I was so thrilled when I heard the news that residents of the City of San Diego can now recycle additional plastics in the blue curbside bins that I enthusiastically volunteered to write this blog. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm quickly disintegrated into frustration as I realized much of the recycling information out there is inconsistent or incomplete. There are almost more exceptions than there are rules and answers simply lead to more questions.
Which prompts me to ask, is anyone else as confused by recycling as I am?
Have you ever stared at a disposable coffee cup and wondered whether to throw it in the blue bin or the black bin? What about plastic bottle caps and straws? Why are produce clamshells and pill bottles recyclable, but plastic utensils are not? If a coffee cup is not recyclable, why is frozen food packaging – which is also cardboard lined with plastic – recyclable? And I thought I could recycle plastic cups now, so what’s with this PLA plastic? It says “recyclable” on the cup, but it actually isn’t recyclable?
The rule of rigidity – sturdy plastics are recyclable, regardless of their resin number
Recycling is now less about the resin type (the number inside the recycling arrows) and more about the “rigidity” of the plastic. For example, both a yellow plastic zipper bag containing Trader Joe’s lemon heart cookies and a clear plastic cup show a #7 inside of the arrows meaning they are made of “mixed” or “other” plastics. Following the rigidity rule, the cup is recyclable in the curbside bins, while the bag is not. To put simply, sturdy plastics like cups, produce clamshells, to-go containers, yogurt cups and hummus containers can all be rinsed and recycled. Flimsy “film” plastic like sandwich bags, grocery bags, six-pack rings and other bag-like things should not be placed in the blue curbside bin (though you can collect and return these plastics to various locations throughout the county).
Meet our first three exceptions – cutlery, caps and straws
Plastic utensils definitely meet the rigidity test, yet they are specifically mentioned on the City’s website as non-recyclable items. Why? According to recycling specialists the answer is because of their small size. In theory cutlery is recyclable, but more than likely it will slip through the cracks in the screening process and filter out with the trash. Similarly, the small size of most plastic caps make them difficult to catch during preliminary screening – unless they are screwed back on the bottle. The same goes for plastic drinking straws. Though you could poke them back through the lid, snap the lid on the cup and then the screeners could catch them. So should you include cutlery, caps and straws in blue bin recycling and hope they get recycled? I have no idea because the answer depends on who you ask.
Plant-based plastics and PLA
Imagine you’re at the local farmers’ market enjoying a refreshing smoothie. Your disposable cup looks like plastic, has a #7 and says it’s “recyclable” and maybe even “compostable” so you slurp the last drops of your delicious drink and toss it in the blue bin. Not so fast. Before you throw that clear “plastic” cup into your recycling bin, check the bottom. If you see the letters PLA or if the cup says it’s compostable, made of corn, soy or other plants, that cup isn’t actually accepted in curbside recycling even if it says “recyclable.” So unfortunately, you have to throw it in the trash or take it to an industrial composting facility (worm bins or backyard compost piles do not get hot enough to break down these materials). An exception to this is the new Dasani PlantBottle, which is a disposable water bottle made of “up to 30% plants.” According to recycling specialists at the City of San Diego, this water bottle is actually recyclable because it is “exactly compatible” with #1 plastics.
And finally coffee cups
When I learned that PLA cups were not recyclable, my mind wandered to other types of cups and beverage containers. Sure we all know that a soda pop bottle is recyclable (and now the cap technically is as well), but what about a disposable coffee cup? The City’s website says frozen food boxes are recyclable, but isn’t a coffee cup constructed in a similar way – paper with a plastic lining? According to recycling specialists at the City of San Diego, coffee cups are intended for single use so by the time they reach the recycling center they are pretty degraded by liquid. At this point it is nearly impossible to separate the paper from the thin plastic interior lining. However, the lids are recyclable!
Save yourself the headache and skip the plastic cups and water bottles all together and invest in reusable options. In the long run, you will save money and reusing will become very convenient when put into your daily routine. Although we have these rules, we must stop consuming plastic as much and join forces to fight off plastic pollution for good.
Conclusively, I must thank the City of San Diego for accepting additional plastics in curbside recycling. We are fortunate to be living in the city where people strive to sustainability together.