Know your nurdles
special to the daily
Plastics are quite the conundrum. I like to call them problem plastics. If recycling was meant to be easy, plastics kind of wrecked it for the rest of the simple commodities. Think about how easy it is to recycle a glass bottle – is it a brown beer bottle? Great! It goes in this bin. Everything else dumps into the other recycling bin. Done!
Plastics are a different story. They’re like the complicated teenager that’s desperately trying to figure out who they are in the world. Even though they wear that nice recycling label, they aren’t always what they seem to be. In fact, the recycling label was never designed with recycling in mind. It’s a label the plastics industry used to categorize types of plastic for their own tracking purposes. Somewhere along the way, recyclers realized they could sort by the number codes, and the rest is history.
I’ve even found label-less plastics. You have to wonder if the plastics industry is even concerned about product end-life. Their goal is to make as much plastic as possible, and the cheaper it is to make it from virgin materials, the better. Recycling is just a hiccup on their journey to production. If the plastics industry really cared about recycling plastics, they would make it easier for the consumer! Sometimes you have to look really hard to find the recycling number. Usually the number is on the bottom of the plastic container or bottle. I’ve also found numbers under lids, near spouts, and inside of bottles.
Over the years, plastics have transformed into various hybrids, biodegradables, bags, bottles and clamshells. It’s toxic chaos if you ask me. And since we have plastics in our cars, homes, work places, supermarkets, recreation areas and vacation spots, it’s darn near impossible to avoid the daily interaction with plastics. For that reason, I think it’s imperative to try to understand them and know where they are coming from. For me, it’s the “know your enemy” scenario. That way, you can avoid the bad ones and hopefully, recycle the rest.
Going back to the basics of plastics, do you remember the nurdle? A nurdle is a tiny plastic pellet plastic industries use to mold into the plastics we know today such as toys, storage containers, water bottles and yogurt tubs. Nurdles are basically the raw materials of plastic production. Smaller than a pea, nurdles are manufactured from crude oil or natural gas.
The journey of a nurdle is quite fascinating. To be made into recognizable plastic stuff, nurdles usually go through one of two common processes – blow molding or injection molding. This is a simplified version of the actual process and, as always, there are exceptions! If plastics are blow molded, they frequently end up as a number 1 or 2 bottle with a neck and screw top (and most often a lid). If plastics are injection molded, they form the number 1 through 7 non-bottles such as a tubs, jars and clamshells.
Without going into great detail, the two processes are responsible for a vast array of plastics. The most important thing to take from this is what is recyclable in Summit County. Our recycling drop-off centers take only 1 and 2 bottles. Even though plastic tubs and clamshells are sometimes labeled a number 1 or 2, they cannot be recycled with 1 and 2 bottles. It’s a major contamination problem that costs the county recycling program money and manpower.
Even though the process seems complicated, there are relatively simple solutions. Make sure you look at the recycling number before you buy. You might be surprised to find that your favorite drink is a number 5 or 7. Take a look at the Conservation Center’s new “Toxic Plastics” web page. There’s a ton of info about plastics including which numbers are safer to use than others. If you have any questions about your plastics, never hesitate to contact us. It’s better to ask questions than to risk contaminating the recycling bins. Call (970) 668-5703 or visit our website at
Eartha Steward is written by Jennifer Santry at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation in our mountain community. Submit questions to Eartha at email@example.com.
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