One Thing You Can Do: Know Your Plastics
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By Eduardo Garcia
CreditTyler Varsell; Shutterstock
Ever notice those recycling symbols, the triangles with the numbers inside, on plastic packaging and containers? I always assumed they meant the plastic was recyclable. But that’s not necessarily the case.
Those numbers are resin identification codes, and they tell what kind of plastic the item is made from. And not all plastic is created equal.
Identifying what types of plastics are recyclable can be challenging because plastics do not always carry a resin code and because not all recycling programs are equal, either. Generally speaking, though, some categories of plastic are more widely recyclable in the United States.
“We always encourage people to focus on Nos. 1, 2 and 5 because we have great markets for them in the U.S.,” said Brent Bell, vice president of recycling at Waste Management, a major garbage collection and recycling company.
Water and soda bottles, milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, yogurt cups and butter tubs are mostly made of these plastics. You could lend a helping hand by rinsing these kinds of containers and removing labels.
On the other hand, placing items made with resins 4, 6 and 7 in the recycling bin is usually not a good idea. These are used to make squeezable bottles, plastic bags, pouches, meat trays, some clamshells and disposable plates and cups. Sorting plants will quite likely throw them in a landfill, together with other items considered contaminants.
Finally, No. 3 — the category that covers the PVCs often used in packaging for cosmetics, some food wrap, blister packs and pipes — is particularly bad. Because of its chemical composition, it can contaminate large batches of plastics in the recycling system that would otherwise be acceptable.
“You absolutely want to make sure that you never ever put PVC into your recycling bin,” said Steve Alexander, president of the Association of Plastics Recyclers, an industry group.
Regardless of what they’re made of, shopping bags and other soft plastics like cling film and Bubble Wrap shouldn’t be put in recycling bins because they tend to jam sorting machines.
If one exists, your local recycling program should have information online about the types of plastics it accepts. If you can’t get a clear answer there, though, the best policy is not to guess.
“If in doubt, keep it out,” Mr. Alexander said.
The big lesson from our glaciers series
Here’s some of what I learned about glaciers in the time I spent reporting on them over the past half-year or so:
They look spectacular from far away, but up close they often have a dirty, somewhat drab appearance.
They are hard to get to, especially if you don’t like climbing over sharp rocks.
With few exceptions around the world, they are shrinking
No. 3, of course, is why I did all that reporting — in Switzerland, Kazakhstan, Washington and Alaska. The series that emerged had three parts, and the final one, about the effects on ecosystems, fish and other organisms, was published last week. The first two were more about what the melting means for humans. You can read all three by following the links below:
Being near, or on, a glacier — as I was with my Times colleague, Ben C. Solomon, for the first two stories, and Max Whittaker, a freelance photographer, for the latest one — is an amazing experience. I had the feeling of being in the presence of something extremely powerful, created by nature. These were massive sheets of ice, hundreds of feet thick in some cases, the result of thousands of winter snowfalls. For centuries these glaciers had crept slowly under their own weight, carving the landscape and grinding even the hardest rocks.
The evidence for that carving and grinding was all around us — in the valleys the glaciers created; in the rock powder that coated the ice, giving it that drab look; and in the seemingly endless piles of rocky debris, from stones to large boulders, that we had to hike over.
I remember especially being with Ben in the Trift Glacier Valley in Switzerland. We had crossed a spectacular footbridge over the valley that the glacier had once filled; all that could be seen of the ice now was a small triangular patch, high up on the slope at the other end.
I’ve been writing about climate change for a while now, and I have a pretty good idea of what is happening and why. But it was there at the Trift that I realized its full force. Sure, glaciers are powerful, but global warming is even stronger — strong enough to bring the Trift to its knees.