Myths About Recycling

by Justin Ho
Justin is an Industrial Design student and volunteers as a Sustainability Ambassador with Humber’s Office of Sustainability. He is interested in learning more about and exploring recycling and waste management topics.
You can connect with him via email.

Recycling is not as easy and simple as other methods of waste disposal. Being able to recycle effectively depends on knowledge of the capabilities of local recycling facilities, the items that will be going in the recycling bin, and the philosophy of recycling as a whole.

Here are 5 things that may surprise you about recycling:

MYTH #1: Items with a recycling symbol can be recycled

You may often encounter a little triangle with arrows and a number in the middle on many products that you own. This symbol closely resembles the recycling symbol which confuses people into thinking that the product with that symbol is recyclable. However, that is not the case, just because a product has that symbol does not mean it is recyclable.

The symbol is called a Resin Identification Code or RIC. The code is actually used to indicate what type of material the product is made out of. The code has a number in the middle to refer to different types of plastics. These logos are used to help recycling facilities identify plastics with the plastics with lower numbers generally indicating that they are easier to recycle. This type of code has been used to identify other materials as well such as cardboard and aluminum but is mainly found on plastics.

Resin Identification Code Symbol.

Solution: Just because something has a resin symbol does not mean it is recyclable. Double check with your municipality on how to recycle the item you are looking to recycle. Depending on where you live, they may have an app or website for this. For Toronto it is known as the Waste Wizard

MYTH #2: Recycling can be done again and again

While metals like aluminum can be easily recycled over and over again and glass bottles can be collected and refilled, plastic can usually only be recycled a couple times. This is because contaminants get introduced to the plastic everytime it is recycled , reducing its purity. This means that it becomes more difficult to manufacture high quality products.

As a result plastic products undergo a process called downcycling, where every time a material gets recycled, it gets turned into a product that is of lower quality and/or less functional. The new product is also usually more difficult if impossible to recycle as well. Commonly, recycled plastics such as PET will only get recycled about 3 times while in ideal conditions HDPE can be recycled up to 10 times.

PET plastic.

Solution: Avoid purchasing items that come in plastic packaging. You can bring your own jars and containers when buying products in bulk at stores like Bulk Barn (get 15% off on Sundays when using your own jars), Unboxed Market, and bare market. You can also try to buy products that can be easily upcycled and dispose of them properly. If the product doesn’t come in materials that can be upcycled, try to find a product made of biodegradable material. 

Jars used to buy products in bulk to reduce plastic waste.

MYTH #3: All contaminated items can be recycled

A greasy pizza box that can’t be recycled.

Certain materials follow different rules in how they are recycled, an example is paper. It is rather picky about how it is recycled as the recycling process of paper uses water to pulp the paper and separate the paper from contaminants by allowing the contaminants to sink.

However, more sticky contaminants like leftover food and oils that don’t sink in water will be left in the pulp attracting insects and reducing the purity of the product, which affects its quality.

This is not the case for other materials like metals, whose recycling processes are generally less delicate. Metals are usually recycled by melting them down and that melting process usually removes contaminants. However, in a single stream recycling system where metal items are mixed with paper items, it is easy to have a dirty metal can contaminate paper files in the same bin. 

Solution: If you think your item will contaminate other products, clean it with a rinse before recycling. When in doubt, throw it out in the garbage bin.

Rinse before recycling.

MYTH #4: Recycling companies will recycle everything

It is a fairly reasonable assumption that when items are put in the recycling bin, they will get recycled. Unfortunately, that is often not the case. Even when recycling is properly sorted, instead of being recycled, it can end up being shipped across the world or incinerated.

Since the companies that collect waste need to make a profit, they will often look for avenues to get the most money out of the waste that is collected. Sometimes recyclable items are incinerated as a form of energy recovery or sent to be scavenged overseas by underpaid workers without proper safety equipment, and then burned, polluting the environment. In the end, only about 5-6% of plastic is actually recycled.

Solution: Try not to rely on recycling, instead try to use reusable products where possible. As a consumer, recycling is not a reliable way to make sure your items are properly disposed of.

MYTH #5: Materials that are able to be recycled will be recycled

Materials like aluminum and steel are often recycled because there is an economic incentive to recycle them. This is the opposite with many plastics, they are often able to be recycled but just make no sense to recycle from a business perspective. A popular example of this is polystyrene, more specifically expanded polystyrene or Styrofoam. Since the material is mostly air and it is fairly cheap to make, it doesn’t make sense to recycle it even if it is possible to recycle it. Recycling companies need to make a profit, cheap plastics like expanded polystyrene simply will not be recycled or investment will not be put into infrastructure to recycle them.

Other seemingly benign factors such as colour can affect the value of plastic as well and thus how likely it will be recycled. Some black plastics can’t be made into a different colour making them less valuable and less profitable to recycle. As such they may end up being downcycled into less valuable products instead.

Black plastic.

Solution: Try to choose metal disposable products like cans over plastic ones like plastic bottles. Where possible, try to choose uncoloured clear plastic.

In sum, recycling is not a magical solution to waste. It is a tricky process heavily impacted by economic factors. As much as possible, try to reduce your consumption of single-use materials, opt for durable reusable products, and once those options have been explored, make an informed choice about products that can be recycled in your local recycling facility.

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