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astute advice on all things green

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Plastic Not-so-Fantastic
Wednesday, Mar 10, 2004 (02:01 PM)

Dear Umbra,

It seems so complicated. The recycler will take the bottle with this number but not the bottle with that number. Cardboard is OK, but not the type of cardboard used in a freezer package. Are there any simple "one, two, threes" of recycling knowledge, or recycling steps, which one should know or practice?

Trying

Dearest Trying,

Thank you for trying, Trying. I can't give you a simple answer, but I can encourage you to continue asking good questions.

The country is riddled with recycling microclimates, I'm sorry to tell you. Not only is one city's garbage another city's recycling, but your town could change its tune tonight and you could wake tomorrow in the world of All Bottle recycling. No universal rules apply — the only "one, two, threes" are on the bottles — but perhaps if I explain why it will ease your troubled mind.

City (or town, or county) recyclables are gathered up, sorted, and sold as reusable material. Cities want to design a system that diverts easily re-sellable materials out of the trash stream, provides a good service for residents, and, if all goes well, breaks even.

A material is re-sellable based on market forces related to demand and volume. For example, aluminum is in high demand, and beer cans are frequently emptied by thirsty townspeople, so towns have no trouble wrangling enough beer cans to sell. In contrast, the folks at GreenDisk told me that it takes about 40,000 to 44,000 pounds (!) of compact discs to make one standard container of shredded, sellable plastic — thatís around 1.2 million CDs. So it's not worth any city's while to pick up discarded Bon Jovi albums, as they can't get enough volume in one swoop to make their money back.

Your city only asks for recyclables that are used in high amounts, recycled in high amounts, and easy to re-sell. Iím guessing you can recycle #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) bottles: these are common hard plastics that can be shredded and transformed into benches and such. Any plastic that would disintegrate when shredded probably canít be recycled in your town — takeout food clamshells spring to mind. Paper that is colored (magazines) or coated (milk bottles, freezer boxes) also tends to be less popular. Green glass is sometimes passed over because it can discolor new batches of brown or clear glass. The reasons are legion, and vary from city to city.

So I guess the answer to your question is: yes, it is complicated. You'll have to keep spending quality time with your recycling, getting a feel for its varieties and complexities, until you intuitively know whether or not its future lies in the landfill.

Practically,

Umbra

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Past Entries
02/11 Every Drop Counts...
02/17 The Eternal Conundrum: Paper or Plastic?
02/23 D.I.Y.
02/25 A Cleaner Clunker?
02/27 The Diesel in the Details
03/01 Downside of Organic Produce?
03/03 Not Always Greener
03/05 Trash Art: the Director's Cut
03/08 The Rising Stocks of Anti-Ox
03/10 Plastic Not-so-Fantastic
03/12 Something's Fishy
03/15 The Environmentalist's New Clothes
03/17 Bigfoot Prints
03/22 Drinking Your (Re)fill
03/24 Fresh Frozen
03/26 Hydroponic Attacks