It’s not your imagination: Figuring out which plastics are recyclable really is confusing | Oceana
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A person holds two plastic bottles

Around the world, nearly 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute.

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If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance that, in an effort to minimize your environmental impact, you've asked a question about recycling at one point or another.

“Are yogurt containers recyclable?” you may have found yourself, like me, typing into Google one afternoon.

A simple enough question, right?

Well, not quite. You’d be hard-pressed to find a simple “yes” or “no” answer among the nearly 400,000 search results. One of the top results is a link to a New York Times article titled “6 things you’re recycling wrong.”

Not a promising start.

Another result links to Mother Nature Network’s list of “23 things that aren’t recyclable,” which includes plastic bags, plastic wrap, plastic-coated boxes, plastic screw-on tops and any plastic item that doesn’t have a recycling symbol printed on the bottom.

Here’s where it really starts to get confusing: Click on a few more links and you’ll discover that yogurt cups are, in fact, recyclable – in theory. Many are made of polypropylene, a #5 plastic that’s technically recyclable (look for a triangle and number five on the bottom of the container) but isn't always accepted by curbside pick-up services. If your municipality refuses to take #5 plastics, your only options are to haul the containers to a place that will accept them – if such a service exists in your area – or toss them in the trash.

This is a system that places the burden of plastic reduction on you, the consumer. We’re told that if we simply recycled more often and more efficiently, we could stop plastic from flooding our landfills, rivers and oceans. However, that philosophy is fundamentally flawed for a few reasons.

For starters, as the yogurt example demonstrates, it practically requires a doctorate in materials science to determine whether your plastic takeout containers can be placed in a blue bin.

Secondly, items that are labeled “recyclable” can be deceptive. Journalist Emily Atkin, creator of the climate change newsletter HEATED, made multiple phone calls to multiple parties in an attempt to figure out whether the single-use freezer bags that come with Amazon Prime grocery orders are recyclable.

She was told that they were made of a “mixed plastic recyclable number 7 material,” only to later discover that they were made of several materials that are not easily recyclable once mixed. Of course, we only know this because Atkin took the time to investigate it. “Thank God it’s literally my job to figure out whether they’re recyclable or not, because figuring out whether they’re recyclable would have taken the average person all day,” she wrote.

When it comes to recycling, confusion is the norm. According to a survey conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), 92% of Americans do not understand the recycling labels on packages. The majority of respondents also thought that frequently unrecyclable items like plastic bags, solo cups and plastic straws were recyclable.

And there’s little room for error. When unrecyclable items are misplaced in the blue bin, they can ruin an entire load of items that are otherwise perfectly recyclable, dooming it to the dump. There are myriad other reasons why your plastic might end up in a landfill:

It’s too dirty to recycle.

It’s too small to recycle.

It’s too flexible to recycle.

It contains too much moisture.

It’s made of the “wrong” type of plastic, or a kind that’s less marketable.

It’s made of two or more types of plastic.

Thirdly, standards vary from one recycling program to the next. There are seven categories of plastic resin, and different collectors have different rules for which ones they’ll accept. If you have single-stream collection, the addition of non-plastic materials can also complicate matters. Pizza boxes, for instance, could contaminate your recyclables if they’re added to the mix – but it all depends where you live.

“For example, a pizza box in Arlington County, Va. can be recycled. But in bordering Fairfax County, Va., pizza boxes are on the list of unaccepted items,” GMA writes in its report. “So, the 69% of Americans who said pizza boxes can be recycled are right — but so are the 24% who said they cannot be recycled.”

Again, the onus is on customers to make sense of these confusing and often conflicting guidelines. Even after all this time and effort, there’s still a high probability that it will be an exercise in futility. Of all the plastic waste ever produced, only 9% has been recycled, and of that, only 10% has been recycled a second time. Put differently: Less than 1% of all the plastic waste ever generated has been recycled more than once. The rest winds up in a landfill or incinerator – or, worse still, in the natural world, where plastic breaks into tiny fragments that pollute our oceans for many years to come.

It has become increasingly clear that we cannot recycle our way out of this problem. Plastic production is expected to nearly quadruple by 2050, with the oil and gas industry continuing to pour money into facilities that make plastic resins and other petrochemicals.

While this news is discouraging, there’s a surprisingly simple solution. Industrial ecologist Roland Geyer put it best when he wrote the following for The Guardian: “The cheapest and most effective solution to ocean plastic is strangely also the one that is least talked about. It is this: making and using less plastic.”

Geyer, who has extensively studied plastic production and recycling rates, told Oceana that many people appear to be “quite horrified” by the sheer volume of plastic in their lives. “I also believe that these people would welcome action by governments and industry to help cut down on their use of plastic,” he added.

And that is exactly what Oceana is doing. Through our international plastic campaigns, we are pushing companies to give consumers more plastic-free options. We also support policies at all levels of government, from the local to the national level, that limit or ban single-use plastics.

It’s time to change the dynamic and start holding companies – not consumers – accountable for polluting our planet with wasteful throwaway plastics. Only then will we be able to enjoy a cup of yogurt without having to worry about what the packaging is made of or where it might end up.

To learn more, check out our plastics campaign page.