Recycling as we know it today has only been around for about 40 years. Plastic recycling got started even later. It has never worked very well. A look at plastic recycling history shows that it never even had a chance to work.
Part of the reason is that the plastics and fossil fuels industries pushed plastic recycling to prevent unfavorable laws and regulation. But another part, one that gets less press, is an innovation that swept the nation in the 1960s, with disastrous consequences.
Let’s examine recycling problems, and especially plastic recycling problems and see if there are any viable ways forward.
A brief history of waste management
Municipal trash collection started in this country in the late 19th century. At first, the cities separated out anything they could sell, but by the 1920s, it seemed more trouble than it was worth.
I grew up in the 1950s. Every night after supper, my mother wrapped garbage in newspapers. I carried it outside to the garbage can. We also had a separate trash can for cans, jars, broken stuff, and the like—almost anything that couldn’t rot, but not paper. Trucks from two different companies emptied the cans once a week. I burned wastepaper in a backyard incinerator.
The rest of the country handled waste much the same way.
In 1957, however, Los Angeles banned backyard incineration. Los Angeles families had to keep paper separate and hire a third company to haul it off. Sam Yorty became mayor by promising to end the necessity of separating waste at all. Los Angeles had plenty of canyons that seemed ill suited for any useful purpose. So Yorty turned them into trash dumping sites.
It turned out to be an especially costly convenience. Most trash (apart from garbage) had wound up in dumps for decades. Adding garbage to the mix made the dumps unsanitary. Slowly, the old dumps evolved into today’s sanitary landfills. If we had kept separate collections for garbage and trash, extracting recyclables would have been much easier.
Meanwhile, the postwar boom had created an unprecedented economic problem. Factories churned out more goods than American consumers could buy. And we had no place to export it, since Europe was still digging out from the devastation of the war.
Waste and planned obsolescence saved us from that problem. And overwhelmed our landfills.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) makes a convenient milestone in the public’s interest in environmental issues.
Private recycling programs started in its wake. The relatively few people who wanted to participate carried materials to the centers—if there were any available. There, they sorted everything into separate bins: aluminum cans, “tin” cans, different colored glass, newspaper, office paper.
In 1960, perhaps 6% of waste got recycled. The rest went to landfills. Or wound up as litter. Lady Bird Johnson made highway beautification her special project as First Lady. In part, it called attention to the litter. Oregon passed the nation’s first bottle bill to combat litter, in 1971.
Woodbury, New Jersey offered the first curbside recycling program in the US in 1980. It must have been reasonably successful. Since Yorty’s innovation had soon gone nationwide, people were out of the habit of separating anything. About 10% of America’s waste was recycled in that year.
Most recycling programs used single-stream recycling. That is, participants had to put recyclables and other trash in two separate containers. But the recycling container comingled paper, metal, and glass.
Recycling centers sorted everything, baled it, and sold it to companies that would turn it into raw materials for making something else.
If I recall correctly, it didn’t become possible to recycle slick magazine paper until much later. The coated paper used for cash register receipts is still not recyclable. It winds up in bales of mixed paper with little resale value. Plastic recycling history started even later.
By now, more than 35% of our trash gets recycled. That’s in part because plastic has been added to the mix. Recycling participation hasn’t increased for years.
The public starts to turn against plastic
In the years after World War II, manufacturers began to make more and more plastic products. And not just consumer products. Plastic packaging became common, too.
By the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, the proliferation of plastic trash began to alarm municipal waste management agencies.
Suffolk County, New York, on Long Island, became the first municipality to ban plastic bags in 1988. It marked the opening of a war against the plastics industry by municipal waste management and environmentalists. The plastic industry sued, and years later, the county repealed the law.
Other city governments began to explore ways to restrict plastic. The plastics industry managed to persuade about a dozen states to restrict the ability of local governments to do so. It has used lobbying efforts and threats of lawsuits to protect its interests.
Plastic recycling history
Other industries have also used such tactics, but the plastics industry devised a completely different defense mechanism. It offered plastic recycling as an alternative waste management strategy.
A TV ad in 1990 showed a plastic bottle bouncing from a garbage truck. The voiceover said that the bottle wasn’t trash. Even though it was empty, it had a lot of potential. The ad touted the beginning of a comprehensive plastic recycling program. The plastics industry itself, along with the oil and gas industry, paid for this and many similar ads. They wanted to make the American public feel good about plastic packaging.
