The Big Lie About Recyling of Plastics

Posted by — November 14, 2011 11:12 am

Most plastics that Berkeley residents drop in their curbside bins go straight to the landfill. - Stephen Loewinsohn

I recently read a well-researched article in the East Bay Express by Nate Seltenrich.  The article details Berkeley, California’s behind-the-scenes issues with the recycling of plastics within their community.  It further highlights the problems of the “recycle” mantra of the plastics industry.

For many years, the city of Berkeley has encouraged its residents to reduce plastic use, apparently without success.  According to, plastic that is headed towards Berkeley’s landfill has exploded, increasing 31 percent by weight between the years 2000 and 2008, while the overall waste the Berkeley residents produced, decreased by 2 percent.   The Ecology Center of Berkeley, a community based organization, has attempted to raise awareness with residents of Berkeley on what exactly belongs in blue bins, and what does not.

The kicker is this:  Berkeley Recycling Center simply does not have the facilities to recycle the various plastics it receives into its landfill. While uninformed Berkeley residents are tossing what they perceive to be recyclable plastic into their blue bins, once the bins reach the Community Conservation Centers, the contents of the bins are dumped onto a conveyor belt and the garbage is hand sorted for recylability.  Those products that aren’t recyclable are dumped into containers, bound for the landfills.  According to The Plastic Problem,    “…Only number-one and -two bottles and jugs; plastic beverage containers with California redemption values; and, during a six-month trial, number-five plastic tubs, get recycled here. All other plastics that Berkeley residents drop in their bins with the best of intentions — and there’s a lot of it — go straight to the landfill.”  That includes single-use bags, detergent jugs, drozen-dinner trays and prescription bottles — all going to landfill.

Now, this article is strictly about Berkeley, California. But do you think that Berkeley is the only community that has this issue, where well-meaning residents are tossing items into their blue recycling bins, only to have the items end up in their local landfill?  I don’t think so.  In fact, the problem seems to be nation-wide:

From Rhode Island (where they advise consumers that some products just aren’t worth recycling), to San Diego, which has a 4 page advisory of what can and can’t go into Recycle Bins.  The state of Arizona advises its residents that “just because your yogurt container or take-out container has a number and chasing arrow symbol on the bottom of it does not mean that it can be recycled.” and to confuse the matter even further,”Different plastics are used for different purposes. Some recycling centers only accept #1 and #2 plastics while others  collect numbers 1-7. Why? Numbers 1 and 2 (PETE and HDPE plastics) are the easiest to recycle. In truth, there are far fewer facilities that recycle  numbers 3-7 (in general, the higher the number, the harder it is to recycle).  Some recycling programs merely ask for numbers 1-7 in hopes that they will thereby get even more #1 and #2 plastics”


All these plastics are headed for the landfill. - Nate Seltenrich

The ACC and plastic bag manufacturers continually insist that recycling of plastics is the wave of the future and send feel-good messages that consumers who utilize single-use plastics, then put them into their blue recycle bins are doing the right thing and that their efforts will result in the repurposing of plastic into wonderful new products.

But the real truth about plastics is there is little existing infrastructure in place to handle what consumers perceive as items that should be recyclable, and the cost of building these facilities is prohibitive.
Isn’t it better for all of us and the future of our planet if we take a moment when we make our purchases?  Do we need to buy our produce pre-packaged?  Do we need to buy a TV dinner, when we could make the same product in our kitchen?  Do we need to use a plastic produce bag when buying a banana?  Do any of these decisions negatively impact our quality of life?

Please think before you buy.  Pass this thought along.  We can do this.



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