Environmentalism: The Power of the People

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Often times as individuals, it can feel like we have no impact on the environmental issues that seem to be plaguing us. I mean, how can I make any impact when there are billions of other people? Especially, when a lot people don’t care to make changes within their lives for environmental reasons. This is something I have reflected on immensely. However, I’ve started to believe that through our collective voice we can create change and even if we can’t, I still stand behind it because it’s just the right thing to do.This really boils down to integrity. I was told growing up that integrity is about what you do when no one is watching. Your decisions to change need to be changes that you commit to regardless of others.

I recently heard a quote from an unknown source that carries a lot of relevance on this. “Taking comfort in the idea our actions mean nothing if our neighbors continue to do as they’ve always done will be the hardest obstacle to overcome. The smallest gesture, the most insignificant of resolutions are a step in the right direction towards a healthier world.” This feeling of helplessness on environmental issues that we all seem to share is no justification for us not to change our behavior. If we aren’t going to change our own behavior then who will? And at the end of the day, do you really want to be contributing to the problem?

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We need to lead the way and make changes in our day-to-day lives because small changes by huge amounts of people make massive impacts. Our change in behavior drives business behavior. So generically, if consumers decided not to purchase from a current company, that will force 1 of 2 things from that company. That said company will either go out of business or they will modify their behavior to match the desire of their consumers.

I imagine you might be asking yourself, what changes can I make? Well, like most issues, things aren’t black and white, and there isn’t one correct answer. One fundamental understanding is that money drives our world. Your decisions on what you do and don’t support drives the behavior of others. Essentially, you vote with your dollar. This means, for example, being intentional about purchasing from companies that use sustainable resources and use packaging that is recyclable, compostable, or made from bio-based resources. You also want to avoid supporting companies that actively oppose conservation efforts or refuse to invest in environmental alternatives. The question for you to answer is what are the most important issues to you? Let me know in the comments below!

Breaking Down Compostable packaging

Over the last several years, there seems to be significant increase in compostable plastic packaging. Although it might seem like a no-brainer to make our packaging compostable whenever possible, this increase in popularity wasn’t a smooth road to the prevalence we are starting to see today. In fact, one of the first widely known compostable plastic packages went on to also be one of the most loathed packages.

Perhaps you remember the noisy chip bag scandal from a few years back? In 2009 Pepsi-co launched a bio-based sun chip bag made from PLA (polylactic acid). The best part about this bag was that it was also compostable and would biodegrade just about anywhere. This was Pepsi’s effort to address both littering and offer a more environmentally friendly alternative.

For this, I commend Pepsi for their efforts because not every brand owner is willing to invest in trying to make their products more environmentally friendly. However, a lot of people didn’t feel the same way as me. Consumers quickly became annoyed with the noise that these bags made. All chip bags crinkle a bit, but customers couldn’t handle noise coming from this bag. It was so bad that sun chips ended up being the butt end of jokes for months and even lost market share.

SunChips image by theimpulsivebuy via Flickr.

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from this whole fiasco. For starters, I think it shows how concerned with convenience we have all become. I mean, come on; we couldn’t be inconvenienced with a compostable chip bag because it was too noisy? Seems a bit silly. Despite most peoples tendency to self describe as environmentally conscience, they aren’t even willing to make minor sacrifices. Eventually Pepsi was able to redesign the material and bag to not be quite as noisy and the whole ordeal was quickly forgotten.

Pepsi’s Sun Chips bag was just one example of many compostable packaging products on the market today. Nonetheless, there are several challenges with consumers understanding of these products. For me, a lot of these issues start at the labels.

There are various labels that companies have started using. Most of them are tied back to the regulatory agency testing and approving the compost-ability of these products. While I am all for having an authority body determining what is compostable and what isn’t, having multiple authority agencies is contributing to the confusion. I think our government officials would be able to make a much larger impact if they would focus on setting a single labeling system that informs consumers rather than just broad plastic bans.

Current labels often just say they are “compostable”, but they don’t differentiate on if they are industrial or backyard compostable. There is a very big difference between the two.

As the name implies, backyard compostable products can be broken down in a simple back yard compost set-up or even a small local composting facility that operates just on a larger scale. Industrial composting facilities are bit more of an exact science. They not only operate on huge scales, but also tightly control the size of the inputs by grinding and control the heat, water, and air that the compost is exposed to. This allows industrial facilities to operate at higher temperatures and breakdown items that might not breakdown at home. Regardless of which type is used, the end result is valuable nutrient rich soil.

