Recycling Matters Even More than You Think

April 19th 2015

Reduce, reuse, recycle: it’s a mantra that many Americans are familiar with. But the notion that recycling has a net-zero impact on the environment is misguided.

The human and environmental exposure to harmful products is under much tighter monitoring when items are recycled than when they're heaped in a landfill. However, in the hierarchy of "reduce, reuse, recycle," recycling is in the middle of the list. It is important to think about where our recycled materials go after we've put them in the blue bin.

“The public has been trained to put their stuff in their bin at the curb, and for the stuff to just go away," the Container Recycling Institute’s Susan Collins told PRI about the destination of our recyclables. "And of course there is no such thing as away -- away is always somewhere."

This is not to vilify recycling, but rather discuss human behavior surrounding recycling. We often think of it as the quick fix, when we should be taking further steps to protect the environment -- like being more conscious consumers. Here are several materials that we should all think more deeply about before purchasing, especially because of where they go post-consumption.

A tale of two plastics: No. 3 and no. 6 plastics are often bad news.

No. 3 plastics, also known as PVC (polyvinyl chloride) are a category of soft, flexible plastics used to make a variety of products from teething rings to food wrapping. Because they are relatively unaffected by water and sunlight, they are also used in outdoor applications like garden hoses and window framing.

PVC plastics contain numerous toxins that can leach out from start-to-finish of its lifecycle from being manufactured to being disposed. This includes the recycling process, where dioxins, lead, cadmium, and a host of chemicals can be released as the plastic is melted at the plant. These toxins negatively affect the health of recycling industry workers - causing skin and respiratory problems -- and can even be present in new products made from the recycled material.

(Ever wonder what happens to the plasticizers, ultraviolet stabilizers, and other additives from the original plastic when it’s recycled into eco-friendly fleece clothing? According "Cradle to Cradle" authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart, some of those chemicals are probably still in your clothes since current recycling technologies do not include the removal of all those extra chemicals.)

Research is currently being done about the risks to humans associated with these trace contaminants in our recycled products.

On top of that, there is a limited market for post-consumer (recycled) no. 3 plastics, and very little is actually recycled. Of course that doesn't mean you should forgo recycling altogether; it is still safer to recycle PVC than to incinerate it or put it in a landfill. But you should think twice before buying PVC made products, and know where the materials are going.

No. 6 plastics are also on the naughty list. Most recognizable as Styrofoam, polystyrene and expanded polystyrene release toxic chemicals when heated, too, chiefly the potential carcinogen Styrene. Few recycling centers can actually take no. 6 plastics in the first place, and some places like New York City have banned single-use Styrofoam containers. According to Eureka Recycling there is no viable recycling option for these plastics in the entire state of Minnesota -- and like no. 3 plastics, there is a limited market for what is able to be recycled.

Adding insult to injury, your Styrofoam take-out container can’t become another take-out container even if you chuck it in the blue bin. Just like PVC, no. 6 plastics can only be “downcycled,” or turned into another product of lesser quality that cannot be recycled again. So that Styrofoam cup will become packing peanuts only with the help of virgin (non-recycled) materials, rather than another cup. And it will likely release hydrocarbons in the process, helping to form the serious ground pollutant tropospheric ozone. Throwing Styrofoam in a landfill isn't much better, as the material is not bio-degradable. According to the EPA, "even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will be sitting in a landfill."

Between the toxins each of these plastics releases during recycling, the limited use for the post-consumer content, and the fact that it won't biodegrade over time, we should all say “no” to no. 3 and no. 6 plastics before even taking them home. Think about this before you shrug and think, "I'll just recycle it."

But these plastics have recycling arrows on them. Don’t recycling arrows always equal recyclability?

The recycling symbol on a plastic item actually tells us nothing about recyclability. The practice of including a number surrounded by the recycling arrows actually started in 1988 to identify basic resin types in different kinds of plastic.

Misleading? Absolutely. Environmental advocates of the 1980’s thought so too, but that didn’t stop the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) from moving ahead with the symbol anyway when they implemented the industry-wide numbering system. The recycling arrows are unregulated and can be put on any product, leaving consumers to do the research themselves or follow the guidance of slick marketing campaigns brought to you by the American Chemistry Council (and the same folks spinning PR for Big Tobacco).

What about biodegradable plastics?

While bioplastics represent a step away from petroleum -- which is used to make most plastic -- the reality of their sustainability is still complex. Los Angeles, Calif., has one of the most robust recycling programs in the U.S., but still can’t recycle some biodegradable items like the compostable SunChips bag.

“Twice a month, if not more frequently, we come across major new products that are using new materials, and we don’t readily know what they’re made of,” the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation Director Enrique Zaldivar told the Los Angeles Times. Environmental engineers have the job of figuring out if they are recyclable, and in the case of the SunChips bag, L.A. can’t break the item quickly enough in the industrial composters to accept it.

Meanwhile Dasani PlantBottles can be recycled in L.A., but it took almost half a year for the Department of Sanitation to confirm the composition of the plant-based plastic to determine if they could process them.

The lesson? Purchase bioplastics with eyes open to greenwashing -- companies spending more time saying they're green than actually being sustainable. They come from renewable resources rather than fossil fuels, but they still often contain toxic additives like plasticizers. And although they may be recyclable or compostable, they may also be going straight from your blue bin to the landfill.

Also, remember don't take receipts, concert tickets, and other goods made from thermal paper.

Do you want BPA in your toilet paper or your water? ATTN: has already talked about the damaging impacts of BPA when you handle receipts, but recycling them is harming you as well. The BPA powder on receipts is highly toxic to aquatic life, and the recycling of thermal paper products is the largest industrial contributor of BPA to wastewater treatment plants.

On top of that, not all of that BPA gets removed during recycling. Some studies report that recycled paper goods have as much as ten times the amount of BPA as virgin paper products. This includes recycled toilet paper, which was found in 80 of 99 toilet paper samples in one study.

Does this mean you should be swapping your Seventh Generation toilet paper for tissue made from old-growth trees? Absolutely not. Landfills are known to leak, leaving humans in a lose-lose situation for even using these products. Say “no” to receipts whenever possible, and insist upon electronic receipts, tickets and other items that use thermal paper. 

The overall lesson is that we need more reducing and reusing!

In almost all cases, recycling is better than not recycling. But we should be conscious to the fact that it is not the finite solution to our environmental woes and in some cases, the recyclability of items is simple greenwashing.

What can you do? You'll make an impact by avoiding specific plastics, carrying your own cutlery, and buying reusable products (instead of throw away items) whenever possible. Recycle everything you can in your municipality, while also remembering that its a band-aid not a fix. Reducing consumption is the only way to actually get control over the waste we produce and that starts at the checkout stand not at home.