How Our Recycling Systems Work

Paper cardboard recycling
Photo by Bas Emmen on Unsplash

“We get out of recycling systems what we put into them.” -Beth Porter1

Recycling is not the answer to all of our waste problems. Simply put, we’ve produced more plastic at this point than we could ever recycle away.

However, recycling can still be a part of the solution to protect ourselves and the planet, because we have to try. Ultimately we are responsible for the items and packaging from items we consume. Recycling, though far from a perfect solution, reduces the number of trees cut down for paper and the number of natural resources we harvest. Additionally, it curbs the production of new plastics and thus the fossil fuels we extract.

Green and white recycling truck on street, using a the lift to dump a residential recycling bin on a street.
Photo by the Brisbane City Council on Flickr, Creative Commons license(CC BY 2.0)

Single-Stream Recycling

“Ultimately, for recycling to become a way of life for consumers and end-users, recycling had to be easy, and it had to save money.”-Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.2

Single-stream simply means mixed materials in one group – one stream of materials. If your recycling goes in one bin and is picked up curbside, then you have single-stream recycling in your area.

The idea for single-stream came about in the 1990s because of two beliefs. First, that the convenience of putting everything in one bin would encourage more residents to participate in recycling. Using EPA statistics, one recycling company noted that single-stream recycling “overhauled the underperforming process, taking our national recycling rate from 10.1% in 1985 to 25.7% in 1995 to nearly 32% in 2005.”3

“Curbside recycling grew by 250 percent from 1988 to 1991…People were making the decision to incorporate sorting recyclable goods into their daily routine, reminiscent of war-era conservation efforts.” -Beth Porter4

The second belief is that single-stream recycling systems reduce collection costs. A single truck can collect more volume with mixed materials which reduces transportation costs. However, while collections costs are lower, the processing costs are much higher because of the sorting and separation, tasks which are performed by a combination of humans and expensive sorting machinery.

About 80% of U.S. communities use a single-stream recycling system. “Unfortunately, few could have predicted how low the ceilings really were, or how one move in global policy could send it all crashing down,” referring to China’s 2018 ban on many types of recycling imports.5 Single-stream is clearly riddled with problems and we must find a better way to handle recycling.

“More than 20 million tons of curbside recyclable materials are disposed [of] annually. Curbside recycling in the U.S. currently recovers only 32% of available recyclables in single-family homes, leaving enormous and immediate  opportunity for growth to support the economy, address climate change, and keep recyclable commodities out of landfills.”6

A bird's eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF).
A bird’s eye view of the interior of a Material Recovery Facility (MRF). Photo by Urban Greendom on Flickr, Creative Commons license, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Material Recovery Facility (MRF)

Recycling collected through single-stream is taken to a Material Recovery Facility, or MRF (pronounced”murf”), and sorted by type of material for them to sell. That is the entire purpose of a MRF: the recycling trucks deposit the collected materials, and the MRF sorts, separates, removes waste from, and bales the recycling together. MRFs are businesses seeking profit; they are not municipally owned and operated.

The physical processing at MRFs varies. But a series of expensive, interconnected machines largely sorts the materials. We produce so much waste that there is no other way to separate it. In 2018, the U.S. produced 292.4 million tons of waste, and we recycled approximately 69 million tons.7 That’s not enough.

Generally, at the MRF, trucks dump the mixed materials onto a large floor, called the tipping floor. A front-end loader drops it into a large bin, called a drum feeder, at the start of the processing line. The materials move through a series of conveyor belts with fans, magnets, and wheels to separate the types of items. Humans remove debris and non-recyclable items at various points to prevent tangling or damage to the machinery. Small items, such as caps and utensils, are not likely to make it through these systems because of their size. In addition, they are difficult to bale because they do not have much surface area. For a video of how MRFs work, see Additional Resources below.

At the end of this process, the MRF bales the recyclables to sell to recyclers and manufacturers. The markets change constantly so one of the biggest challenges is recouping money from the materials. Remember, the MRF is looking to profit just like any other business. Recycling does not happen unless it is profitable.

Worker looking at bales of recycling at a recycling center.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Increased Contamination

Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables, or they may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like a plastic bag, but which is not recyclable. That plastic bag can get tangled in the machinery at the MRF, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables the MRF needs to sell. If the recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled or incinerated rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

“When consumers put non-recyclable items into their recycling bins, those materials take a long and circuitous (and expensive) route to the landfill.” -Jennie Romer8

Contamination rates more than doubled between 2007 and 2013.9 “Because of how the system works, the ‘magic bin’ is actually a disgusting, contaminated soup pot. Shaken, stirred, and dumped into a compactor truck with your neighbors’ random mix, contamination keeps 25% of what we put in our recycling bin from ever being processed at a MRF,” wrote Ryan Deer.10 Reducing contamination is key, but it is difficult within a single-stream recycling system.

