[GRRN] All Plastics Recycling

RecycleWorlds (anderson@msn.fullfeed.com)
Tue, 15 Jun 1999 10:40:39 -0500

Veronica Torres wrote in part:

"I started this project as a result of finding a large number of plastic
items in my trash. I am fortunate that my recycling center accepts labeled
plastics #1 through #7. The only reason which I could come up with that I
should have these plastic containers in the trash is that they lacked a
label. It wasn't a large step to realize that I was going to have to ask
for companies to provide this information to consumers.

"It is interesting to find companies that are willing and able to tell you
the type of plastic they are using, but ignore requests for that
information to be placed on the package. I imagine that in some cases it
might call for a great deal of effort to comply. I wonder why they don't
bother to say that....

"Well, enough background information. I just received a nice package of
information from Tom's of Maine. I wrote to them thanking them for making
their toothpaste tubes from recyclable material and for using post-consumer
paper in their toothpaste boxes. I explained that I was not able to
recycle the cap from the toothpaste tube as it was not labeled as to which
type of plastic it contained. I asked them to label the cap."

Certainly the intent here is great to see. However, there's another
consideration that needs to be factored in to any discussion of efforts to
recover virtually all of the plastics stream when practical constraints are
brought into the discussion. Once you subtract plastic bottles made from
HDPE and PET, the entire rest of the container stream is less than 15% (and
after you subtract injection grade tubs, less than 10%).

With regard to the minor residual, it is not a good idea to ignore the
fact that its utility depends upon it being separated by resin type in
order to be re-used in a paying end market (blending it into low grade
lumber is not a paying proposition). To separate distinct resins other
than HDPE and PET botttles (and sometimes tubs), requires (1) a sufficient
volume to support the infrastructure for an additional sort; (2) a
sufficient size/weight to justify the sorter reaching down to lift it off,
(3) a visual method to immediately identify the resin by type and grade as
it passes rapidly down a yard wide conveyor belt buried among other plastic
items (which labeling does NOT provide), and (4) markets for the material.
Additionally, if we encourage the public to separate ALL plastics with
their recyclables, the practical result is to encourage a significant
increase in completely unrecyclable items that will both further drive up
sortation costs and increase contaminants that must be discarded from the

Absent all four, the costs of separating the small residual resin items
becomes astronomical. Those disprorportionate costs then become allocated
to all plastics recycling -- even the bulk of plastics recycling that can
be made (with better designs and recycled content) to have an economic
logic, and, in the process, make plastics recycling permanently
unsustainable when considered in a financial light. And, in the long run,
that is the light it will be judged based upon.

That is to say, to pursue a purist approach of pushing the recycling of
virtually all plastics, even very minor fractions of the whole, will, as a
practical matter, force the demise of all plastics recycling, even that
larger part which can be saved. Nobility ain't always the best course of


Peter Anderson
RecycleWorlds Consulting
4513 Vernon Blvd. Ste. 15
Madison, WI 53705-4964
Phone:(608) 231-1100/Fax: (608) 233-0011