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

The differences between industrial and Backyard composting are exactly why it’s so important for consumers to understand the labels. Industrial compostable items won’t breakdown in the backyard and neither material will breakdown once in a landfill so it is critical that items end up at the right place in order to be effective.

Unfortunately, we all don’t have access to industrial compost facilities near us. There are ways to find local composting such as this site. And lucky for us, the number of facilities is increasing as people begin to see the value. Keep an eye out for these composting logos. I’d love to hear if you think the labels communicate effectively.

Going Back to Our Roots With Bio-Based Plastic

Do you know what one of the first plastics was? Would you guess that it was plant based? It was actually cellophane, a bio-based film. Cellophane got its name from Cellulose (the raw material) and diaphane (a word that had roots implying it was transparent). As you could guess, with a raw material of cellulose, cellophane is made from the same raw material as paper products, typically trees.

Photo by Emily Bernal on Unsplash

After being invented in 1908, cellophane dominated the packaging world for decades. It wasn’t until the 60’s, when polyethylene, a common fossil fuel based resin, was created. Sourcing from cheap resources like oil and natural gas made it hard for products like cellophane to compete with polyethylene.

Today polyethylene is still one of, if not the most, popular plastics. It’s used for a lot of plastic bags and bottles in some way, shape, or form. However, in a surprising turn of events, many plastic manufacturers are adopting bio-based plastics such as cellophane again. The negative association many people have with fossil fuel based plastic has been the driving force back to bio-based plastic.

The concern of working with fossil fuel based materials is understandable. Fossil fuels are a finite resource that won’t last forever. There are also a lot of concerns with the leaching of chemicals both during the processing of the plastic raw materials and in the end use when they are in direct contact with consumer products.

Bio-based plastic can be a good solution to a lot of these concerns. One of the most popular bio-based plastics today is PLA, or polylactic acid, which is typically derived from corn. Other Bio plastics are made from other starchy/sugary plants like sugar cane or potatoes. These sugars are eventually converted into the polymer chain that makes the finished plastic. This allows us to make plastic from things that can be regrown every year and thus are made from a renewable resource. This also means that as those crops grow, they process and convert CO2 that will be created later in the process, helping bring them closer to carbon neutral.

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

On top of this, when it comes time to disposal of a bio-based plastic, it can often be composted. This is really important when it comes to flexible packaging because it is currently really challenging in most places to dispose of plastic in an environmental way effectively since recycling has proven to be such a challenge. It’s important to note that this is not always the case and the compost-ability of bio-based plastic needs to be tested and validated on a case-by-case basis.

While this sounds great in theory, there are still shortcomings. One major concern is the amount of land required to grow the required crops to create enough raw materials. Growing crops specifically for bio-based plastic would require huge amounts of land that would likely encroach on wildlife habitats. One alternative that some companies have taken is to use only food scraps from places like potato processing facilities rather than growing crops directly for bio-based plastic. However, there are definitely not enough food scraps to create the plastic we need. Another important thing to consider is the crops used to grow the raw ingredients used for bio-based plastic take away from our ability to grow edible food. With so many people going hungry in our world, it’s critical that we do everything we can to make sure they are fed.

Additional aspects that a lot of people don’t consider when looking at the branding of bio-based plastic is their performance. Alone, it can be challenging for them to offer the appropriate barrier properties and protection to the food and other products they contain. The industry has found work-arounds to this by creating super thin coatings either from metals or fossil fuel based resins. Lastly, many of these bio-based resins are recyclable. The polymer chains simply can’t hold up to the reprocessing.

On top of all of this, bio-based plastics are expensive. They can be as much as 4X as expensive or more. This might not seem like a big deal when we think of how cheap plastic usually is, but you would be surprised how sensitive both customers and brand owners can be to this. Many customers, while claiming to be eco-conscience, often don’t want to pay anything extra. This means brand owners would be forced to absorb the cost if they want to make the change.

Despite all of this, I believe bio-based resins have a place in our plastic packaging. They might not be the silver bullet that we are looking for, but they certainly bring a lot of value. But what do you think? Do you think we should be switching to bio-based plastics? Or do you think there are better approaches? Let me know in the comments.

It’s Time to Clean Up Your Act With Compost

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There are many ways we can take a stance and make an impact when it comes to our waste. While I could go on and on all day about the value in recycling, it’s important to do things that we have a bit more direct control over. This is where I believe composting has some major value.

