One of the questions that came up as I was preparing to sort my trash for this year’s solid waste audit was what plastics should be classified as recyclable and which as non-recyclable. In 2001 when I did my first personal trash sort this was an easy question to answer. This was back in the day when recyclable plastics were only types 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE). So the “recyclable plastic” category was just plastics with those numbers on them, and everything else was considered non-recyclable. In 2006 and 2012 it’s a little bit different because officially any numbered plastic can be put in our recycling bin. I’m a little skeptical that all types are recycled, though. I’m inclined to think that the commonly recycled plastics are sorted out and the rest are trashed, but that they tell people to put all numbered plastics in the bin to make it easier for the general population and increase recycling rates.
My understanding is that types 3 (PVC aka vinyl) and 6 (PS aka polystyrene) are not commonly recycled because of the potential for release of toxic gases during the process (that would be chlorine gas and styrene). Type 7 is the catch-all number, and includes everything from polycarbonate (of BPA fame) to the new corn starch plastic PLA, and much more. With so much variety inherent in type 7 plastics, there must be a variety of physical properties, which I would think makes it difficult or impossible to recycle type 7 plastics. As far as I know, types 1, 2, 4, and 5 are currently the only commonly recycled plastics, so those are the only ones I throw in the recycle bin. In 2006 that was also how I differentiated between recyclable and non-recyclable plastic. But for 2012 I wanted a little bit more certainty so I tried contacting the company the collects our waste to find out what actually gets recycled. The reply that I got back was confidence inspiring: “As far as I know everything is recycled except for Styrofoam.” (with no name or email signature). Not helpful. Do I take this response at its word? Or do I assume that it was someone who didn’t know what they are talking about? I suppose maybe the various types could be compressed enough combine them and make something new.
For the trash sort I worked out a compromise. “Recyclable plastic” was types 1, 2, 4, and 5. “Non-recyclable plastic, no number” was plastics with no identifying number, so that I’m not even supposed to throw in the recycle bin. “Non-recyclable plastic, 3,6,7″ was plastic types 3, 6, and 7, which are uncertain but assumed to be non-recyclable. But I’m still left with a little bit of a dilemma: do I continue throwing away types 3, 6, and 7 or do I start tossing them in the recycle bin in case the waste management company ISN’T sorting them out and throwing away. So far, we stick with the status quo. But I’d hate to think I’m throwing away what I could be recycling.