Don't Recycle That Plastic 

Or, at least make sure it is recyclable before you do. That milk carton, by the way, isn't.

When cleaning up after a holiday party, do you ever wonder what is really recyclable? It's a common question — and a source of disagreement. Sure, everyone knows that glass bottles and aluminum cans go in the recycling bin. But what about that plastic bottle or cup? Or the plastic bag that your holiday gift came in or the one you got at the supermarket?

It turns out that a lot of well-meaning people toss non-recyclable plastics in with their other recyclables. They think they're being environmentally friendly, doing their part to save the planet. But somebody else is later going to have to remove that piece of plastic from the recycling stream and throw it in the garbage, creating headaches for the recycling company, and costing taxpayers down the road.

So what plastic is recyclable? Well, most plastics aren't, explained Daniel Maher, recycling director of the Berkeley Ecology Center, which handles all curbside recycling for the city. Instead, they are "downcyclable." A glass bottle can be recycled back into a glass bottle, for example. The same for an aluminum can. But that's not typically true for a plastic bottle. It's usually combined with other materials to create something else, such as carpeting or clothing. Patagonia, for example, makes fleece vests and jackets using recycled plastic bottles.

But there are limits to which plastics are even downcyclable. Plastics are identified by number, one to seven, often on the bottom of the container. This is your guide to what can go in the recycling bin. Ones and twos are usually recyclable. In fact, that's typically all that most curbside recycling programs will handle, even in Berkeley, the nationwide pioneer of curbside recycling.

Moreover, if that piece of plastic with a one or two on it also is not a narrow-neck bottle, then it's a safe bet that your city won't accept it through curbside recycling. And if you do throw it in your recycling bin, your city's recycling contractor will just send it to the landfill. For instance, Oakland only took narrow-neck plastic bottles for years, and just recently started accepting other plastics, such as margarine tubs and yogurt cups.

So what are narrow neck bottles? Among the ones, they include water and soft-drink bottles and some salad dressing bottles. In addition to fleece and carpeting, they can be downcycled into tote bags and furniture. Narrow-neck twos, meanwhile, include milk jugs and juice bottles, some bleach and detergent bottles, and some shampoo bottles. They're downcycled into pens, floor tile, drainage pipes, and "plastic lumber." Trex, for instance, mixes recycled plastic with reclaimed wood in equal quantities to fabricate plastic decking.

But what about the rest? Most of them are not recyclable through local curbside recycling programs in the East Bay. Threes, also known as PVCs for polyvinyl chloride, include window cleaner and detergent bottles, some baby bottle nipples, plastic pipes, and shower curtains. Fours, meanwhile, include squeeze bottles, shopping bags, and sandwich bags, and they typically aren't recyclable either, although some supermarkets will accept plastic shopping bags to be recycled. They can be turned into trash can liners and cans, compost bins, and shipping envelopes.

Unfortunately, however, many people put their plastic shopping bags in their recycling bins, where they end up creating havoc. Most curbside recycling centers are automated, and plastic bags often just end up clogging the machinery, Maher explained. "More than likely, they're just going to get thrown away," he said. It's a time-consuming, potentially expensive problem that, over time, results in higher in bills for taxpayers.

Another apparent common recycling mistake is "cardboard" milk and juice cartons and juice boxes, also known as "aseptic packaging." For a time, they were thought to be recyclable as paper or compostable, the idea being that they would break down naturally with yard and food waste and other dirty paper. But it turns out the cartons include plastic inner liners that may make them neither recyclable nor compostable, Maher noted. Berkeley's composter, he said, "told us they're not breaking down, and they don't want them anymore."

Fives, meanwhile, aren't typically recyclable either. They include Tupperware, syrup bottles, and ketchup bottles. By contrast, sixes can be recycled in some curbside recycling programs — although not locally. They include Styrofoam cups and plastic utensils, and they can be turned into insulation, egg cartons, and foam packing.

And finally, sevens are a catchall category, most of which are non-recyclable, including polycarbonate (hard, clear) plastics. However, sevens include some compostable products, including those made from corn starch. If you know they're compostable, then put them in with your food and yard waste.

The truth is even though some plastics are downcyclable, you're better off avoiding them altogether. They waste energy and they're generally bad for the environment. Not only are many plastics made with toxic chemicals, but recycling plastics can consume more energy than making them in the first place. The Ecology Center, in fact, has pushed unsuccessfully for years to eliminate plastic recycling in Berkeley. "We'd rather cast away the entire plastic stream and go with something more sustainable — glass, metal, paper," Maher explained.

Author's note: This story has been corrected to fix an error concerning Oakland's recycling program. Oakland now accepts plastic tubs, including margarine and yogurt tubs.

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