Recycling plastic: the trouble with being Green and Plastic Number 6

NOTE: This post was originally published on the now defunct version of “Moms Speak Up” on May 7, 2008. All posts were lost when the domain name expired. This post was retrieved via a nifty internet archive tool called the “Wayback Machine”. Archived post url.

Up to his elbows in soapy water and surrounded by pieces of the broken dishwasher, my husband Rob made a startling announcement.

“I’m giving up recycling.”

To understand my shock better it needs to be said that Rob is a greenie, a veritable Kermit the Frog shouting out the virtues of environmental responsibility in the urban jungle since a time before most people found greenness a virtue or recycling at all necessary.

What caused Rob, a die-hard Greenie, to consider giving up recycling? And how did this family solve the problem?

Two favorite Bibby family stories best illustrate the seamless integration of recycling as a value. The first involves my husband Rob’s late wife Shelley. For a time they lived in the United States while Rob worked at an oil refinery in Kansas. Already diehard recyclers, Shelley had discovered that the polystyrene trays in which portions of meat are packed at the grocery weren’t considered recyclable in the area where they were living. So she washed them and stacked them out in their shed, planning to one day to find a recycling center that would accept them. As it turned out, Rob took a job back in Canada before that day arrived, and that is how three years worth of yellow, pink and white number 6 plastic meat trays found their way to the Fort Saskatchewan Transfer Station after a journey of 1700 miles (minus the side trip to Cleveland). At her funeral, Shelley’s Auntie Dianne told the story of how Shelley filled three large packing boxes with these plastic trays and that the two gentlemen from the moving company never did know why such big boxes were as light as air.

The second story involves lunch and wax paper. I can remember my mother packing the sandwiches for my lunch in wax paper when I started school back in 1970. I don’t remember when she switched to Baggies, but with four children, I imagine it was as soon as possible. Rob’s late wife never did give in to the convenient temptation. She sent him to work with sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. I doubt that he even gave it a second thought the day he unwrapped his peanut butter and honey on sprouted grain in the cafeteria as he ate with his co-workers and boss early on in his employment at the chlorvinyl plant.

“You work for a plastics company but you wrap your sandwiches in wax paper? Way to be supportive.”

When Rob met me, the extent of my recycling was putting newspapers, cardboard and plastic milk jugs in the green Curb-It container for city waste pick up once a week. A crash course in recycling ensued because there is no curbside recycling when you live out of the city as we do now:

  • We wash glass or plastic containers and denude them of gummy labels.
  • Next, we sort them into bins. Our recycling bins are clearly labeled to prevent the different types of plastics from being mixed together.
  • Then we store the groups of plastics until their number makes the drive to the transfer station worthwhile.

Mixing plastics or failure to remove labels will contaminate the bins. When that happens, everything become trash and is simply dumped in the landfill, rendering all effort for naught.

Within the last year polystyrene, which is labeled with a 6, hasn’t been collected for recycling. It’s a plastic that has lost its luster and is slowly being phased out. Because of this recycling centers no longer take it. Bins at the area’s recycling centers are clearly marked to remind people to not toss number six plastics in with the rest of the recyclables.

The city recycling program doesn’t require people to sort the plastics. Citizens throw all their recycling into a blue bag that is collected and taken to Clover Leaf Waste Management and sorted by employees there. This way number six plastic cannot contaminate the recyclable plastics.

However, we don’t have access to this service; at transfer stations the onus is on the consumer to sort. If a bin contains number six it is tossed into the landfill in its entirety. But every time we make a run to the transfer station in Fort Saskatchewan, the bins are full of number 6, which means everything in those bins goes straight to the landfill.

And that is the reason my green-cored chemical engineer husband is ready to toss in the towel on recycling.

After blogging his frustration and meeting with sympathetic responses from fellow greenies who face the same maddening dilemma, Rob has decided that we will continue to recycle glass and paper and just try to avoid purchasing products that come in plastic containers whenever we can. Just one more compromise in a world struggling to maintain its green spaces.

Comments on the original post:

Blogversary said:

So true. Sometimes it is like fighting an uphill battle.

TGLB said:

That frustrates me, too, but what really amazes me is the people who won’t even try to recycle. We have the one-bin option from our city, too; we don’t have to sort, other than to keep the banned stuff out. Or at least it’s advised that we do so. But some folks can’t even do that. We’ve got 2 bins at work, one for pop cans, one for glass and approved plastic. There’s a gal there who won’t put her pop can into the recycle bin, despite it being inches from the trash can, because she “won’t be told what to do.” Wow–what a rebel.

I think recycling is one of those environmental things that everyone can do, and to not do so is unconscionable when it’s so easy, as it is here. You don’t have to chain yourself to a tree to help the environment; just put your damn Coke can in the right bin. How hard is it?

Silverstar said:

I lived in transitional housing for six months. We recycled aluminum cans, and that paid for the resident’s parties and stuff. Likewise, the can was inches from the trash. Likewise, you couldn’t get the ignoramuses to recycle. Oh, well. More for our descendants to mine from the landfills I guess.

Have visited yours and Robs blogs, too. It causes me no end of cognitive dissonance that green Rob works in the petrochemical industry.

Annie said:

Silverstar, cognitive dissonance. Yep, him too. A person wakes up one day and their careers and values are miles apart. Evolution.

Girl, recycling is a habit thing. If we make it super simple and almost no-effort and step that up gradually, we get some people hooked. Or, we tax the hell out of them and train them that way. High prices bring out the latent conserving tendencies in nearly everyone.

Blogaversary, uphill but not much we can do about that because it has to be done.

Thanks you all for your comments.

Izzy said:

There are a lot of people around here don’t recycle, one of them being our friend and neighbor. I ride him about it all the time and remind him that his 1 yr old daughter is going to inherit the mess we’ve created.

Beth Terry said:

>>we will continue to recycle glass and paper and just try to avoid purchasing products that come in plastic containers whenever we can<<

Here! Here! Plastic recycling is actually down-cycling. And plastic recycling gives people the mistaken impression that it’s fine to buy as much plastic as they want because they can just recycle it. But a plastic bottle does not get recycled into another plastic bottle anyway, so new plastic is needed to continue to make new bottles.

I’ve been attempting to live almost plastic-free for nearly a year. I have a list of plastic-free changes I’ve made that might be useful to you:

That said, there is a campaign to urge Clorox, the company that makes BRITA water filters in North America, to take back and recycle them. It’s already being done in Europe. Yes, the plastic gets downcycled. But if people are switching to BRITA filters to get away from bottled water, then I think it’s a good idea to make sure the plastic cartridges are not just dumped in a landfill:

Thanks for this article. I enjoyed your story!


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