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We Can’t Recycle Our Way Out of the Plastic Problem

We’ve written a few posts already about the problem of single-use plastics. (In case you forgot, check out the post here!) And for years we’ve been told that recycling and personal responsibility are the solutions. But the truth is a bit more complicated and also a bit harder to hear: we cannot recycle our way out of this global problem. 


Because we’re used to single-stream recycling - where everything goes into one container for pick up - it seems that all plastics are equally recyclable. Spoiler: they’re not! 


Plastics are divided into seven categories and are labeled with a little number, the resin identification number (RIN), within the recycling logo based on their classification. Just because a package or bottle has a RIN or recycling symbol does not mean it is actually recyclable. The number is an indication of the molecular structure of the plastic, not of its recyclability. 




In most cities and towns in the United States, only plastics #1, #2, and #5 are recyclable through curbside pickup. But even within those categories, certain products won’t be processed at recycling plants. For example, plastic grocery bags are often #2 plastic, but because they clog sorting machines, plants won’t process them and they end up in landfills and oceans instead. 


The other types of plastics - #3, #4, #6, and #7 - are not recyclable through traditional trash collection methods. Check out the chart below to see the different classifications and the most common products in each category. 



Of course, as environmentally-minded individuals, we should continue to recycle as much as we can. In order to see global change, however, there will need to be global action by corporations and governments. Corporations using plastics need to take the lead in reducing their dependence on all types of plastics and particularly non-recyclable single-use plastics. As engaged global citizens, we must demand that our governments and the corporations from which we purchase prioritize people and planet over profit and convenience.



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