Friday January 10, 2014 | 07:56 AM
Posted by Harold Johnson

(NOTE: This post has been updated & amended on January 15, 2014. Additions noted in italic.)

Over the holidays you may have read this article on wrapping paper being/not being recyclable.

The confusion isn’t limited to wrapping paper. It permeates the entire recycling industry. Can yogurt tubs be recycled? What about bottle caps? Can paper envelopes with plastic windows be recycled? What about laminated paper? How about colored plastic jugs? Broken glass? Rusted steel?

The reason for the confusion is simple -- different recycling companies are trying different ways to get more of "the good stuff" from us.

Southern Maine’s biggest recycler, ecoMaine, has a fairly open-armed approach. For example, they will accept any numbered plastic item, from #1 through #7 (except styrofoam, which is stamped #6 but has almost no buyers).

So, out of this collection from our house...

...ecoMaine will accept every last piece for recycling!

Yay! Right?

Wait.

Here is the link to ecoMaine’s latest Recycling Committee agenda, from December (note: PDF file).

See Attachment C-1:

The valuable plastics, #1 and #2 bottles, show promise. $185 to $785 per ton. That’s a working economy.

But the first column, which makes up the majority of plastics collected, is a different story. In October 2013, the combination of all #3, #4, #5, #6, and #7 -- as well as all #1 & #2 that were not bottles -- were sold as a lump, for $4.95 per ton!

An empty big yogurt tub (#5 plastic) weighs about an ounce. If ecoMaine collects 32,000 empty yogurt tubs, it earns $4.95. The plastic in each yogurt tub is worth 1/67th of a penny.

The same is true for #4 bottlecaps, #6 SOLO cups, #5 Dunkin Donuts cups, #3 shampoo bottles. Worse, it’s ALSO true for the wrong shape #1 -- the OREO packages and strawberry containers. And #1 and #2 bottles that aren’t completely spotless also often get lumped into this catch-all junk category.

There is no viable large-scale recycling economy in the US for any plastics other than #1 bottles and #2 bottles. They’re generally dumped overseas for a few dollars a ton. There, families will pick through the plastics by hand to try to find something with residual value, in sometimes shocking conditions.

(Minh Khai “recycling village,” Vietnam: Source)

I asked ecoMaine in 2011 who buys their #3-#7 plastics. At the time they confirmed that these plastics, even if purchased by US brokers, were almost all going overseas. (NOTE: This information is now more than two years old. An ecoMaine official has suggested that this has changed. If so, I will gladly report that!

Back to our household’s “recyclable” plastics. Here’s what actually has true value, what doesn’t, and what probably doesn’t:

Depressed? Understandable.

So why does ecoMaine accept all of this if so little has value? Perhaps, by casting a wide net, making it easy for people to recycle, they hope they’ll get more of the “good stuff.” Or maybe they genuinely believe in trying to give every last piece of "waste" a shot at a second life, even material with little perceived economic value. There are worse reasons to try to recycle!

However, as with the confusion over what can be recycled, there's a lot of confusion about what "recycling" actually means. I encourage everyone who cares about waste, resources, and the planet to follow the trail beyond the recycling bin. If you believe your yogurt tub is becoming a new yogurt tub, or your dinner party's SOLO cups and plates have real economic value & a robust market, you may be disappointed.

So I put it to you: By putting everything into one bin -- much with negligible economic value & an unknown path to reuse -- are we really doing something good? I do believe that's a question worth exploring.

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About the Author

Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.

Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.

Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.

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