Don’t get me wrong, recycling is important, but there a lot of ways you can do everything right and your perfect recycling still ends up in a landfill. Simple mistakes from others like putting plastic bags in the recycling can result in your precious recyclables getting caught up in the bags. This is where compost shines.

Compost is the perfect opportunity to turn all your precious food scraps and food waste into brown gold. Here in the United States we are producing over 63 million tons of food waste annually according the most recent numbers from the EPA. That amounts to 21.6% of all our waste. Now that’s a lot of trash!

A large majority of our food waste is currently going to landfills. Once in landfills, the bulk of it doesn’t even breakdown. A lot of people fixate on the amount of time it will take things like plastic products to breakdown in the landfill, but the reality is near nothing breaks down because it creates an anaerobic (lacking oxygen) environment. In this environment, important bacteria that breakdown things like food can’t survive.

All of our food waste doesn’t need to be sent to the landfill though. One of the easiest things we all can do is compost. The idea is simple; we collect all our organic materials that can easily decompose into one place. This collection of materials degrades over time until you are left with fertile soil. Then this soil can be reused for gardening and agriculture. We are essentially saving the valuable resources still left in our spoiling foods and reusing them to grow more food in the future.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Now this is obviously an oversimplification, but it gives you a rough idea. A lot of people are turning to backyard composting as a great way to reduce their waste and create soil for their gardens. However, that’s not the only option for a lot of people today. Across the US composting facilities are popping up in a variety of formats. Right here in Reno we are able to use Down To Earth Composting to reduce our waste.

Composting isn’t kept to just food waste either. It also can include things like all your yard clippings or even paper and cardboard.  Considering that yard trimmings make up another 12% of our total waste and paper makes up another 23% waste annually, we are left with a lot of compostable material. In fact, between food waste, yard waste, and paper, we are able to compost close to 57% of our total waste! Can you imagine if we all were able to cut our waste production in half by composting ? That would be huge!

Don’t take my word for it and do some research of your own. See if you are able to find a composting facility near you. They will have much more information about what exactly you can keep out of landfills by composting.

It’s Time We Look at the Big Picture With Our Trash

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We are in a constant state of information overload; always being told to focus on this or that. It can be nearly impossible to know where our attention is best served. Often this turns into a sort of slight of hands. We focus so hard on one thing that something else in our peripheral goes unnoticed. This same phenomenon even happens with our trash and the products we use daily.

An area I specifically see a lot of this is with plastic. These days there are countless brands devoted to the eradication of plastic. It might as well be the devil to them and we end up along for the marketing ride, buying into the same conclusion. My fixation on plastic isn’t any better, and is why I talk about plastic and its recyclability all the time.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the frustration with plastic. It’s a real problem and we need to find solutions. That’s precisely the motivation behind creating content like this. We need to discuss and collaborate to resolve our plastic and waste issues. However, I don’t share the same sentiment as everyone else that by simply removing plastic entirely from our lives, we will somehow solve all our waste issues. Instead, I think we need to look at the big picture.

There are few different ways we can do this. One concept that has exploded in popularity is this idea of a carbon footprint. The idea is that your carbon footprint is the sum of the greenhouse gases generated by your actions. These greenhouse gases are what contribute to global warming so the idea is the lower the carbon footprint, the lower the contribution towards global warming.

Carbon footprints can also be applied to specific products. This is often referred to as a life cycle analysis (LCA) when being applied to products. The carbon footprint or LCA of a package takes everything throughout the product life into consideration. This starts with the raw materials required to make a product, the energy and resources required to convert those raw materials, the waste or end use of the product, and all the energy and exhaust in-between transporting.

Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Applying this concept to plastic packaging often tells a very different story than what we are used to. Despite our tendency to see plastic trash everywhere, it’s only as bad as the difference from the alternative. Since plastic comes in a lot of shapes and sizes we need to compare it on a case by case basis. EcoChain did a wonderful job comparing the LCA of a plastic jar to glass. In their study they found that plastic far outperformed glass mostly due to the weight of glass and the challenges transporting it.

Even this data needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Their data suggested a plastic recycle rate of 50% (the current recycling rate in the Netherlands), but here in the US only about 29% of plastic bottles are recycled according to the EPA. Despite this discrepancy, plastic bottles often come out with a superior carbon footprint when looking at the entire LCA. However plastic doesn’t always come out on top when comparing in other segments.

