Recycling… The Right Way

by Ivy-Maria Williams

Something many people learn growing up in school is recycling. Even I remember sitting in class chanting “Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!”. We had so many projects that focused on teaching my peers and I how to care for the Earth and we were all very passionate about it too. As we grow up, we tend to lose this passion and forget how important it is to implement being environmentally conscious as we exponentially consume more.

Almost everything we use has plastic or uses materials that should be recycled. These items litter our streets, kill animals, and do so much harm to Earth in general. Did you know that 32% of plastic ends up in our oceans every year? Or that 91% has never been recycled even though it is ready to? Recycling properly may seem like a tedious task but it can become a habit and help the Earth immensely if implemented. For example, recycling one ton of paper can save 17 trees and 17,000 gallons of water. Americans alone use about 85,000,000 tons of paper a year. You do the math.

Why should I recycle?
Recycling allows us to convert typical waste products that we have used into new products. It saves resources and is better for the environment since materials are being used instead of being sent to landfills where they won’t decompose. When we do not recycle, we contribute to global pollution and deplete our limited natural resources like trees, gas, rare earth elements, water, etc. 

Items like aluminum, cardboard, paper, and plastic are recyclable but each of them have different conditions that they can be recycled in. If these conditions are not met, they clog up sorting machines and still get sent to landfills even though that may not have been your intention when discarding them. 

How do I recycle correctly?
To start, you want to make sure that there are no waste products on your recyclables. Dirty napkins, greasy pizza boxes, or bottles that haven’t been rinsed are good examples of items that cannot go into the recycling bin. You also want to remove bottle caps before disposing bottles since that kind of plastic isn’t usually recyclable.

You should check your town’s rules for recycling so you know what they take and what you should reuse. Even if they don’t collect what you wish to recycle, there still may be a place where those items are stored. 

Each plastic has a symbol on it that indicates how it should be recycled. This looks like the universal symbol with arrows rotating in a triangle but with a number 1 through 7 in the middle. Here is an explanation of each kind of symbol and what you are supposed to do with it. 

Plastic Symbol 1 - PET or PETE
Polyethylene terephthalate, also known as the most common kind of plastic used, is cost effective and easy to recycle. This item is in high demand by suppliers because it is used so much. Some items that would fall under this category are face wash, mustard, salad dressing, and water bottles. This kind of plastic can be picked up by your local recycling programs and is usually recycled into fibers, tote bags, carpets, food containers and more bottles.

Plastic Symbol 2 - HDPE
High density polyethylene is mainly used for packaging. It has a low risk of polluting rainwater or run-off water but can still be reused in a variety of ways. This kind of plastic can be found in food containers, household cleaner bottles, milk jugs and cereal box liners. It can also be found in some trash bags but it is better to bring those back to stores or keep to reuse. The other items can be picked up by your local recycling program. These items can be recycled into floor tile, fences, pens, and bottles.

Plastic Symbol 3 - PVC and V
Polyvinyl chloride and vinyl handles weathering well so it is commonly used for siding and piping. Since it contains chloride, it can be a toxic chemical so it should not be burned. This material can be recycled but mainly by plastic lumber makers. It is found in shampoo bottles, wire casing, and windows. It can be recycled into speed bumps, flooring, and cable.

Plastic Symbol 4 - LDPE
Low density polyethylene is a more flexible plastic. It hasn’t been accepted by many recycling programs but it is becoming accepted as time passes. This kind of plastic is usually found in tote bags, frozen food containers, squeezable bottles (toothpaste), and furniture. Some programs accept this plastic but it can be thrown in the trash or reused. These items can be recycled into compost bins!!! Shipping envelopes, floor tile, and trash can liners.

Plastic Symbol 5 - PP
Polypropylene is used to hold hot liquid because of its high melting point. It is becoming accepted by programs but can still be picked up by your local recycling programs. This kind of plastic is usually found in yogurt containers, medicine bottles, caps and straws. It can be recycled into traffic lights, bike racks, trays, and battery cables. Make sure these items are cleaned out before sending them to your local programs.

Plastic Symbol 6 - PS
Polystyrene is firm and foam-like. You probably know this as Styrofoam. This kind of plastic has chemicals that go into foods and is a possible cancer causing agent in humans because of its styrene monomers. This material is one the hardest to recycle and can take up to 500 years to decompose. It is commonly found in “disposable” drink cups, meat trays, aspirin bottles, and carry-out containers. This plastic should be put in a plastic bag and put in the trash but I try to avoid it entirely. It can be recycled into egg cartons, vents, rulers, and insulation.

Plastic Symbol 7 - Miscellaneous
Plastics that don’t fit into the other categories are put in this one. This plastic is shown to be a hormone disruptor so it is notorious for worrying parents. This material is found in plastic three to five gallon bottles, nylon, bulletproof materials, and phone cases. These items are not usually recycled by programs but should usually be resold or repurposed. They can be remade into custom products and plastic lumber.

You don’t need to memorize these symbols but it does not hurt to try to abide by them because it can do a lot for our planet. An even better way to recycle plastic items is to repurpose them around your home and make new items out of old ones. The benefits to recycling greatly outweigh the costs of the convenience of throwing everything in the trash. There are so many more ways and things to learn how to properly recycle but even starting small and changing your daily habits can impact the Earth and future generations that will need it.

Sources: Acme Plastics / Nat Geo / Conserve Energy Future / Conserve Energy Future: Recycle

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