“For nearly 30 years, Americans have been honeymooning with a recycling system that seems too good to be true.” -Ryan Deer, Roadrunner Recycling, Inc.11

Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a blue plastic Finesse shampoo bottle.
Paper recycling bale, contaminated with a plastic shampoo bottle. Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Dual-Stream Recycling

In a dual-stream system, each material type is kept in a separate bag or bin, and trucks have three or more compartments. The materials are already sorted upon arrival at the MRF. This was the common recycling collection system until single-stream became the dominant system by the mid-1990s. It costs more and requires trucks with separate sections. But the higher costs “of having residents sort could very well be offset by the higher-quality materials they’re recovering and able to sell.” Single-stream loses about 25% of collected materials from contaminants versus less than 12% in dual-stream.1213

Essentially, most recycling centers serve as a dual-stream system because residents separate the recycling into different dumpsters, which the recycling company collects directly. This results in lower contamination and higher recovery rates, meaning less of that recycling is landfilled.

“There is significant evidence that the resulting scrap material quality (and hence the revenue) is lower under single-stream collection than it is under a dual stream system or under systems like container deposits, where materials are kept separate.” -The Container Recycling Institute14

Collected PET plastic bottles crushed.
Photo by tanvi sharma on Unsplash

System-Wide Problems

Although consumers need to do their part, the problems with recycling in the U.S. do not fall solely on the public. In fact, the systems in place are themselves faulty. Packaging and single-use disposable production are out of control, and the market demand is low. The market needs improvement, as the cost for new materials is sometimes lower than recycled materials. Additionally, only between 50-74% of Americans have access to curbside recycling. There are multiple problems. But that doesn’t mean it can’t change. As The Recycling Partnership noted:

“The ultimate fate of recyclable materials rests in the hands of a broad set of stakeholders who must all do something new and different to support a transition to a circular economy. Strong, coordinated action is needed in areas ranging from package design, capital investments, scaled adoption of best management practices, policy interventions, and consumer engagement.15

How To Recycle Better

While recycling systems must be improved and we must find or create demand for recycled materials, we can help improve our own practices. Remember, that just because a product is made with recycled materials, does not necessarily mean it is recyclable. “A 2016 survey showed that 59 percent of the public thinks that ‘most types of items’ are recyclable in their town, perhaps without knowing the local rules,” wrote Beth Porter.16 You can find a list of what is acceptable in your area by going to your municipal website.

Here’s how you can help improve single-stream and dual-stream recycling to keep from contaminating the recycling:

      • Don’t put in plastic bags or films. (Note: Supermarkets often collect bags.)
      • Do not bag your recyclables.
      • Empty and rinse the containers. Food contamination, especially as it rots, reduces the value of the recyclables.
      • Don’t crush plastic recyclables. This is so that the MRF can read the resin codes (plastic #) on the bottom of the containers.
      • Separate the caps and only recycle them if they have a proper resin code that is accepted in your area. Most of the time, you will be throwing these away.
      • Do not recycle candy wrappers, paper cups, receipts, plastic straws and utensils, polystyrene or Styrofoam, shredded paper, complex cartons (milk cartons, broth, soup, etc.), large plastic items (chairs, laundry baskets, etc), electronics, or batteries.
      • Certain types of glass cannot be recycled: window, mirror, crystal, or Pyrex.
      • Do not put in take-out containers, especially foam ones, unless they are plastic #1 or #2 and are clean.
      • Pizza boxes depend on your area, but most of the time the grease on the cardboard contaminates recycling. You can tear off the bottom and recycle the top if it is free of grease and food.
      • Remove shrinkwraps from #1 and #2 bottles.
      • Frozen food boxes are usually not recyclable because they contain a layer of plastic coating (to protect the package from moisture).
      • Flatten cardboard boxes.
      • Other items that you should put in the garbage, and not the recycling, include applesauce/juice packets, milk or broth cartons (or any multi-layer packaging), and paper napkins/towels.

Some of the items listed above are accepted through separate recycling streams. Elizabeth Royte wrote, “A common motto is ‘When in doubt, throw it out,’ but I prefer the alternative ‘When in doubt, go find out’ to build better habits rather than giving up on confusing items.”17 Do your best and teach others how to recycle better as well.

