As someone who works to promote recycling and waste reduction in Arlington, I am often asked questions about which plastics are recyclable, what to do about plastic bags and why we don’t simply ban plastic bags or Styrofoam© (a misnomer commonly used to identify foam items made from polystyrene plastic), the most visible types of plastic found in our environment. The answers to these questions are never straight-forward as the recycling industry is always evolving.
Plastics come in a large spectrum of grades, called resins, all with different values and markets. These different grades can be sorted from the recyclables stream via optical sorting mechanisms and then combined or separated, depending on the markets at any given time. The more fine-tuned the sorting process, the more labor and resources it takes to separate those commodities. PET (often marked #1, think water bottles and dish soap containers) and HDPE plastics (marked as #2 and commonly used for laundry detergent or milk jugs) have the most value and are usually separated out and “baled” (yes, as in a “bale” of hay) as their own commodities. Rigid plastics #3-#7 are considered lower grade plastic resins, and thus oftentimes are combined together to make a lower grade commodity bale. Recyclers closely watch the markets and decide on a week-to-week or even day-to-day basis how much they want to sort. If all plastics are low in value during a given time period, the recycler may decide to bale all grades together, as expending resources to separate them may not pay off. It is also worth noting that plastics prices are directly tied to crude oil prices.
To see a local material recovery facility at work, visit https://www.americandisposal.com/recycling where you can tour the facility virtually via an online video.
Of course, it can’t be as easy as recycling ALL #1-7 plastics. The following are examples describe plastics that should NOT go into your curbside recycle container.
- PS #6 is the code you will find on your foam, or polystyrene, cups and “to-go” boxes, as well as plastic coffee cup lids, Solo© cups, and other clear plastic cups and containers. This is a very low grade plastic and is not economically recycled, as stable markets do not exist for these materials.
- Plastic films (usually labelled as #4) are recyclable, but not at the recycling facilities used for processing curbside recyclables, as it is very difficult to “sort” this material via the mechanical methods used at the facilities. In fact, plastic bags wreak havoc on sorting equipment, causing many mechanical breakdowns and process delays for equipment clean out. The best way to ensure that plastic bags get recycled is to take them to local grocery stores or retailers, where they can be captured as a clean, separated, and specialized commodity. Other flexible plastic materials that can be recycled this way include dry cleaning bags, bread bags, flexible plastic packaging from products such as paper towels, cases of soda, cotton balls, or bathroom tissue; shipping pillows, and sealable or “zippered” plastic food bags. Note that food or cling wrap, prepared food bags or biodegradable bags should not be recycled.
Getting Rid of Foam and Plastic Bags Altogether
Some folks ask why Arlington County is not aiming to ban or tax the more problematic plastics such as plastic bags or foam containers, a move some neighboring jurisdictions—namely D.C., Prince George’s County, MD and Montgomery County, MD—have recently done. Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, local governments are only granted powers that are specifically authorized by the Virginia General Assembly. Therefore, Arlington cannot pass an ordinance of this nature unless given express consent from the General Assembly. Several bag tax bills have been proposed in recent years, but all have been defeated in the committee stage of the legislative process.
While it is good that healthy markets exist for some plastics recycling, the best option is to lessen the demand for such materials. The Solid Waste Bureau encourages you to avoid the problematic plastics described in this article, as well as single-use packaging as much as possible. Try utilizing reusable containers like stainless steel “to-go” coffee or water containers, and of course always try to bring your own grocery bags when you shop.