I’ve been traveling through internet “eco circles” since I was a teenager, and yet it’s only been recently I caught some buzz about “fake recycling symbols” on the bottoms of most plastics. Intrigued, I set out to do some research.
Some people think that any plastic can be recycled, but I was taught that they had to at least have the number symbol on the back. That’s at least partly true. Plastic packaging like tape, bubble wrap, plastic sheeting, the toothpaste tube, candy and snack wrappers, or the big plastic bag your mulch came in, cannot be recycled. It all goes in the trash, unless you pay $199 for a company like TerraCycle to force recycle it for you. But what about the plastics that do have the numbers with the little recycling sign around it?
When I lived in Boston, I dutifully put all plastics with a number printed on the bottom in my recycling bin. I actually felt proud of how full that bin got every week. And then, strangers would come and take it away. No one ever told me that I was recycling non-recyclables. So I figured I was doing the right thing and I didn’t think a second thought about it.
When I moved to the rural area I now live in, there is no trash pick up or recycling pick-up. You have to bring it to the County Recycling Center. There the man told me that it’s only plastics with the number 1 or 2 on the bottom that are actually recyclable. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but those numbers go all the way up to 7 and very few have 1 or 2 on the bottom! Even if you do find something that has a 1 or a 2, I guarantee you that the lid of that product does not. I’m yet to find a plastic lid that is recyclable.
So is this just a regional nuance unique to my area or is it true that only plastics with a 1 or 2 on the bottom are recyclable? It turns out that across the board only 1s and 2s are recyclable unless you are okay with paying for a company like TerraCycle to recycle it. Could these be the “fake recycling symbols” I heard about?
According to the plastics industry, these symbols were never meant to be mistaken as recycling symbols, even though they are surrounded in that arrow symbol we’ve all been trained to recognize as a recycling symbol. They say that these are just symbols to denote what kind of plastic it is and is only meant for people working within the industry. Of course, they could just print “non-recyclable” underneath numbers 3 through 7 to end the confusion, but I don’t think they want that. People will keep buying non-recyclable plastics if they don’t feel guilty. But what about numbers 1 and 2? The ones that are supposedly recyclable? Are they really?
So, even plastics that are supposedly recyclable, aren’t actually. It’s not like glass where you can just keep melting it down and re-pouring indefinitely. You can only reform the most pristine plastics 1 or 2 times. And lets say someone decides to go rogue and sneaks in the wrong the number into the plastic pile to try to force it to be recycled? Well now the entire batch has been contaminated and it will all have to be thrown into a landfill.
At the very least, do recycling centers make money selling back the plastic? I used to think that recycling was a way of generating money for my city. After all, they give you a 5 cent bottle return, so the city must be making megabucks on all of this recycled plastic, right? Nope, wrong again! It’s actually cheaper for manufacturers to just use new plastic, so no one’s buying back this material. The city is making $0 on this operation. I read that it costs the tax payers in Stanford CT $700,000 to have recycling. And since we’ve already covered earlier that plastic isn’t really recyclable, it’s just a complete waste of money meant to make people feel less guilty about their consumer habits. There really is no plastic that is good or okay.
If you compost, in theory the only thing that should be going in your trash can is plastic packaging. Here at my household we fill a trash bag twice a month. The average US household goes through 22 bags per month. So clearly I’m doing better than average, but I’m still disgusted with myself. Since most of my household items are vintage, that plastic is overwhelmingly coming from food packaging from the grocery store.
You can reduce your plastic by buying the majority of your food at farmers markets or at places like the bulk section at Whole Foods using your own refillable cloth bags and not the plastic containers they want you to use. I live in Appalachia and there are no Whole Foods or Hipster refill stores. HOWEVER, we do have lots of farms and stores run by Mennonites. Mennonites have a zero-waste philosophy, although I’ve noticed how zero-waste they are can vary group to group. So this is what I’ve been doing to try to reduce or refuse packaging.
The other thing I’m doing is I’m trying to do a homesteading operation here where I grow as much of my own food as possible. I moved here in mid-April, so there was only so much I could accomplish this season. Still, I’ve accomplished more than I thought I would and I’m thinking that by this time next year I should be almost there for growing most of my own food year round. I’m planning on doing more posts on food self-sufficiency in the future.
The other thing is as you go through your purchases, start phasing in zero-waste options. So an example of this would be replacing all of your soaps (face wash, body wash, hand soap, shampoo, etc) with bars of soap. Believe it or not, but you can wash dishes with a washcloth and a bar of soap. You can easily make your own tooth paste as well. Just phase in something one at a time so you don’t overwhelm yourself. I’m currently in that process right now. First I’m using up all of the products I have on hand so as not to be a total waste, but slowly I’m replacing everything in my home with the zero-packaging or compostable versions. It’s going to take some time but I don’t see a point in getting overwhelmed by rushing the process.
Can you get to a point where you have no trash whatsoever? I’d personally love to not have a trash can in my kitchen anymore. There are all sorts of people on Youtube who have five years worth of their own trash that can sit in a single mason jar. I think getting to zero trash is probably not possible right now unless you are living in a tent in the woods. At some point a lightbulb is going to burn out and you are going to need to replace it. At some point your favorite sunglasses will break and you will have to throw them in the trash.
We all need to consume things. I buy clothes, books, tarot cards, incense, art supplies, and little things here and there that make me happy. I think it’s okay to go shopping, but we should all be working on reducing our consumption and our waste. It’s actually not that hard to get down to 1 bag of trash per week. Just keep making small changes, and remember, you can’t recycle your way out of it.