So whats the point of all this? The materials we use everyday are a lot more complicated than we might think. We need to look at the big picture and not rely on one single source. Carbon footprints and LCAs are are great way to compare things apples-to-apples (assuming you can find a trustworthy source on the comparison).

When it comes to deciding the ideal materials to make our products from, the answer is often “it depends.” We can’t say that our issues would be solved if we removed all plastic from our lives. But that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for alternatives.

If you want to learn more about carbon footprints and LCA, there are great resources out there to check out. They offer information on understanding your own carbon footprint and a lot more detail about exactly how LCAs are put together. I highly suggest you read up on these things for yourself! We need to try to stay objective and depend on science to tell us the best options available.

Those Electronics Don’t Belong in the Trash

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In our modern world, it’s nearly impossible to go without electronics. They’re built into every component of our lives. Whether it is the cell phone we use as our alarm clock in the morning, the computer we use to write and read content like this, or even the electric cars that are beginning to power our commutes. Electronics are inescapable, and for good reason. They power lives. They offer greater connection, allowing us to do things our grand parents couldn’t have dreamed of.

Though, there’s one important thing that we tend to forget about; what happens once these electronics have finished serving their purpose? I have seen countless drawers over the years at friends’ houses with a collection of cellphones, MP3 players, and spent batteries that we no longer knew what to do with. However, these are all items that still have value if you dispose of them properly.

You’ve probably seen symbols like this one on various electronics around the house:

WEEE: Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment

This logo is put on electronics to try and communicate exactly what it looks like: Don’t put these items in the trash with everyhting else. This logo, also called WEEE, stands for Waste from Electrical and Electric Equipment. And you guessed it, the logo goes on electrical equipment.

Rolled out in the early 2000’s in Europe, the WEEE directive to put these logos on everything was started for an important reason. Not only is it incredibly wasteful for us to just throw our electronics in the trash, they can be dangerous. Many of the batteries that power the items we use daily are full of toxic chemicals that can leach into our environment and water ways.

In addition to this, many of these products have valuable resources within them that can be recycled. Those toxic and dangerous chemicals often need to be mined. When we recycle out batteries, we can harvest the valuable resources in the recycling process and reduce the amount of additonal mining we need to do. But keep in mind these items don’t belong in your curbside recycling bin.

The most important question: If not in the trash or our regular recycling, where do these items belong? Well, lucky for us, there are electronic waste facilities all over. One of the easiest places to start are the same stores that you buy your electronics from. Think of places like Best Buy or your local hardware stores. There are other great resources like Call2Recycle and Earth911, which both have a ton of additional information and a recycling location finder.

Realistically you aren’t going to run to the store every time you have a battery to get rid of. This is why it’s important to have a place to store them in the meantime in your home. Try to create a place where battery terminals won’t touch. Think of how batteries are bought, all on their side without the ends touching. Even though the batteries don’t have the power to charge your devices, they can still be dangerous when all compounded together. Having a storage space set up will make it easier every time you have another battery or old cell phone to toss.

Have any ideas on getting rid of electronics that works well for you? Share them below! New ideas are always appreciated.

Are Plastic Bags Recyclable?

If you didn’t already know, those plastic bags you get from the grocery store and the pouches a lot of your beloved grocery store items come in can’t be recycled at your house. People frequently make this mistake and toss anything plastic into the recycle bin and assume, “they’ll sort it out at the recycling facility.” Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

Recycling facilities try their best to sort out good recyclables VS. contaminants, but it’s a hard and expensive job. Employees and machinery spend all day next to a conveyor belt looking for things that don’t belong. But if you can’t tell what’s recyclable when you can get a good look at a package, how do we expect someone to spot bad/good items when hundreds of items are coming down a conveyor?

There are a lot of things that get tossed in recycling that aren’t actually recyclable, but plastic bags are a major culprit. According to the EPA‘s most recent numbers, we create almost 37 million tons of plastic waste. Of that 37 million, only 3.1 million tons are recycled. Meaning we aren’t even recycling 10% of our plastic waste. Now some of that is due to the type of plastic being used, which you can read about here, but there are some simple ways we can change our recycling habits to make a huge impact.

One of the biggest ways we can improve our recycling habits is by putting recyclables in the right place. The easiest place to start? Keep plastic bags out of our recycling bins. Plastic bags and flexible packaging in general can cause a number of problems when they get mixed in with recycling bins.

