Did you know there are about 40,000 different types of plastic?
The mind boggles. Though, you may have noticed that on your plastic bottles and tubes you'll see symbols and numbers indicating which variety of said 40,000 is in your hands. The simplified system is not just for our sanity, but helps us understand what is likely to happen to the material once it enters the waste stream. Which in turn, helps us make better decisions. Here are 5 myths and truths about recycling you need to watch out for.
1. Food residue doesn't really matter
If you are recycling glass jars or plastic pots, you should be washing them out. Taking two minutes to remove the sauce or nut butter from the inside of your recycling makes the process a whole lot easier for the facility on the other side. They all treat waste differently; some simply shred and blend materials as they arrive, others wash and sort onsite, whilst others send materials to specialist facilities.
According Joe Allen, chief commercial officer at recycling firm The First Mile, though it is hard to say how clean each item needs to be, the rule stands that the more contaminated something is, the harder it can be to recycle. This not only creates a less valuable material at the end of the process if the facility doesn't clean it, but requires water, energy, labour and resources when they do. Not to mention severely contaminated materials that can't be used at all jeopardise the entire waste stream when they're added to the recycling. Pizza grease for example - a smear might be okay, but saturated cardboard and paper? Not today.
2. Green circular symbols mean something is recyclable/recycled
What does this symbol mean? It looks like it could mean a product is recyclable or perhaps has been recycled once already. I definitely used to think so! But, this is called The Green Dot and it has to do with the production of the item, not the disposal. You'll see it widely used in UK and European countries. It means the producer has made a financial contribution towards the recovery and recycling of packaging generally in Europe and is essentially paying their dues towards waste management. Though again, it doesn't necessarily mean the item they're producing is able to be recovered or recycled. Survivor's guilt perhaps? The numbers on your plastic tell you about the type of resin used and give an indication of the ease of recycling.
3. Pumps on plastic bottles are recyclable
According to Recycle Now, 16 million plastic bottles don't find their way to the recycling bin. It could be because someone doesn't have access to the right facilities or simply isn't aware of recycling options. Did you know that triggers can be left on when recycling cleaning product bottles such as bathroom cleaners, but that soap bottles pumps need to be removed and disposed of in the rubbish bin? This is because of the spring vs trigger mechanism, the metal inside the pump can't be recycled with plastic. This is why opting for a refillable system at home or using plastic-free hand soap is a fun, easy and eco-friendly swap.
4. Bioplastic is the same as biodegradable plastics
Bioplastics is a whole new ball game and can get very confusing. New products are being made using bio-based materials like cornstarch or vegetable oils and sometimes it feels like a panacea. It looks like plastic, but chuck it away like an apple core and hey presto - biodegradable natural nutrients. But sadly this isn't the case.
You may have spotted the terms 'bio plastic' or 'compostable' on the lid of your takeaway coffee cup for example. Bio-based plastics are not all biodegradable or compostable. Only non-biodegradable bioplastics can be recycled, regardless of whether it is bio or fossil-based. If your coffee cup says 'compostable' on it, this does NOT go into your recycling. Often, the term compostable itself is misleading since bioplastics often require special environments, such as the ones found in carefully controlled commercial composting facilities, which meet the required temperatures for degradation to occur in a meaningful time span. If it is home compostable it should say so clearly on the packaging. If it doesn't say so and you put it in your compost, likelihood is it'll still be there years later.
Putting compostable or biodegradable bioplastic into your recycling won't work, only non-degradable bioplastics can be recycled. So look for a local compost facility, or get in touch with your local council. The worst case is that this also goes into landfill, where it won't degrade or biodegrade for a very long time.
5. Flexible tubes are recyclable
Toothpaste, sunscreen, beauty products, primers or medical tubes do not go into the recycling bin. They're a composite, which means they are made of multiple different types of material and therefore are hard to separate. Toothpaste for example, has both several types of plastic and a thin aluminium wall inside making it nearly impossible to repurpose. Generally speaking, the more pure the original item (made with one material) the more pure the end the result. Recycled plastic has very little economic value at present partially because recycled plastics are all mixed together and turn out the other side as greyish, non-translucent or even coloured nurdles. So, to steer clear, opt for glass, aluminium or reusable containers wherever possible.
The best option to help our overworked and woefully inept recycling system is to buy less, push the Government to adopt circular practices, and demand smarter use of materials from brands. Opt for plastic and package-free items wherever possible and call out companies reluctant to change. Initiatives like the 'Return To Offender' by Surfers Against Sewage encourages consumers to take snaps of plastic when out and about and post on social media, tagging SAS and the brand in question. Many companies offer refills on products and even come to your door to collect your old bottles. Plus, talking to our neighbours about better recycling habits can help to increase awareness and, hopefully, action.