Recycling for dummies

I’m currently packing for a move and have been spring cleaning. In an attempt to do so, I’m appalled by the realisation of three things:

  1. How much stuff I’ve accumulated over the years
  2. How little I knew about recycling
  3. How much a recycling centre looks like a dumping ground

As I sort through my stuff, I realised that I didn’t quite understand what each recycling label meant. I had some basic knowledge like each number on the recycling logo are meant for sorting, coffee cups can’t be recycled cause of its plastic lining but I found myself still rather ignorant.

I think the general knowledge about this area is still quite limited. Much of us can still be easily greenwashed. Just because some company slaps a recycling logo on a bottle, doesn’t mean it’s actually recyclable. So today, as part of my own quest to educate myself, I figured I’d share some basic insights about recycling so we can learn together.

Disclaimer : This article is by no means an exhaustive piece about the topic. I know it’s extremely nuanced, location dependent and I’m literally scratching the surface here. But hey, we’ve gotta start somewhere.

I’ll link all my sources at the end of this post, in case you want to know more.

This article will cover the following parts:

  • Context setting: ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’
  • What each recycling number means
  • How to recycle

Context setting : Reduce, Reuse & Recycle

Since the end of World War II, there has been a rise of consumerism all around the world. Not long after, in the 1960s, plastics began to be widely used but was eventually countered with the environmental movement in the 1970s – hence the birth of the famous slogan – Reduce, Reuse & Recycle (the 3Rs).

The 3Rs, is intended as a three step approach to waste management. The first alternative being to reduce our consumption, then reuse if we already purchased it and to eventually recycle it if the item reaches its end of life cycle. But out of the 3, how did Recycling become the poster child of Environmentalism?

Throughout this movement, plastic was getting a bad rep and it can be said that large companies, embarked on a campaign to include recycling symbols on plastics, giving new light and optimism to consumers (could be seen as greenwashing). Even though the recycling symbols are said to aid sorting in the recycling process, it has instead caused confusion. Leading consumers to be more willing to purchase plastic products in the name of convenience because hey, it can be recycled right?

Companies have a vested interest to keep us buying their products to continuously boost revenues, that’s why Recycling gets a lot more focus than the others. I think this is common even today with words like – eco friendly, natural, green, sustainable etc.

However, we can see this trend starting to shift with growing environmental concerns and the rise of the zero waste movement and minimalism which focuses more on the reduce and reuse part of the equation.

What each recycling number means (for plastics)

Since we all know that paper, metal and glass can be recycled, I will focus on plastics.

Whenever you see a recycling logo on something plastic, it does not automatically mean it’s recyclable. It’s not the presence of the recycling logo that matters, it’s the Number inside it. So as consumers, it’s important for us to understand what each number means in order to know if it’s recyclable or not.

General rule : Typically Codes #1,2,5 can be recycled, but the rest you have to check.

There are 7 types of recycling labels:

#1 : PETE – Polyethylene Terephthalate (eg. Plastic bottles)

These are most commonly found in our beverage bottles/ single used plastics. It’s fine to be recycled, however do avoid reusing as this may leach carcinogens. Bottle caps of plastic bottles may not be recyclable (see code #5) so do separate them before you recycle.

#2 : HDPE (High Density Polyethylene) (eg. typical household items)

Some examples include milk jugs, juice bottles; bleach, detergent and household cleaner bottles; shampoo bottles; some trash
and shopping bags; motor oil bottles; cereal box liners; etc. Fine to be recycled!

#3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Examples are pipes, toys, some bags, electrical wiring. These apparently has to be mechanically recycled so do not add it into the typical plastic blue bin. The best alternative is to reuse it, or separate it and contact your local council to confirm if they have the capacity to recycle it.

#4: LDPE – Low-density Polyethylene (eg. styrofoam, sandwich, shopping and garbage bags)

These are better to be reused than to be recycled. For recycling, some recycling centres do accept it and some don’t so it’s better to check before hand. However, there are some exceptions, such as with Styrofoam is actually not recyclable (see more under ‘How to Recycle’).

#5: PP – Polypropylene (eg. margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, cereal bags, some skincare bottles etc)

These are safe for recycling and for reusing as well.

#6: PS – Polystyrene (eg. takeout containers)

These are not safe to be reused nor can it be recycled. In fact, these are the most common plastics in our landfills.

#7: Other (not recyclable)

These are typically combination of plastics between 1-6 or are biodegradable elements which are not suitable for recycling.

All the items mentioned above are just general examples so it’s always best to check the code on each product!

How to Recycle

Recycling’s objective is to turn the item into it’s ‘virgin’ form, breaking it down to its raw materials to be made into something else.

Hence, general rules that will hinder recycling are:

  • Food waste – as long as a recyclable item is dirty / contaminated with food waste like oil, food etc (eg. like cardboard pizza boxes, coffee filters), it’s not recyclable. Unless you can clean it thoroughly, don’t include it in the recycling bin
  • Items that have little raw material – eg. Styrofoam which is mainly made out of air because there is little raw material, it’s just not cost effective to break it down
  • Compostable and Biodegradable items – Biodegradable means that it can be broken down naturally by microorganisms in certain conditions, and generally decompose faster than plastic and Compostable are made out of natural materials like starch and can decompose without any toxic residue.
  • Non-recyclable items being mixed in a bag of recyclables – this is a contaminant in itself (eg. different recycling codes being mixed, or dirty recyclable items) because it ‘pollutes’ the other items, so none of them get recycled at all,

Essentially most recycling places just do not have the resources to split them, clean them, so the entire batch just goes to waste. So we may feel good putting it in the recycling bin, but it doesn’t mean it actually gets recycled.

So to recycle effectively, we must:

  1. Sort, sort, sort! – to sort according to the recycling numbers as per above. If it can’t be recycled, don’t put it in the bin.
  2. Keep your recyclables clean – as mentioned above, if it’s dirty, it becomes a contaminant
  3. Check out your local recycling guides – are there any drop off sites? How best do they want you to organise the recyclables? What recycling numbers do they accept?

Do note that plastic can only be recycled between 2-3 times before it loses its quality, as compared to metal and glass which can be recycled indefinitely. Hence why reduce and reuse should always be the first alternative, and if possible, get metal and glass packaging instead.

So armed with this knowledge, what now right?

Here are some tips I’ll be consciously implementing in my life:

  • Review your purchasing habits – think of the 3Rs before you even decide to buy an item

a) Reduce – do you really need this? how much use will you get out of it? can you borrow it ?
b) Reuse – how can you repurpose this item? who else would likely want it if you don’t?
c) Recycle – is it recyclable ? where are your local recycling centres – do they accept these items?

  • Continue to educate yourself – the technology and processes in recycling are continuously evolving, with more start ups and as sustainability gets more attention so thereare tons on resources on the internet that you can keep yourself up-to-date with
  • Support brands which are using recyclable materials – money is the best voting machine there is, the more demand there is from consumers, the more companies are likely to go green

I think the key here is just to be more conscious about our choices, rather than leave it as an afterthought. As sustainability gains more traction, I really hope that more companies will come up with more products that are recyclable whilst the recycling management systems continue to improve.

Here’s to the future!



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