The bottom line is, if we purchase something, we need to take responsibility for disposing of it. If we stop buying so many products in single-use disposable containers, especially plastics, the companies and manufacturers will stop producing them as demand goes down. At the same time, companies must take real initiative and stop producing waste that is not recyclable.

Graphic of a tree with the leaves in the shape of a recycling symbol. Blue sky background.
Image by 政徳 吉田 from Pixabay

Going Forward

“If all of the 37.4 million tons of single-family recyclables were put back to productive use instead of lost to disposal, it would reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by 96 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, conserve an annual energy equivalent of 154 million barrels of oil, and achieve the  equivalent of taking more than 20 million cars off U.S. highways.”18

We have the opportunity to make a real difference by better handling our waste. While recycling is not the answer to our waste problems, it is still very important. We need a coordinated effort to reduce waste, to increase demand and markets for recycling, and to be better stewards of the waste we do create. The Recycling Partnership lists these strategies in order to overhaul and improve our recycling systems:

    • “Substantially greater support of community recycling programs with capital funding, technical assistance, and efforts to strengthen and grow local political commitment to recycling services.
    • Development of new and enhanced state and federal recycling policies.
    • Continued and expanded investment in domestic material processing and end markets.
    • Citizen and consumer engagement to create and sustain robust and appropriate recycling behavior.
    • Continued innovation in the collection, sorting and general recyclability of materials, including the building of flexibility and resiliency to add new materials into the system.
    • Broader stakeholder engagement in achieving all elements of true circularity, in which the fate of all materials is not just intended to be recycled, but that they are designed, collected, and actually turned into something new.”19

In the end, we need to focus on reducing waste, including “recyclables,” in order to turn the tide of excessive waste. We must stop wishing for easy and convenient solutions and instead take responsibility for our waste.

Will we do it? What are your ideas? Feel free to leave me a comment below. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!

 

Additional Resources:

Video, “How Recycling Works,” SciShow, June 11, 2015. I love how succinctly this video breaks down how recycling works at the MRF. You’ll learn a lot in just 8 minutes!

Article, “What is a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)?,” by Shelby Bell,

Video, “Single Stream Recycling – Tour a Material Recovery Facility (MRF),” Van Dyk Recycling Solutions, October 13, 2016.

Video, “Ever Wonder Where Your Recyclables Go? Get an Inside Look at Where the Magic Happens,” about the Sims Municipal Recycling facility in New York City, featured by Mashable Deals on youtube, May 29, 2018.

Article, “These Items Don’t Belong in Your Recycling,” by Ryan Deer,

Article, “The Violent Afterlife of a Recycled Plastic Bottle: What happens after you toss it into the bin?” by Debra Winter, The Atlantic, December 4, 2015.

Article, “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” by Renee Cho, Columbia Climate School, March 13, 2020.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 7

Last updated on August 23, 2021.

Bell pepper and green beans in convenient plastic packaging
These food items do not require this much packaging. Photo by me

In my last article, I introduced take-back programs. Today we will continue that topic and look at programs that are a bit more successful, meaning that the rate of recycling is high.

Snack bag found on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

“Plastic packaging for food makes up the majority of municipal waste in America.” -A Plastic Ocean

TerraCycle programs

I love TerraCycle’s entire concept of making new things from waste, and I think its mission of recycling everything and eliminating waste is brilliant. Many companies sponsor take-back programs through TerraCycle at no cost to the consumer.1 These are awesome for waste streams in which there is no recycling option. There’s one for instrument strings, pens and writing tools  (which has a waiting list), and Brita filters. I participate in Bausch + Lomb’s free program to recycle contact lenses and their blister packs (and they accept all brands, not just Bausch + Lomb).2 This particular program has drop-off sites all over the place, usually at eye care offices. I love this one because I have to wear contact lenses for vision correction.

Though these programs encourage recycling and keep waste from littering the environment, they actually discourage companies from exploring new packaging options. A company can sponsor a recycling stream, such as waste from applesauce packets, juice pouches, snack bags, cosmetic and personal care items, and pay TerraCycle to recycle the items. In this way, the companies can take a passive approach and not have to deal with the problem directly. It gives consumers the impression that those companies are taking sustainable actions, but it really makes waste the consumer’s problem. It takes a lot of time and effort to clean, save, and ship the items; and even if the program is free, not everyone can or will voluntarily do it. These programs are a band-aid for the gushing wound of pollution.

