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Number inside symbol doesn't mean item is recyclable.

Byline: RECYCLING By Sarah Grimm For The Register-Guard

Plastics recycling is a major mystery for most. Why is the lid not recyclable when it's marked with the same number as the tub? Why are bags recyclable curbside one day and not the next?

The following information will give you a primer on why it all seems so complex - but keep in mind it covers residential recycling only. Business and industry, when collecting many tons of a single material, may have recycling options that the residential sector does not.

The most important thing to remember is that the recycling symbol with the number inside does not mean that an item is recyclable. Please repeat this in your head and then tell all your friends. The symbol and number are a voluntary coding system to tell recyclers (plastic sorters) what type of plastic - what base resin - was used to make the product container.

Complicating this system is the fact that the process used to mold the resin into a specific shape changes the plastic forever to be incompatible with items made from other processes. So a No. 2 HDPE plastic bottle - made from injection molding - cannot be combined with No. 2 HDPE plastic tubs - made from blow molding to make a new product. And No. 2 HDPE trays, cups or other shapes - made from thermoforming - are generally not recyclable for lack of buyers of that material. Another problem with that material is it looks similar to plastic made from the thermoset process that cannot ever be remolded.

That is why "Bottles, Tubs and Jugs" are the plastics instructions. In fact, industry outreach specialists are suggesting that using the numbered coding system to describe what is recyclable is asking for trash; that instructions to toss in only bottles, tubs and jugs would be more effective in capturing recyclable residential plastics.

Complicating things even further is the fact that in addition to the three methods and seven numbers that represent base resins, there are thousands of combinations of fillers, stiffeners, softeners and dyes that are used, each changing the plastic and affecting its recyclability with other plastics.

Whether or not an item is recyclable in residential programs is dependent upon two things: if someone will buy it for enough money to cover the cost of transportation, and whether or not it can be efficiently collected from residents in quantity.

Styrofoam is a good example of the first criteria; it's not recyclable in our region because there is not an end user who will pay enough to cover shipping. It is so light that it fills a truck way before there is enough to earn the per-ton price to pay the truck and fuel costs. We are grateful, of course, that there are dedicated recyclers who take their Styrofoam to NextStep. The nominal fee they charge to recycle it helps pay the shipping costs not covered by the purchaser.

Caps, lids and plastic bags are good examples of the second criteria; they are so small and light that they end up as litter, in streets and in facilities that process materials. They get under conveyor belts, caught in equipment, and are so small that sorting can not be done at the speed necessary to process the tons of residential materials collected each day.

While plastics recycling still competes poorly with the U.S. subsidized industry of raw resource production, its value on international markets is growing by leaps and bounds. Current market value for No. 2 HDPE (milk jug) plastic is more than $400 per ton, for No. 1 PET (water bottles) it is more than $300 per ton, and colored No. 2 HDPE is more than $200 per ton.

Most residential plastics collected on the West Coast are sold as a mix to Pacific Rim countries, where laborers can sort the plastics by hand. Since colorant is so expensive, they sort by color and type.

In the new curbside collections that allow you to commingle your recycling, the material will go to a sorting facility in the Portland area. The success of this facility's sort depends on mechanical equipment that separates dimensional items - cans, plastic and juice/milk boxes - from the flat paper items. So please do not flatten these materials.

If you take your recycling to a transfer station however, flattening is not a problem; go ahead save some space. When material is separated by you at the source, it can be sent directly to market and is not dependent on a mechanical system.

We've all witnessed the startling expansion of plastic packaging options now stuffing store shelves. Recyclers do not control what materials are put on the market and find their way to your home. With cooperation and effort between citizen, hauler and industry, we can filter this vast collection of different materials into marketable and usable resources for future production. You can help by recycling it correctly and buying - better yet, insisting - on recycled content plastic products.

Sarah Grimm is a waste reduction specialist with Lane County Public Works, Waste Management. This column is provided by Lane County Recycling.
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Title Annotation:Oregon Life
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Feb 3, 2008
Words:848
Previous Article:Oregon Life: Wilson.
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