7 Things You Didn’t Know About Plastic (and Recycling)

Recycling is a complicated system dictated by market demand, price determinations, local regulations, the success of which is contingent upon everyone, from the product-designer, to the trash-thrower, to the waste collector, to the recycling factory worker. We consumers play a much more critical role than we might imagine– depending on how we use our products and in what shape we throw them away, determines their value and quality post-use….

For many, environmentalism begins with the recycling symbol and ends at the recycling bin. The simple act of throwing something away into a large box marked with a recycling sign is enough to make some of us feel like we’ve done our part.

It’s like eating only half of a chocolate chip cookie– we indulge, but not that much. Similarly, our faith in the magic of the recycling bin makes purchasing and using plastic products a little more guilt-free.

But recycling is a lot more complicated, and the process of recycling plastics is significantly less transparent than the much-Googled recipe for baking cookies.

It’s a system dictated by market demand, price determinations, local regulations, the success of which is contingent upon everyone, from the product-designer, to the trash-thrower, to the waste collector, to the recycling factory worker.

We consumers play a much more critical role than we might imagine– depending on how we use our products and in what shape we throw them away, determines their value and quality post-use. Think about it. Recycled goods have to compete with new products in the market; who wants to buy something of lower quality?

I’ve spent the last five months talking to various experts in Taiwan, one of the world’s innovators in recycling systems AND major producers of plastics, to put together this list. My hope is to bring more transparency to a system inseparable from our very existence, but whose visibility often starts and stops at the trash can.

7 INFOGRAPHICS CORRESPOND TO THE 7 CLASSIFICATIONS OF PLASTICS AND DEBUNK COMMON (MIS)ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT PLASTICS & RECYCLING.

1. NOT ALL PLASTIC IS RECYCLABLE.

Plastic bags– Not recyclable.

Straws– Not recyclable.

Coffee Cups– you need a special machine; without it, no.

Keyboards– maybe, if you get it to the right person.

“Recycling” is determined by two really important things: the market and city government.Tweet this If there’s a demand in the market, then recyclers and companies will pay for your post-consumer recyclables.

But without a market demand, those recyclables are almost useless; placing them in the recycling bin won’t make a difference if you can’t make money off of them. If the demand isn’t there, or the quality of the materials post-use is incurably dirty, they end up in landfill or incinerators.

Your local government also plays an essential role. Government regulations create market opportunities for companies to recycle legally-mandated products. But every municipality is different. Before you throw something away, check what your city actually recycles.

Public investment in recycling systems, moreover, is integral to their long-term sustainability and success. While the price of purchasing a new piece of plastic is far cheaper than paying someone’s salary to manage and sort recyclables, the environmental cost is substantially greater. Subsidies, investments and public support go a long way.