“These programs are often funded by consumer product brands and are usually just a mechanism for the company to claim their non-recyclable products are recyclable.” -Jennie Romer, attorney and sustainability expert3

Again, I love what TerraCycle is doing! But I think it gives companies a reason to not be more active in their sustainability efforts. I think it’s a way for companies to take a NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach but not have to do much more than cover the minor costs. TerraCycle should be used for things people cannot avoid using, such as Brita filters, contact lenses, laundry detergent waste, shoes, and school supplies. But there are alternatives for things like snack bags, applesauce pouches, and coffee pods. Consumers should seek alternatives for those rather than trying to recycle them.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Glass Bottle Exchange

Homestead Creamery returnable milk bottles
This type of milk bottle used to be commonplace. Photo from Homestead Creamery

Historically, the bottled beverage industry used take-back programs during the twentieth century. This system of using returnable glass bottles for milk and soft drinks was better than recycling because it was truly a circular economy system. It is also the most sustainable type of container deposit program. Bottles were washed and refilled as many as 20-50 times. While a few companies use this system today through a deposit program, like Homestead Creamery (sold at some Kroger’s grocery stores), this system of glass bottle exchange has largely disappeared in the United States. However, you can check Drink Milk In Glass Bottle’s website to see if there are any options in your region.4

Glass Coca-Cola bottles in red carry cases
Remember these? Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

Container Deposit Programs

A very successful type of take-back program is the container deposit program. While sometimes controversial, they reduce litter and environmental pollution and improve recycling rates. The consumer is charged a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents per bottle or can. When the consumer returns that item for recycling, they get their deposit money back. This can include glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. Some call this system a tax, but it is clearly a deposit – when you return the container you get your money back, unlike with taxes.

Soda can with container deposit information engraved.
Many cans and bottles feature container deposit information as shown here. Photo by me

Benefits

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system internationally.5 There are so many benefits to this system, as CRI President Susan Collins noted:6

      • Dramatic reductions in litter and marine debris
      • Reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions due to fewer containers that need to be made from virgin materials
      • Additional jobs in recycling
      • More high-quality scrap for manufacturers
      • Extra income for consumers, charities, and community groups

Here’s a great short video from CRI explaining the system:

These systems are not meant to replace curbside recycling, but to supplement them to increase overall recycling. Curbside recycling is still not available to 50% of the American population, and curbside doesn’t address away-from-home consumption. Even where it is available, recycling rates have gradually dropped. “This decline is due in part to the increase in consumption of beverages away from home, and in public places where there are few available collection outlets for recycling. The drop in the recycling rate is also due to the shift away from aluminum to PET, which has a lower recycling rate,” according to Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010).7

“Using only single-stream curbside recycling (blue bins) fails to achieve even half of the recycling rate of container deposit laws. While curbside programs should be part of the recycling equation, because 30 percent to 50 percent of beverage containers are consumed away from home, residential programs alone can’t possibly be expected to produce high recycling rates.” -Susan Collins, CRI President

Container Deposit Programs are Quantifiably Successful

The first US beverage container deposit laws were passed in the early 1970s in Oregon and Vermont. Currently, this program exists in 10 US states and Guam, and 30 other countries around the world. “States with container deposit laws capture beverage bottles for recycling at a significantly higher rate, and the quality of recycled materials (meaning the level of contamination) is superior to materials collected from curbside recycling programs.”8 The overall recycling rate for bottles and cans with a deposit is 59%, compared to only 22% for bottles and cans without a deposit. Clearly, this system works well. The graph below shows the rates:

Graph from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI)

The participating states are California, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Oregon’s bottle capture rate is 81%. Sadly, there are no states in the southeast or states that border the Gulf of Mexico that participate. These are missed opportunities to protect our oceans and rivers.

Examples

Oregon’s BottleDrop Refillables program is a successful, circular loop between the program and craft breweries. Consumers pay a deposit and return the bottles to get the deposit back. Bottles are sorted, washed, inspected, and delivered back to Oregon’s craft beverage producers. According to their website, 598,755 bottles have been saved from being crushed and recycled.9 An example in Europe is Germany, where almost 46% of all drinks are sold in reusable bottles which are refilled 40-50 times before being sent for recycling.

Container Deposit Programs as Law

Legislation for this system is commonly referred to as “Bottle Bills.” A national bottle bill could be implemented as part of the recently proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. This would make the collection, redemption, and recycling of bottles and cans regulated and consistent and could increase the recycling rate to 80%!

