Misconception # 1: Plastics that go into a curbside recycling bin get recycled.
- Not necessarily. Collecting plastic containers at curbside fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new containers. In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers are being made into containers again but into new secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all non-recyclable products. This does not reduce the use of virgin materials in plastic packaging. “Recycled” in this case merely means “collected,” not reprocessed or converted into useful products.
Misconception # 2: Curbside collection will reduce the amount of plastic landfilled.
- Not necessarily. If establishing collection makes plastic packages seem more environmentally friendly, people may feel comfortable buying more. Curbside plastic collection programs, intended to reduce municipal plastic waste, might backfire if total use rises faster than collection. Since only a fraction of certain types of plastic could realistically be captured by a curbside program, the net impact of initiating curbside collection could be an increase in the amount of plastic landfilled. A recent pilot program showed no reduction of plastic being sent to the landfill in the areas where the curbside collection was in operation. Furthermore, since most plastic reprocessing leads to secondary products that are not themselves recycled, this material is only temporarily diverted from landfills.
Misconception # 3: A chasing arrows symbol means a plastic container is recyclable.
- The arrows are meaningless. Every plastic container is marked with the chasing arrows symbol. The only information in the symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container.
Misconception # 4: Packaging resins are made from petroleum refineries’ waste.
- Plastic resins are made from non-renewable natural resources that could be used for a variety of other applications or conserved. Most packaging plastics are made from the same natural gas used in homes to heat water and cook.
Misconception # 5: Plastics recyclers pay to promote plastics’ recyclability.
- No; virgin resin producers pay for the bulk of these ads. Most such ads are placed by virgin plastic manufacturers whose goal is to promote plastic sales. These advertisements are aimed at removing or diminishing virgin plastic’s greatest challenge to market expansion: negative public conception of plastic as non-recyclable, environmentally harmful, and a major component of wastes that must be landfilled or burned.
Misconception # 6: Using plastic containers conserves energy.
- When the equation includes the energy used to synthesize the plastic resin, making plastic containers uses as much energy as making glass containers from virgin materials, and much more than making glass containers from recycled materials. Using refillables is the most energy conservative.
Misconception # 7: Our choice is limited to recycling or wasting.
- Source reduction is preferable for many types of plastic and isn’t difficult. Opportunities include using refillable containers, buying in bulk, buying things that don’t need much packaging, and buying things in recyclable and recycled packages
Plastic packaging has economic, health, and environmental costs and benefits. While offering advantages such as flexibility and light weight, it creates problems including: consumption of fossil resources; pollution; high energy use in manufacturing; accumulation of wasted plastic in the environment; and migration of polymers and additives into foods.
Plastic container producers do not use any recycled plastic in their packaging. Recycled content laws could reduce the use of virgin resin for packaging. Unfortunately, the virgin plastics industry has resisted such cooperation by strongly opposing recycled content legislation, and has defeated or weakened consumer efforts to institute stronger laws. Plastic manufacturers recently decided that they will not add post consumer materials to their resins used in the USA.
There is a likelihood that establishing plastics collection might increase consumption by making plastic appear more ecologically friendly both to consumers and retailers. Collecting plastics at curbside could legitimize the production and marketing of packaging made from virgin plastic. Studies of garbage truck loads during the recent plastic pick-up pilot program showed no reduction of “recyclable” plastic containers being thrown away in the pilot areas (in fact, there was a slight increase). Due in part to increased plastic use, glass container plants around the country have been closing.
Processing used plastics often costs more than virgin plastic. As plastic producers increase production and reduce prices on virgin plastics, the markets for used plastic are diminishing. PET recyclers cannot compete with the virgin resin flooding the market.