Your plastic containers ARE recycled, and they’re in demand

By Claire Galkowski, Executive Director, South Shore Recycling Cooperative

Are you wondering whether the plastic bottles and containers you put in the recycling bin are getting recycled?  The short answer is an emphatic YES!  And manufacturers want MORE of it to substitute for petroleum-based “virgin” material.

Greenpeace recently released a provocative report asserting that plastic recycling is a “dead end”.  Several news outlets amplified the report without examining its claims.  Those of us who know the recycling system were not consulted. We all agree that recycling is no substitute for consuming less, nor should it give anyone license to keep buying unnecessary crap. But we understand that plastic containers actually prop up our other recycling streams, and provide feedstock to both large brand owners and small local companies that put them back into products. 

I’ve been a waste warrior and recycling professional for thirty years, 24 as director of the 18-town South Shore Recycling Cooperative (SSRC). I wholeheartedly agree with Greenpeace that the overproduction and consumption of plastics- and other materials- is straining our little planet’s ability to support us.  Sowing unwarranted seeds of doubt about the integrity of our recycling programs, though, is like hiding the life jackets in a storm.

The claim that only 5% of plastic is recycled refers to ALL plastics globally (lower than the US EPA’s 8.7% figure).  It includes troublesome non-recyclable disposables – packing foam, cutlery, red #6 cups …- and durable items like keyboards, carpet, mattresses, and the equipment that helped keep my husband alive in the ICU last year. All but a few of the bottles and rigid containers that land in recycling bins in our area become new products.  And there IS plenty of capacity in the system for plenty more, IF consumers empty and put them in the right place.

Plastics comprise about 7% of our residential single stream, but provide nearly half of its value, subsidizing the low/negative valued paper and glass.  In 2022, South Shore towns received credits averaging $77/ton for the value of the sorted single stream recyclables.  These credits offset the cost of sorting, baling, and shipping them.  If those plastics had been removed, the credits would have averaged $36/ton less, or only $41/ton, and the recycling would have cost our towns that much more.

The best ways consumers can help reduce our waste crisis are to reduce the amount of stuff we buy, and reuse as much as we can.   As for the rest, we can recycle and redeem our clean paper, cardboard, bottles, cans and rigid containers with confidence.  Putting them back into new products is a far happier ending, and beginning, than burning, burying or littering them.

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