Let’s Talk Trash
This week we tackle a question posed at the recent town clean-up day zero-waste picnics: “Are corn-based plastics recyclable?” The short answer is no, biodegradable corn-based plastics are not recyclable and should not be placed in recycling bins. Corn-based plastics are designed to be composted.Confused? You’re not alone. Plastic recycling is complex enough, even without a new type of plastic made from corn, not oil, like all other plastics in the world. Let’s start with the basics of plastics recycling. The numbers on the bottom of plastic containers indicate the type of plastic resin that they are made from. They do not indicate recyclability. A recycling symbol with a #3 inside it does not mean that it can be tossed in your local recycling bin. It just means that is made from a polyvinylchloride (PVC) resin.The numbers inside the recycling symbol were created as a coding mechanism for the manufacturers of plastics and were never intended to be the defining mark for recyclability to the consumer. To make things more complicated, not all plastic containers are made the same way. Plastic bottles are blow-molded, and plastic tubs are injection-molded. These different manufacturing methods result in plastics that have different melting temperatures and ultimately cannot be recycled together, which is why a #2 yogurt tub and a #2 detergent bottle cannot be recycled together. Generally, bottles can be defined as anything with a threaded neck. Right now in Summit County, only #1 and #2 plastic bottles can be recycled. When the new Materials Recovery Facility opens at the Summit County landfill later this summer, local recyclers will also be able to recycle other types of plastics, including injection-molded containers (like yogurt tubs or strawberry containers), #4, #5 and #7 plastics. But not yet – so please wait until the recycling drop-off centers are ready to accept those miscellaneous plastics.Where does corn-based plastic fall in the crazy plastic mix? Corn-based polylactide (PLA) plastics have a recycling symbol with #7 on the bottom of them. The #7 is used to describe other plastic resins. Because PLA plastic is relatively new, there is no uniform mechanism, code or symbol to describe that the plastic is biodegradable (compostable) and not recyclable. Unfortunately, there are #7 plastics made from oil that are recyclable, and there are #7 plastics made from corn that are not. Totally confusing.In markets where PLA plastic is gaining popularity, like California, recycling program managers are urging manufacturers of PLA to try something new, like placing a green band around the bottom of the container or a different symbol to help consumers decipher where the bottle should go – a compost bin or a recycling bin.To add another layer of complexity, PLA plastic materials (like the cups and utensils used at the zero-waste picnics or Biota brand water bottles) are made to be durable enough for a good single use and don’t biodegrade (or compost) very quickly. They are designed to biodegrade with high heats, moisture levels and aeration – or a lot of time. Because of this, PLA materials should be kept out of backyard compost bins and be directed to commercial composting programs.Fortunately, the Summit County recycling managers are beginning a commercial-scale composting program at the Summit County landfill this month, and these biodegradable plastics can be composted in that program. If PLA plastics continue to grow, perhaps we’ll have a biodegradable plastic bin at the local recycling drop-off centers that will go to the county composting program. Until then, special arrangements must be made through the High Country Conservation Center to collect these biodegradable plastics from special events or commercial users.So, what’s the point of using biodegradable plastic containers or utensils if they can’t be recycled or composted in a backyard bin? The answer to this is short: Corn and other plant sources for PLA plastics are renewable, oil is not. And if you need another reason to purchase PLA plastics and support their growth in the market, just take a moment to imagine a world of biodegradable plastics. Compare that to images of our current world with plastic-littered beaches, birds and other sea life dead from ingesting plastic debris, plastic straws floating on lake shores and plastic bags waving in tree limbs for years. Biodegradable plastics are a solution worth investing in. Carly Wier is the executive director of High Country Conservation Center, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Let’s Talk Trash is a weekly column dedicated to exploring local waste and conservation issues. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with Trash Talk as the subject, or by snail mail to High Country Conservation Center, PO Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.
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