“For the sake of our climate, our oceans and our future generations, we must do more to collect high-quality recyclable bottles and cans that can be used to produce new products. A national container deposit-refund law can make that happen.” -Susan Collins, CRI President10

Unfortunately, bottlers are usually against such bills because they do increase costs for them, though only slightly. Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania, wrote that every time a new Container Deposit bill is introduced or an expansion is proposed for an existing one, “Coke, Pepsi, and other bottlers hire lobbyists and run ad campaigns designed to stop them. And they usually do.” But the companies making so many single-use disposable containers need to step-up and be part of the solution.

Containers as Litter

I personally grew up in a container deposit state that also had curbside recycling, and never even thought to question it. It was just what we did (in addition to curbside recycling). Our family brought back bottles and cans to the grocery store each week, and we’d receive either the cash or a credit on our grocery total. I continued this practice into my adulthood. I didn’t see as much litter on the sides of the roads. In Tennessee, I feel like I see trash on every street, playground, and parking lot; much of the litter is from single-use beverage containers. According to CRI, beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter.

Image of plastic container art dolphin shaped to represent percentages of plastic containers recycled.
See this and additional plastic art projects by clicking on the image. Photo from CRI

“There are many quantifiable but just as important benefits of increased container recycling: the cleaner roadways, the healthier waterways, the growth in local jobs and green businesses and the satisfaction that we are doing what’s right not only for the planet but for future generations.” –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010)11

Solutions

Some companies use greenwashing and ‘sustainability’ to make consumers buy more. However, as long as packaging remains the responsibility of the consumer, we must consume less and buy more consciously. Companies must invest in better packaging and establish Extended Producer Responsibility programs. States must implement Container Deposit Programs to curb the impact of single-use disposable beverages. These systems reduce litter and increase recycling rates. Ultimately, though, ceasing the use of single-use disposable containers is one of the most impactful things we can do for the environment.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a link to the first post in this series in case you missed it. In my next post, I’ll explore companies that are already making recycling and reduction part of their mission.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post; all links are for informational purposes only.

 

Additional Resource:

Publications, Data Archive, Container Recycling Institute, accessed February 28, 2021.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 4

Last updated August 21, 2021.

Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. Bottles, fruit container, yogurt cup, plastic bags, etc. Photo by me
Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. I started doing trash audits, inspired by Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com and I realized how much plastic, mostly in the form of packaging, that I had to start eliminating. Photo by me

In my first article about packaging, I told you about packaging history, current problems with packaging, and greenwashing. I wrote about the misconceptions surrounding the terms biodegradable and compostable in my second article. In my third article, we explored bioplastics. Today, we will look at some other practices companies sometimes use to reduce their carbon footprint.

Image of a footprint with "CO2" over a map of the world
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Lightweighting

The demand for consumer goods is on the rise, especially with the population exponentially increasing. One way companies save money is to practice lightweighting, and sometimes it can reduce their environmental impact. However, this practice can also be harmful to the environment.

What is lightweighting? “A packaging trend wherein conventional packaging is replaced with a lighter-weight alternative and/or the overall amount of material used in packaging is reduced,” as defined in The Future of Packaging.1

Lighter weight items are cheaper to ship, saving companies money on fuel which also creates fewer emissions. But creating lighter packaging means replacing conventional packaging, such as glass, with lighter weight alternatives, like plastic. This has made plastic the preferred material and unfortunately, much of that plastic is not recycled.

Another lightweighting method is making the materials thinner. PET bottles and aluminum cans use about 30% less material than they did in the 1980s. Lush Cosmetics worked with their bottling manufacturer to make their bottles 10% thinner, and this saved nearly 13,500 pounds of plastic in 2016.

“Although lightweighting gains have been made for all containers as a result of these technological efficiencies, these gains are overshadowed by huge increases in per capita consumption and total beverage sales (especially for bottled water…sports drinks and energy drinks) as well as stagnant or shrinking recycling rates. All of these factors lead to vastly more container material” not getting recycled. –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates2

Convenience Items

Lightweighting makes consumer goods cheaper and easier to access, especially in the form of convenience items. Think about coffee pods, applesauce pouches, and fresh vegetables ready to be steamed in plastic. But at what cost does this convenience come? This packaging is not recyclable in most municipalities and goes straight to landfills. Some can be sent to a specialty recycler, like Terracycle, but that is not a long-term practical solution.

Example of Coffee pod or “K-Cup”. I used these for several years before I realized the harm they were causing.
Example of an applesauce pouch, now also sold as smoothie blends and yogurt pouches. I purchased these for several years before I realized how plastic was damaging our environment.

