I conducted an informal survey this week on my Facebook page. I asked my friends how many people participated in curbside recycling programs and what their municipality collected.
The answers are as varied as my friends themselves. Some communities require cans, bottles, paper be separated, others take everything in one big bin. Some only accept certain types of material, and some communities do not even offer curbside recycling. The tragedy is that recycling should be simple and straightforward. Everywhere I've lived for the past 15 years had a different policy. One city accepted cardboard, another did not. One place took newspapers, but not magazines. Some cities took phone books, etc. etc. Nearly every place I lived only accepted certain kinds of plastic.
Across the board, the seemingly most confusing aspect of recycling is what to do with plastic bottles. The ubiquitous plastic bottle with a number stamped inside chasing arrows to indicate... what? What exactly do those numbers mean and why do we need bifocals to figure out the proper way to dispose of a plastic bottle?
The numbers represent the resin used to make the bottle. 96% of all bottles are either #1 (polyethylene terephthalate/PETE) or #2 (high density polyethylene/HDPE) which is good news since the market for those bottles is robust. #1 and #2 are thermoplastic polymers which means they can be reheated and reformed again. Other plastic polymers undergo a chemical change when they are heated and become rigid, making them difficult to recycle.
The lids on #1 and #2 bottles are not the same plastic, as indicated by their rigid nature. They need to be removed or the mixed plastics will contaminate the plastic during the remelting process. Also, bottles with lids contain air which keeps the bale from being properly crushed for recycling. 4800 #1 bottles make a bale of plastic for recycling. The small rings under the lids are not enough plastic to cause damage, so they may remain intact. Aveda salons accept the #5 (polypropylene PP) lids for cleaning and reuse. Whole Foods supermarkets participates in a #5 recycling program that accepts all #5 materials, including yogurt containers and drinking straws, not just lids, for recycling by Preserve company, which makes toothbrushes and kitchenware.
Other plastics like #3 (polyvinyl chloride/PVC), #4 (low-density polyethylene/ LDPE), and #6 (polystyrene/PP) are more rare and difficult to recycle. Earth911 has a search feature by zipcode to find where to recycle these plastics if they are not accepted in your local program.
Companies like RecycleBank simplify the recyling process a great deal by accepting all items for recycling in one simple bin, then paying rewards to the consumer based on pounds recycled. However, since recycling policies vary from community to community, an educated consumer is our planet's best friend.