1. Find it. Well, duh, you might say, but this step is important. If calling your phone or texting it doesn’t help you find it, log on to your Find My Phone service, if you’ve set it up. For an iPhone, go to iCloud Find My iPhone. For an Android phone, go to Google’s Find My Device

If your phone is still nearby, the service can make it play a sound that’ll help you locate it. You can also use the service to lock your phone screen and display a message that contains your contact information in case someone wants to return your phone to you.

And if you’re afraid of the phone falling into the wrong hands, you can use the service to erase your phone’s data remotely.

2. Report your loss. Let your service provider know immediately so it can suspend service for anyone who’s trying to use your phone on its network. You can notify your mobile carrier by logging on to its website or app, going to one of its stores, or calling to speak to a representative.

3. Change passwords. Even if service is suspended, your phone will still be usable over WiFi. It’s therefore crucial that you change the passwords of every account you have on your phone. Start with your email and any financial or shopping accounts that have your credit card on file and then move on to your social media accounts.

4. Notify the police. If you have an insurance plan on your phone, reporting to the police will help you expedite the process of filing an insurance claim. And in case you need to dispute any fraudulent credit card charges from the stolen phone, you’ll likely need a police report as well.

All in all, it sucks to have your phone be missing, but these steps might make the ordeal a little bit less of a nightmare. 

If you have a question you want to ask an expert, email me. I’m all ears!


THE SHORT ANSWER

🚗 Should you top off your car’s gas tank? Nope.


THE GOOD STUFF

🏋️ The things we do for work.

@consumerreports Do you even lift, bro? CR test program leader Bernie Deitrick apparently does! Learn how to buy the right wall mount at cr.org/tvmount #tv #tvmount #fitness ♬ original sound - Consumer Reports

QUIZ ANSWER

The answer is Michigan. The Midwest state has accumulated the largest amount of trash in its landfills, at more than 62 tons of trash per person as of 2019. Just for perspective, 62 tons is almost 10 times as heavy as a male African bush elephant, which weighs around 13,000 pounds, and 30 times as heavy as a car, which averages just over 4,000 pounds. In plain English: That’s a whole lot of trash.


Smarter Owl Icon

"Sorry, Michigan, I’m sure you’re a very nice state on the … outside?"


Email me with any questions and tips.

• Want more? Sign up for these other CR newsletters.


Headshot of CR Author Pang-Chieh (BJ) Ho

Pang-Chieh Ho

I'm a newsletter writer who likes looking into the different ways we can live smarter. The topics I cover typically explore unanswered questions we have about the products we use every day and bridge the gaps between what owners' manuals advise and what we actually do. In my spare time, I like to take photos, critique movies out loud while I watch (at home!), and take care of my ever-increasing plant "children."