7 Facts about Plastics Recycling that May Surprise You

Professor Plastics

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Every semester, I ask my freshman students this question: “What simple step can you take to help the environment?”

(I also ask this at faculty meetings, which makes me a huge hit with my colleagues. Not.)

Their typical answer: recycling. Good answer. B+.

It’s true that recycling plastics and other materials saves resources, which helps protect the environment.

But is it always a simple step? Uh… no, not always. Recycling instructions can be a bit complicated, which is why Plastics Make it Possible® champions proper plastics recycling.

Here are 7 notable recycling facts about plastics that my students (and many others) often are surprised to learn…

1. Recyclers want your plastic caps and lids

Recyclers want your plastic caps and lidsThat’s right—plastic caps and lids typically are made with the same recyclable plastic as milk jugs (high-density polyethylene or HDPE). Thanks to advances in plastics recycling, you can simply put those plastic caps and lids back on their bottles and containers before you toss them in the recycling bin—they’ll be separated for recycling later.

2. You can find recyclable plastics in pretty much every part of your home

You can find recyclable plastics in pretty much every part of your homeLike most people, you probably focus most of your recycling efforts on the kitchen. But those plastic containers for detergent, bleach, toiletries, and gardening products typically are made with the same plastics as food packaging—and they’re just as easy to toss in your curbside bin. NOTE: Check with your local recycling program to find out exactly what plastics are accepted at curbside; or enter your zip code at iwanttoberecycled.org.

3. There are more than 20,000 places in the U.S. to recycle plastic bags/wraps

There are more than 18,000 places in the U.S. to recycle plastic bags/wrapsAnd your curbside recycling bin typically isn’t one of them. Instead, plastic bags and wraps can be taken to recycling bins in front of more than 20,000 U.S. grocery and retail stores. This includes bags for groceries, bread, food storage (even the sealable ones), and dry cleaning, plus shipping pillows and wraps for beverage cases and more. Just make sure they’re clean and dry. Even though lots of people are surprised to learn about recycling bins at stores, in 2016 we recycled 1.3 billion pounds of bags/wraps!

4. Robots and machines are doing more plastics recycling work

Robots and machines are doing more plastics recycling workWhile many recycling facilities still sort plastics by hand, more and more recyclers are using impressive new technologies to help make plastics recycling more efficient, such as:

  • A robot that recognizes logos and images and sorts plastic packaging at super-human speeds.
  • A machine that efficiently removes labels from plastic bottles while keeping the valuable plastics intact.
  • An infrared laser that detects different plastics for sorting and recycling.

5. Companies use recycled ocean plastics to make products for eco-minded consumers

Companies use recycled ocean plastics to make products for eco-minded consumersEveryone agrees: Plastics do not belong in our oceans. What if there were a way to help clean up our oceans while also giving used plastics another life? Well… some consumer product companies, and their eco-minded customers, have found one way. Some of the plastic litter removed from our oceans today is used to make new products such as high-performance running shoes, stylish sunglasses, and even elegant evening gowns. Ocean plastics are a resource that’s just too valuable to waste (another reason they shouldn’t be littering our oceans).

6. We’re recycling more plastics

We're recycling more plastics than ever beforePlastics recycling has grown significantly since we began measuring in the 1990s, and today we have access to recycling programs for a growing number of plastics, including bottles, caps, containers, lids, and bags/wraps (see above). According to the U.S. EPA, Americans recycled more than 6 billion pounds of plastics in 2015 (the last time they calculated)! And we can expect to recycle even more plastics in the years ahead.

7. You likely can find recycled plastic products in your favorite stores

You likely can find recycled plastic products in your favorite storesAny idea where billions of pounds of recycled plastics goes? To a store near you. Or online. Next time you’re looking for new clothing, sneakers, children’s toys, or even cooking tools, try adding “recycled plastic” to your online search. Products that give used plastics another life are easier to find than you may think.

Surprised by some or all of these recycling facts? You’re not alone.

The key lesson here (hey, I’m a professor): plastics recycling is expanding and growing due to some (often) surprising and innovative advances… and to widespread efforts by all us: product companies, recyclers, and people who pitch in.

So let’s keep pitching in to help the environment. Every day. For ourselves, our kids, their kids, and…

For more facts about plastics, check out: 7 Facts about Plastics and the Environment that May Surprise You.