“This is lightweighting’s biggest problem: no economic recycling model has yet emerged due to the technical challenges in processing and recovering the base materials,” -Chris Daly, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, PepsiCo3

Water

Sales of bottled water, especially in plastic, now exceed those of other non-alcoholic bottled beverages in the US. Here is a graph that exhibits the rapid growth:

Graph of plastic bottle water sales
Graph from the Container Recycling Institute

A few companies now sell bottled water in aluminum, including the brands Open Water4 and CanO Water.5 In summer 2019, PepsiCo announced that they would stop selling Bubly seltzer water in plastic bottles and switch to aluminum cans. They also planned to test switching Aquafina to aluminum cans.6

Replacing plastic with aluminum can be a positive packaging change. This is not a new idea, as brands like LaCroix water have been in aluminum for years. Aluminum is 100% recyclable, assuming they are free from plastic film lining, and almost 75% of all aluminum produced in the U.S. is still in use today, according to the Aluminum Association.7 Recycling aluminum uses significantly less energy because it is heated at a much lower temperature than using bauxite, the virgin raw material used to make aluminum.

However, the real solution is to drink tap water and carry your own reusable metal or glass water container.

Image of Open Water aluminum bottles

“Bottled water is healthy and convenient, but single-use plastic bottles are wreaking havoc on our environment, and especially our oceans.”8

Products in Cartons

Great Value Organic 2% milk in a blue, purple, and white carton
Milk carton

Cartons are another example of lightweighting, as the containers are lighter to transport. There are two types: cartons like those that contain milk or orange juice, are paperboard lined with a plastic film (polyethylene). Milk cartons haven’t been wax coated since the 1940s, as noted by Beth Terry.9 The other, called aseptic or shelf-stable containers, are multilayered with paperboard, plastic film (polyethylene), and aluminum. Most of the latter are made by the packaging company Tetra Pak. Common examples of products sold in cartons include shelf-stable milk, broth, coconut water, and juice boxes.

However, a carton’s end of life is usually highly problematic because they are multi-layered and it is expensive to separate the materials. In addition, some polyethylenes contain toxins linked to human health problems.

Diagrams of cartons and the layers of materials.
Diagrams from the Carton Council

Recyclability is Poor

Cartons are recyclable in theory, but it is not common, in large part because it is difficult to separate the layers. The recycler shreds the cartons, sanitizes them, and ties the shreds into bales. A pulp mill that has the appropriate machinery can buy the bales from the recycler, and the polyethylene coating must be separated from the paper and strained off. The plastics can be shipped to a plastics manufacturer for re-use, but usually, it is simply disposed of. The shredded cartons can then be reprocessed into pulp for paper.10 That’s a lot of work for a single type of waste, and most of the time these are landfilled or incinerated.

The Carton Council

The Carton Council advertises cartons as recyclable. However, as attorney and sustainability expert Jennie Romer noted, this is an unqualified claim. The Federal Trade Commission’s definition of recycling requires that an entire package be recyclable to be labeled as such. Cartons are not fully recyclable since the plastic film and aluminum foil layer are usually discarded. “A qualified claim of ‘only the paper layer is recyclable’ would be more accurate.”11

The Carton Council also asserts that if you cannot recycle them where you live, you can ship them at your own cost to certain facilities.12 However, I cleaned and saved cartons from non-dairy milk and broth for several months and found it was cost-prohibitive to ship. I found this discouraging and impractical.

We should avoid buying all products in these containers for both environmental and health reasons. Remember, that even if your local recycler “accepts” these items for recycling, they are often landfilled. The paper in these cartons might break down in the environment but the toxins in the plastic will infect the land and water for decades or longer.

Swanson chicken broth in a shelf stable carton
Swanson chicken broth in a shelf-stable carton

Solutions

We have power as consumers. Companies want to sell us their goods, presumably more than they want to sell us the packaging. So avoid purchasing products in packaging that you don’t like or support.

Instead, purchase items in bulk in your own containers, or buy goods in metal or glass instead of plastic or cartons. Buy a reusable beverage container to avoid buying drinks in plastic and avoid convenience packaging since it is rarely recyclable.

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe! In my next post, I’ll explain how the manufacturers should become part of the solution.

 

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Last updated on September 9, 2021.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.

Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

A person holding 'compostable' plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York.
‘Compostable’ plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York. Don’t buy these! Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional Resources:

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.

Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.

Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.

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