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Begin with the Bin is a public education resource developed by the National Waste & Recycling Association. The site offers information and resources related to the waste and recycling industries. Visit and learn more at beginwiththebin.org.
What do you need to know about recycling plastics?
FACT: An empty 1-gallon HDPE plastic milk jug weighs less than 60 grams, compared to 95 grams in 1970.
Plastic is an everyday part of everyday life, yet we may not realize how often we come into contact with plastics throughout our day. Since the early days of plastics recycling in the 1970s, our nation’s recycling infrastructure has grown significantly – including innovations across product manufacturing and material recovery technology. Today, over 80% of U.S. households have access to some sort of organized plastic recycling program, while nearly all Americans have access to recyclable drop-off points. In 2012, the United States generated nearly 32 million tons of plastic materials but only 2.8 million tons of that was recovered.
It’s important that individuals, businesses and communities understand how plastic recycling works.
Plastic recycling programs vary from community to community, and the type of plastics accepted for recycling can be different. It is important to take note of the types of plastics accepted in your area – these can be identified by the “Resin Identification Code.” This code is a stamped or printed number found on the bottom of plastic containers and surrounded by the recycling symbol. Plastics numbered 1, 2, and 5 have the highest acceptance rates in the U.S. Check with your local solid waste disposal or recycling provider to know what plastics are accepted in your area.
The two most-often recycled plastics are:
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) (#2): bottles for milk and other beverages, detergents, shampoos, motor oil, drugs and cosmetic products.
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) (#1): bottles for soft drinks and other household and consumer products.
Other rigid plastic containers (tubs, trays, and lids) are being accepted in an increasing number of plastic recycling programs today. In recovery processing, these plastics are broken down and used to create second-generation products ranging from fleece jackets to carpeting. As plastic recycling becomes more common, the financial and environmental incentives for communities will push more cities and towns to support residential recycling programs.
Reducing Food Waste with Plastic
Our friends at Plastics Make it Possible® teamed up with celebrity chef and television personality Duff Goldman to show how easy it is to reduce food waste using plastic packaging, storage containers, and zipper bags. By helping to keep oxygen away from food, plastics help food stay fresher longer.
Food waste is a huge problem. More than 40 percent of U.S. food supply is wasted every year. Just imagine all the time, energy, and resources involved in growing, protecting, delivering, preparing and serving that food. And then imagine simply throwing nearly half of it all away. What a waste. And imagine the impact on the environment. How is this sustainable?
Vegetables in a bag: no waste, lasts longer than unprotected greens that will be thrown out. Modified air packaging keeps oxygen away from fresh foods.
A cucumber wrapped in thin, lightweight plastic wrap might seem silly, but without plastics a cucumber lasts three days; with plastics it lasts two weeks or more.
Red peppers, carrots, etc., in plastic wrap or produce bags last longer in the grocery store and fridge.
Even proteins such as chicken, beef, fish, and tofu are protected by lightweight plastics that extend their shelf life and help prevent wasted food.
All sorts of foods come in lightweight plastic packaging, and more and more are being recycled every year.
When you do have extras or leftovers, choosing the right packaging is key.
This specially designed plastic container keeps produce fresher longer. It has a vent that allows produce to breathe, as well as a tray that separates it from moisture so my vegetables last longer.
For extra fruits and vegetables and most other foods, zipper bags that remove most of the air can save a lot of food, both in the fridge and freezer.
And I can’t imagine a kitchen without lightweight plastic cling wrap to protect everything from onions to cupcakes.
All the ingredients in this stir-fry were protected by just a little bit of lightweight plastics. It helps our bottom line and the environment.
Plastic packaging is really an investment in our food and all the resources we use to produce it.
What do I do?
Once you know what types of plastics your recycling program accepts, you should follow the “wash and squash” rule—rinse the plastic container. Paper labels can remain on containers. For plastic grocery bags, while most recycling collectors do not accept them, you can usually return them to the store. Resist the temptation to slip plastics that recyclers don’t want into your recycling bin.
How does it work?
The plastic recycling process is simple. The plastic product is washed and chopped into flakes. If mixed plastics are being recycled, they are placed in a flotation tank, where some types of plastic sink and others float. The plastic flakes are dried in a tumble dryer and then fed into an extruder, where heat and pressure melt the plastic. The molten plastic is forced through a fine screen to remove any contaminants and then formed into strands. These plastic strands are cooled in water and then chopped into uniform pellets. Manufacturing companies buy the plastic pellets from recyclers to make new products.
Plastic can also be incinerated. Incineration recovers chemical energy, which can be used to produce steam and electricity.
The Numbers: Plastics
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) Bottles Generated in 2011: 780,000 tons natural and 834,500 tons pigmented / Recycled: 222,800 tons natural (28.6%) and 286,800 tons pigmented (34.4%) 
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Bottles Generated in 2011: 2.79 million tons / Recycled: 859,000 tons (30.8%)
Source Reduction: An empty 1-gallon HDPE plastic milk jug weighs less than 60 grams, compared to 95 grams in 1970.
Source Reduction: A 2-liter PET plastic soft drink bottle weighs 48 grams, compared to 68 grams 20 years ago.