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By The Trashy Blonde
In my last article, we dabbled our toes in the history of plastic, discussed some of the finer points of correctly identifying a #1 plastic bottle, and restressed the reasons why you want to go through all the trouble to recycle. You may also remember I passed on Allen’s (the Memphis Recycling Guy) request that you start saving your #2 plastic milk/water/tea/juice jugs and bring them to the Memphis Recycling Center. And so now, intrepid recyclers, we forge ahead into the murkier waters of #2 plastics, starting with the request for jugs.
As we know, jugs come in all sizes and shapes, from small perky squeeze bottles that spit out exotic condiments, to large two-handed pourable paint buckets, there is a plastic jug for every need. Like plastic #1 (otherwise known as PETE), plastic #2 can be recycled fairly easily with current technology. #2 plastic’s official name is High Density Polyethylene, but its friends just call it HDPE. HDPE is made by super-heating petroleum oil (natural hydrocarbons) until it “cracks” and releases ethylene gas. This gas is pretty much a loner, but if you provide a super crazy catalyst named Ziegler-Natta to the mix, before you know it, the ethylene molecules are all doing the Conga and making goo. Now apply some pressure to the goo (physical, not peer), and it eventually turns into granules that can then be poured into molds to make all kinds of stuff. Tons of stuff! Not only your milk and water jugs, but car parts and water pipes and fuel tanks and plastic bags and plastic surgery and …well, the list goes on and on.
HDPE was developed in the 1950s, and is one of the most widely used plastics on earth. HDPE is tougher than #1 plastic and can stand up to more abuse as far as temperature and physical extremes. Its strong but light-weight properties have made it the go-to for innumerable manufactured products. HDEPE also maintains its integrity better than plastic #1 in the recycling journey, so what started as a milk jug, could next show up as a shampoo bottle and then eventually become plastic lumber.
Most HDPE that can be recycled will be marked or stamped with the triangular arrows recycling emblem with a #2 on it or HDPE written below it. The Memphis Recycling Center takes a lot of #2 plastic, except any #2 container that held any kind of hazardous material. How do you know what is considered hazardous? Well, if it says “hazardous” on the bottle, that’s a no-brainer. If the labeling has the words toxic, flammable, corrosive or “keep out of reach of children”, it is hazardous. If it had my home-cooking in it, it’s probably hazardous. So, no plastic containers that held motor oil, pesticides, paint/solvents, radioactive leftovers, etc. Our recycling center also cannot accept any #2 medicine bottles, regardless of whether they are the little personal prescription bottles or the over-the-counter medication bottles. This includes vitamin bottles as well. I’ve got to point out that even though there are specific bins for specific items at the recycling center, our Recycling Guys have to hand-sort the goods into the crushing machines. There have been some rather unfortunate events in the past where people have put used needles inside the medicine bottles, thinking that would be a safe place for them. So as not to put themselves at risk, the guys have opted out of this kind of #2.
Another common type of #2 plastic that they can’t accept is bags because the bags are so light- weight, they have a tendency to fly around and get stuck in all the machinery. So unfortunately, no grocery bags, bread bags or garbage bags.
So if the #2 container is not a bag, and did not hold any kind of hazardous material or medication, it should be acceptable at the recycling center. The nice thing about our recycling center is that you can lump all the #1 and #2 plastic together (although we might be asked to start dividing out the milk jugs in the near future). Common HDPE containers around my house that can be recycled are: clothes washing detergent bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, Hershey’s Syrup, French’s Mustard, Argo’s Cornstarch and Magic Shell. You will notice that the #2 bottles tend to be the sturdier colored ones. Most of my other food-containing bottles were #1 plastic. Please rinse your items and then put the tops back on, unless it has a nozzle, and in that case, throw the nozzle and its tubing away.
If your plastic did unfortunately meet any of the previously mentioned criteria for rejection, do know that the Walmart in Kirksville has a recycling bin and will accept the following:
- Retail, carryout, produce, newspaper, bread, and dry-cleaning bags (clean, dry and free of receipts and clothes hangers)
- Zip-top food storage bags (clean and dry)
- Plastic shipping envelopes (remove labels), bubble wrap and air pillows (deflate)
- Product wrap on cases of water/soda bottles, paper towels, napkins, disposable cups, bathroom tissue, diapers, and female sanitary products
- Furniture and electronic wrap
- Plastic cereal box liners (but if it tears like paper, do not include)
- Any film packaging or bag that has the How2Recycle Label on it
Do not include:
- Degradable/compostable bags or stretchy wrap (like Saran Wrap)
- Pre-washed salad mix bags
- Frozen food bags
- Candy bar wrappers
- Chip bags
- Six-pack rings
Quick reminder of why it is so important to recycle as much as we can. We, as a nation, made almost 35 million tons of plastic trash in 2017. At best, only 1/3 of the stuff that could be recycled is being recycled. According to Stanford University, one ton of recycled plastic saves 5.774 Kwh of energy, 16.3 barrels of oil, 98 million BTU’s of energy and 30 cubic yards of landfill space. If you do the math, that COULD be a savings of 202 million Kwh, which was about 5% of the entire electrical use in the US in 2017. Wow!
But what’s even better than recycling, is not using plastic in the first place if you don’t have to. Remember, plastic does not decompose. Until the last 100 years, every building material we humans used was found in nature. But once we figured out how to change stuff at a molecular level, we have gone crazy creating new materials that are not normally found on earth, with no plan on how to get the materials off the earth when we are finished with them. A little short-sighted you might say. I have noticed some advertisements by Dow Industries, the largest producer of plastic in the world, stating they are developing new technologies that create a better recycling plastic with the aim of eventually reaching zero plastic waste which will lead to a reduction of CO2 production by 50%. But even with that reduction, they would still be blowing 2,500 million metric tons of CO2 into the air each year. (Right now, the carbon atoms floating around in the air we breathe have more than doubled since 1960). Another company, PureCycle Technologies states they have figured out a way to improve the recyclability of #1 plastic -remember, before it could only be recycled one time- and they expect that their first plant (they didn’t mention in the ad when that was coming on-line) to take 119-million pounds of trash PETE and turn it into 105-million pounds of “virgin” plastic in one year. (I’m not sure what happens to the other 14-million pounds of trash plastic left over). And the fact that we make about 120 billion- not million- pounds of #1 plastic every year, they agree we have a long way to go. People are coming up with good ideas, but we are not there yet.
So bring your own shopping bags the next time you hit the grocery store. Buy veggies and fruit fresh and don’t feel like you need to put them in a plastic bag so they won’t rub elbows with your noodles. Take advantage of the farmers’ markets in the summer and can you own stuff for the winter (you can reuse those glass canning jars over and over and the rims and tops can recycle with the metal). But if you’ve got to buy some plastic, try and make sure it is a #1 or #2 and be sure to recycle it if you can’t repurpose it yourself. And don’t forget to get those jugs over to the Recycling Center where they will be much appreciated! Many thanks and see you at the bins!