Why are some plastics recyclable while others aren’t?

Recycling is a confusing business, but it doesn’t have to be. TerraCycle are on a mission to clear the air when it comes to those tricky recycling questions. 

Let’s look at what makes some plastics traditionally recyclable while others aren’t, and how to tell the difference so you never have to ask “is this recyclable” again. 

What can be recycled?

Technically, everything is recyclable. Let that sink in for a bit. Yes, even items like dirty diapers and cigarette butts can and are being recycled by TerraCycle! 

The main reason why something can’t be recycled through your local council recycling is down to basic economics; it is simply more expensive to process that item than what the recycled material is worth. Recycling is still a business, just like any other. 

Looks and size matter

The other reasons why some plastic items are difficult to recycle include size, colour and complexity. Once your recycling is collected from your yellow bin, it gets sent to a material recovery facility (MRF) where it gets sorted into the different waste streams. Smaller items, like bread bag tags and bottle caps are unable to be recycled because they fall through the machinery during the sorting process.

Often used for beauty product packaging, black or dark coloured plastic can’t be recycled either because of the optical sorting machines used at most MRFs. The machinery can’t pick out the black pigment in the plastic and, as a result, it’s left unsorted and ends up in landfill. If you’re looking for ways to recycle items such as bread bag tags and black plastics, check out TerraCycle’s free recycling programs on our website.

Mixed materials are tricky

Lastly, a huge barrier to recycling plastic waste is down to the range of different materials used in many items. For instance, think of a toothpaste tube or a disposable razor. The mixed materials are especially difficult and expensive to separate and they therefore can’t be traditionally recycled. Luckily TerraCycle offer free recycling options for both of these items. 

What’s the solution?

Now, you’re probably wondering how TerraCycle is able to recycle these items when other recycling organisations aren’t. The answer comes back to the economics of recycling. TerraCycle partner with big name brands such as Schwarzkopf, Colgate and Gillette who sponsor the recycling of their products, as well as all other brands of the same waste stream. Without the support of our brand partners, we wouldn’t be able to offer our programs for free and on a national scale. 

If you’re looking for a recycling solution for a particular item and we don’t have a free program for it, we recommend you reach out to your favourite brand to ask for one (read our previous post on how to do this). Don’t underestimate your purchasing power either. Every dollar you spend is a vote for the future of the planet, so spend wisely!

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