The sad truth about recycling No. 6 plastics

News-DemocratMay 20, 2013 

I usually have enough sense to pass the hard questions on to the Answer Man, Roger Schlueter, but someone wanted to know: What happens to some of the plastic that we recycle?

The issue came up last week because some people who were organizing the annual church picnic at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Church in Shiloh wanted to be as environmentally friendly as possible and recycle as much of the waste from the event as they could.

But they were perplexed to learn that some of the plastics people toss into their recycling bins are actually sorted out and thrown away. This is especially true of No. 6 plastic cups, which are often made of polystyrene that can't be easily recycled.

They wanted to know whether they were just wasting their time and effort by tossing these cups into the single-stream recycling bins?

That sent me to the Internet for information and also to Waste Management Co. because the company has a recycling facility in St. Louis and would have handled the trash from this event.

Single-stream recycling has made recycling easy for consumers. Just put everything into one bin and off it goes to be turned back into useful products, right?

Well, most of it anyway.

According to the TheDailyGreen.com, Americans throw away 10.5 million tons of plastic each year, and only about 1-2 percent of it is actually recycled. Most people don't even bother to try to recycle it.

A video on WasteManagement.com shows how single stream works, and it's fun to watch. Everything does get sorted, some stuff by hand and some by machine.

But -- there are certain materials for which there may be no market at this time, a spokesman said. That includes No. 6 red plastic cups, or any other color for that matter.

Waste Management wants to do good but it also has to make a profit or everything shuts down. Lisa Disbrow, company spokeswoman in Springfield, said at the current time, the company does not accept No. 6 plastics.

"We have no outlet for them," she said.

So, you can toss them into the recycling bin, but they'll just be thrown away and end up in a landfill somewhere.

The company contracts with the city of O'Fallon for its recycling and asks that residents not include any No. 6 plastics in their recycling bins. Of course, there's no way to tell at the curb what number plastics are, so everything is picked up and the sorting comes later. Anything that is contaminated or not useful gets thrown away, Disbrow said.

But there is hope if you believe other sites on the Internet. Companies are starting to come up with ways to reuse No. 6 plastics, and eHow.com has several suggestions for what to do with polystyrene. One is to use them to make crafts.

Or you can avoid them altogether and use another material that can be recycled.

Have a column idea? Call Wally at 239-2506 or 800-642-3878; or email: wspiers@bnd.com.

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