Does that empty bottle have value? Yes. Recyclers can wash such bottles, chop them up, and sell the flake. It can be used to make new bottles or polyester.
But the ad implied that plastic waste in general had value. Even though the industries knew better. Even though they didn’t even want plastic recycling to work. After all, recycling that bottle to make polyester means that much less oil to sell to make new plastic for the same purpose.
Recently uncovered documents show that the plastics industry knew plastic recycling wasn’t economically viable as early as the 1970s. But if it could make plastic recycling seem like a better alternative to banning plastic, it could continue to churn out more plastic packaging. And it began to pressure municipalities into accepting more kinds of plastic for recycling.
China saw opportunity in becoming the world’s recycler. It eagerly bought all kinds of materials for recycling. That is, it did until it realized that it had to send an inordinate amount of it to its own landfills. After years of warnings, China announced a ban on importing recycling beginning in 2018.
Plastic recycling by the numbers
The Society of the Plastics Industry (since renamed the Plastics Industry Association) introduced a coding system for plastics in 1988. One reason for doing so was to facilitate recycling of post-consumer plastic.
The codes used the numbers 1-7:
- Polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used for beverage bottles among other packaging
- High-density polyethylene (HDPE), used for milk jugs, etc.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), used for pipes, siding, etc., but not packaging
- Low-density polyethylene (LDPE), used for plastic bags, six-pack rings, etc.
- Polypropylene (PP), used for shampoo bottles, yogurt cups, and other containers, and also for industrial fibers
- Polystyrene (PS), most notably foam packaging, but also plastic utensils and cafeteria trays
- Anything else.
Those codes are about the only way consumers can distinguish a PET water bottle from a PP shampoo bottle, but they confused more than educated people. For one thing, the industry chose to enclose the numbers within the already familiar recycling triangle. They quickly became known as plastic recycling numbers and implied that everything with a code was recyclable.
Municipal recycling programs long ago abandoned plastic recycling numbers in their definitions of what could and could not go out to the curb. And since 2013, the codes have appeared within solid triangles and not the chasing triangles of the recycling symbol. Much of the public probably hasn’t noticed.
Where plastic recycling sort of works and where it doesn’t
Typically, recycling centers sort plastic into PET, HDPE (which are valuable), and everything else. There is no market for the bales of mixed plastic.
Even within any one resin identification code, there are subcategories that have implications for plastic recycling.
Easily recyclable plastics
PET bottles are made by blowing liquid plastic into a molding machine. In this form, PET has a high enough molecular weight to be used for making new bottles. It can also make polyester yarn.
PET for the kind of clamshell packaging that might contain a piece of cheesecake or a salad is made by heating a thin sheet of it and pressing it into a mold. In this form, called thermoform, it has a low molecular weight. It can’t be used to make new bottles, but it can become polyester.
In other words, recycled thermoforms have fewer uses. I don’t know if recycling centers can separate them from PET bottles, but even if they can, there is no reliable market for them.
Recycled plastic bags (no. 4) can become composite lumber, but don’t put them out at the curb. They wreak havoc on sorting equipment. Return them to labeled plastic recycling containers at a grocery store.
I few years ago, I posted about three different machines for compressing Styrofoam™ for recycling. With so many technological options for handing it, post-consumer Styrofoam must have value. Unfortunately, can never make it through any sorting system intact. It breaks into little pieces and contaminates bales of everything else. You might be able to find a drop-off center that accepts it. And it probably accepts nothing else.
Beyond conventional plastic recycling
What about mixed plastic?
Except for PVC, it can all be recycled by pyrolysis. That process reduces plastic to something resembling crude oil. Until pyrolysis becomes more widespread, count mixed plastic as trash, not recyclable.
But a bigger problem is that now, we rely on municipalities to bear the costs of collecting and sorting recyclables. Extended producer responsibility would give that responsibility to manufacturers. If manufacturers had to take back post-consumer wastes, they would figure out ways to recycle them. That’s what happens under Europe’s extended producer responsibility laws.
The history of plastic resin identification codes in recycling / Jennie Romer, Green Biz. May 28, 2021
Inside the long war to protect plastic / Tik Root, The Center for Public Integrity. May 16, 2019
The myth about recycling plastic? It works / Tiffany Duong, Eco Watch. September 20, 2020 When did Americans start recycling? / Sheila Mulrooney Eldred, History.com. April 14, 2020