Plastic: A primer

When the City of Montgomery terminated its curbside recycling program, as an added “screw the Earth” bonus, it also slipped in the end of plastics recycling. As we noted a few months ago, the new inconvenient drop-off sites only accept cardboard and paper. If you’ve got glass, you’ll need to go to the Alabama Environmental Council facility up in Birmingham (although we’ve heard about some glass recycling in Auburn, but have yet to verify that – appreciate a lead from any of our readers).

If you want to recycle plastic, there’s always the AEC option. But driving to Birmingham makes a big old carbon footprint to recycle a few bottles. Other cities manage to recycle plastic just fine – ie, the surprisingly effective and progressive recycling program run by the nearby city of Troy (although they don’t do glass either).

There is, of course, a catch. The AEC and City of Troy don’t accept all plastics – just the ones with numbers 1 and 2 on the bottom. I was curious about what these numbers meant, and why the other numbers weren’t being accepted by Alabama’s pathetic meager recycling efforts.

Thanks to the Internets, I was able to figure out what the symbols mean (sort of – chemistry is not my strong suit by any means). I learned that all plastics are not the same (which I knew, but it was good to be reminded of why) and thus cannot in fact just be dumped into a big Recycl-o-Matic (such is my understanding of how this process works) to be remade into new plastic things. For those who are interested, here’s how the plastic numbers break down:

  • 1 – PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate). Seems like this is the most common, especially for water and soda bottles, because it’s cheap. Evidently it is also easy to recycle – here’s a video of a plant if you’re interested in learning more (as I was … dig that crazy pan flute music!). These bottles get shredded and recycled into things like fabric and carpet. Generally, American consumers recycle somewhere between 12 and 20% of PET bottles.
  • 2 – HDPE (high density polyethylene). Milk jugs, trash bags, detergent bottles, cereal box liners, and so forth. Evidently it can be recycled into a bunch of stuff and is very durable. Seems like it’s tougher and longer-lasting than PET.
  • 3 – Vinyl or PVC. Evidently can be recycled into useful products like speed bumps. If it were recycled. Which it rarely is. Do not burn or use to prepare food unless you really like the taste of chlorine.
  • 4 – LDPE (low density polyethylene). Plastic shopping bags and those awful dry cleaning bags (although if you’re dry cleaning, you’re already willing to accept some level of enviro-poisoning). It’s also in carpet, some squeeze bottles, etc. Can be recycled into other plastic stuff like shipping envelopes.
  • 5 – PP (polypropylene). Evidently this stuff can stand high heat, so it is often used by people who need to pour hot contents into plastic. Also evidently it’s used in a lot of yogurt containers. You know, the little individual ones that animals get their heads stuck in and then die. The Internets inform me that this kind of plastic can be recycled into ice scrapers and brooms, among other useful products.
  • 6 – PS (polystyrene). Styrofoam is one kind of this. Also egg cartons and CD cases. In the 1980s, there was a huge battle over styrofoam use by companies like McDonald’s. Of course, lots of that had to do with CFCs and the ozone layer. And look how well all that turned out. Regardless, you’ll be lucky to find any place to recycle this stuff even if you’re living outside of the Southeast (and if you are, why the heck are you reading this blog?), and even if you get it recycled it’ll only be good for filling other plastic devices.
  • 7 – Other. This category includes everything else, including hard plastics with BPA – something that the FDA has recently said it’s going to take another look at despite previous assurances that it was perfectly safe.

All of which is more in the way of a for-your-information, since there’s really no way to recycle your numbers 1 and 2 plastic here in Montgomery anyway, unless you bundle them for business/recreational trips up to Birmingham (which is what we try to do, although that is more aspiration than reality right now – fortunately, we’ve got a great big shed out back to store stuff in).

Your waste plastic is your inter-generational legacy gift to the Earth if you don’t recycle them (or maybe even if you do, especially if other folks are using the old Montgomery collect-and-dump strategy). And that’s if you’re lucky. If not, your stupid little bottles and sheets and giblets may go straight to the Pacific Gyre. And then maybe one day dissolve, messing with the endocrine systems of our friends in the sea.

There is, of course, some debate about whether it’s a good idea to recycle at all. The most famous example of this argument was made by John Tierney a while ago. You can read his article here, and then consider one of the many critiques of his piece here. There are so many alternatives to buying plastic, but it would be nice to at least have the option to recycle here in the Capitol City. The city needs to figure out how to budget for more progressive trash policies rather than following the horrifying national trend of seeing Alabama as a trash dump.


IMPORTANT NOTE: After this post was put up, alert pro-Earth commenter John P. pointed me to Mt. Scrap, which does take plastics #1 and 2. Thanks!


3 responses to “Plastic: A primer

  1. I’ve been bringing my #1/#2 plastics to Mt. Scrap, since the Advertiser story a while back said that they take them. Mt. Scrap just has bins outside its facility on N. Decatur that are available 24/7. If I’ve been wrong about Mt. Scrap, it’d be good to know.

  2. Pingback: Recycling: Home and Away « Lost in Montgomery

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