The Plastic Recycling Dilema

Recycling should be the easy way to get people involved in helping the environment. Too bad the businesses behind it are blowing it.

Anywhere from one-half to three-quarters of Americans say they participate in the environmentally virtuous act of recycling. I am one of them. Or at least I try.


The problem is that every time I open the cover of my big brown curbside recycling bin, I am confronted with an intimidatingly long list of “Don’t recycle” items. Yogurt tubs, microwave trays, clamshell containers from delis and salad bars, and disc-shaped hummus containers are all don’ts. I guiltily toss them into the trash, even though I live in hippieish Boulder, Colorado.

Most communities will recycle only plastic beverage bottles, which are marked with an often minuscule and impossible-to-read No. 1 or No. 2 on the bottom. There is no profitable aftermarket for plastics that are stamped 3 through 7 (such as the don’ts mentioned above), which are in smaller supply than the 1s and 2s that house soda, water, milk, and other drinks. But for many everyday folks, plastic is plastic, and t hey “recycle” it all. Sadly, all the things not labeled 1 or 2 get pulled out at the recycling facility and are trucked off to a big, smelly hole in the ground, where they will deposit their petroleum-based chemicals into the soil for the next 500 years.

In an age when Wal-Mart and GE are rhapsodizing about saving the environment, why haven’t we moved beyond this sort of profligate disposal? The problem is that businesses don’t want to take responsibility for making it easier for Americans to do their part.

While some 52% of paper, 36% of metals, and 22% of glass get recycled, only 7% of all plastics do, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Recyclers blame the plastics industry for this state of affairs. “They have not stepped forward to take responsibility for the end-of-life management of their product, the way glass, metal, and paper are trying to,” says Eric Lombardi, executive director of Eco-Cycle, Boulder’s recycler. “Get rid of the 25 types of plastic. Let’s narrow it down to a few that can be easily recycled.”

Plastics makers, of course, lay the responsibility at the feet of the recycling companies. “What we would prefer to see is an increase in the infrastructure at the local level,” says Steve Russell, managing director of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, the trade group representing plastic manufacturers.

Even food manufacturers that are committed to doing the right thing often get stuck. Stonyfield Farm, the Danone division that thinks of itself as a very dark shade of green, considered switching from its No. 5 yogurt tubs to No. 2, but it concluded that doing so would actually significantly increase the amount of plastic needed to make each tub, because No. 2 resin is less durable. And even more frustrating, if Stonyfield switched, most communities wouldn’t recycle them anyway — turns out that No. 2 tubs can’t be mixed with No. 2 bottles because they’re made from different chemicals. That’s probably more than you ever wanted to know about the convoluted and inefficient world of plastics.


There is some good news. Sort of. Cities such as Boston, Fort Worth, Sacramento, Los Angeles, and Cleveland have started recycling the unpopular 3 through 7 plastics, even though in some cases they’re doing it unprofitably to prevent topping off near-capacity landfills.

The less-good news is that recyclers have begun selling big, unsorted piles of plastic to Chinese companies. There have been some reports that employees in Chinese recycling facilities are exposed to toxic fumes from the materials they are recycling. Which means that my recycling options just got a whole lot more complicated. Some choice: noxious chemicals in the soil versus the health of Chinese workers. It really isn’t easy being green.