Lighten Up: plastics, continued

Since my first “Lighten Up” post, I’ve done some more research on plastic recycling, and have also exchanged emails with a customer service representative at Seventh Generation. So bear with me for a bit more on plastic and recycling. Next week I’ll move on to another area of lightening up, although our use and “disposal” of plastic resins could easily take up a whole book. (The photo below is our every-several-month load of plastic and other recycling in the back of the Subaru. Recycling is one of our rare car-based errands, although some of our neighbors manage the trip to the local recycling center by bicycle and cargo trailer. Notice that plastics are the largest part of our recycling by volume, but brown glass wins by weight, due mostly to Richard’s love for the Belgian-style beer produced by New Belgium Brewery, an environmentally conscious Colorado microbrewery… At one beer a day, those six-packs represent three months of consumption–for those who counted, note that two more six-packs aren’t visible in the photo.)


First, Seventh Generation: Although the laundry detergent bottle I bought at my local natural foods store last week apparently did not contain recycled content (according to the multiple-page label), all of the company’s new plastic packaging is comprised at least partly of recycled plastic. Here are the recycled-content percentages of the company’s plastic packaging, as provided by customer service:

“All Laundry bottles: minimum 25% post consumer resin, working on 75% PCR,
bleach bottle at 75% has just gone into production in the East.

“Dish Liquid: 90% PCR

“Plastic Trash Bags: 80% recycled (24% min post)”

Here’s how to interpret those figures: Post-consumer resin (PCR) is the plastic you and I recycle. So when Seventh Generation says their laundry detergent bottles are at least 25% post-consumer resin, the remaining plastic resin doesn’t come from consumer recycling. It’s either new plastic or it’s recycled from the waste generated by manufacturing new plastic and/or containers. The latter (manufacturing waste) is the simplest plastic to recycle, because it comes in large amounts of easily identified resin, unlike consumer plastic, which is unsorted, meaning it is made up of varying kinds of plastic resins. So when Seventh Generation says their plastic trash bags are 80 percent “recycled” plastic, but only 24 percent post-consumer resin, that means most of the recycled content is from manufacturing waste, not the “consumer” plastic you and I recycle.

It’s great to recycle the waste resin from plastic manufacturing, but that doesn’t really help our nationwide consumer plastic recycling effort. If we’re all recycling our plastics diligently, but manufacturers aren’t using that material for their packaging and other products, there’s no market and the stuff we’re patting ourselves on the back for recycling isn’t going anywhere. The word “recycle” implies a circular process where material gets used over and over in different forms. If there’s no market for the material though, the cycle is never completed; there’s no actual “recycling.”

What makes consumer plastic so difficult to recycle? The nature of the plastic resins themselves: different types of plastic resins behave differently and can’t be mixed in reusing them without causing structural issues. Plastics are made up of huge molecules–some have thousands of repeating units in long chain-like structures–that don’t break down easily, hence the problem of their accumulation in our environment, but that’s for another post. These complex molecules can’t simply be heated, mixed with molecules from other kinds of plastic resins and reused. Also, some plastics contain dyes and fillers that can degrade the resin in the process of being melted. Hence the familiar “recyclable triangle” system of labeling developed by the Plastic Bottle Institute to allow different kinds of plastic resins to be sorted–usually by hand–for recycling. (That’s a milk bottle in the photo above, with the number “2” in the triangle symbol identifying it as HDPE, high-density polyethylene. HDPE is the most-commonly recycled plastic, finding a new life as trash cans, plastic lumber, benches, curbs, truck bed liners and other consumer objects.)

So if we want to lighten-up the plastic content of our lives, we need to be mindful to complete the cycle in “recycle” by asking companies to use more post-consumer recycled plastic in their products, and by buying products made of recycled plastic with a high post-consumer content.

(By the way, when I emailed Seventh Generation through their web site, they responded within 24 hours, and were very helpful. I didn’t identify myself as a writer or blogger, just as a concerned consumer. So they were listening, proof that it’s worth making the effort to contact some companies, at least.)

In the spirit of lightening up and recycling, the photo above is a shot of the Indian paintbrush and blanketflower currently blooming in our restored native mountain grassland front yard, growing happily on our “recycled” former industrial property. This thriving community reminds me that life is resilient, something I am especially thankful for these days.