For starters, they make it really challenging to sort other recyclables. It’s really easy for other bottles, cans, or paper to get stuck inside of bags. This not only makes it really challenging to separate the different materials, but can lead to mislabeling those items stuck in bags. This can lead to paper or aluminum contaminating the plastic recyclables. Unfortunately these bags and any items trapped inside can end up just being sent to the landfill.

Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

The main concern when it comes to plastic bags is that they can’t be ground up in the same equipment used with other recyclable plastic. In fact they can get tangled up in the machinery, gumming things up and damaging the machinery. This is why it’s so important to keep your bags out of recycling bin. We are talking about thousands of dollars in damage because you put the wrong thing in the recycling bin. This can make it challenging for these operations to be profitable, which in turn makes it hard to charge low prices for the outputs after being processed. It hurts the entire recycling industry. So keep those bags out of your recycling and NEVER bag your recyclables.

This isn’t all doom and gloom though. These plastic bags still have value and can be recycled in their own way. As we have talked about in other blog posts, the How2Recycle program offers a lot of great information on how to handle these bags. These programs have a system of drop-off locations. So simply collect those bags at home and bring them in to one of their locations to be recycled. They will be turned into things like Trex lumber to give them a new valuable purpose. But remember, this only applies to bags that are appropriately labeled or listed on How2Recycle’s website as acceptable. Things like cellophane, biodegradable, compostable, or frozen food bags cannot be brought to these locations. They are made from incompatible materials.

I know at my house we all collect our grocery bags and other acceptable flexible packaging in our pantry. Then every couple weeks we bring them to grocery store close by that accepts store drop offs. So next time you have a bag and you are reaching for the trash or recycling, think again and start a bag collection of your own! Let me know if you have any questions about where your flexible packaging should go. I’d be happy to help!

You Need to Know How2Recycle

Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

One of the biggest challenges I see time and time again when it comes to recycling and trash is consumer education. It’s hard to get people to care about something like packaging. Mostly it’s just viewed as a means to an end. However, that doesn’t make it any less important. The products we use every day almost always come wrapped or packaged in something. And that package’s value doesn’t have to expire the moment it’s opened. We need to recycle, but we need to do it right.

I live in a house of 4 people and I am constantly correcting them about what is and isn’t recyclable. It took a lot of communication to just get through that you can’t put flexible packaging in our curbside bin. I won’t lie, I even often get tripped up about how to dispose of random packaging, but I will usually take the time to look it up myself.

The challenge is the average consumer doesn’t know what can and can’t be recycled. What makes that worse, is they either don’t care to or aren’t willing to spend the time to look it up. The result is large amounts of our recyclables being sent to landfills due to contamination.

However, back in 2008 a project was launched by the Sustainable packaging Coalition in an effort to get more of the right thing into the recycle bin. That project is called How2Recycle. It includes labels like those below. These labels offer detailed yet simple critical information you need to know in order to recycle properly.

Photo from How2Recycle

Honestly it blows me away that something so simple took so long to catch on. This doesn’t take away from the ingenious concept because sometimes creating something so simple can be even harder. You’ll notice the labels are broken into 3-4 main sections.

At the very top you’ll find information about how to prepare the materials for recycling. This will include things like in the above example of just rinsing before recycling. It can also include information like what to do with caps, sprayers, pumps, or labels.

The next thing you’ll notice is the large recycle logo. This comes in a few different varieties. These range from the example on the left showing something that is widely recyclable, to the middle which is not recyclable, to the right showing something that requires checking locally. Another type that is not shown is items that need to be dropped off at certain store locations. One of the best things about this program is they have information on their website for checking locally and a store drop-off location finder.

Below the logo you’ll see the generic material type. This includes things like paper, glass, plastic, or metal. Below that you’ll see a reference to what part of the package the label is referring to such as pouch, box, or can. Between these two labels, you can get a pretty good idea of which part of the package should be disposed of where. This is great for packages with multiple components.

I highly suggest you check out How2Recycle’s website. They have a ton of information about the brands that are adopting their label and why all of this is so important. It’s a shame more brands haven’t adopted this labeling system. It offers all the tools consumers need to recycle correctly and their website updates frequently as things change and evolve. Keep an eye out next time you’re tossing something out. I’m sure you’ll start to notice these labels in more places than you realized.

WAIT, All Plastics Aren’t Recyclable???

Have you ever found yourself finishing something in your fridge and wondering if the package you are left with is recyclable? You’re not alone. You and countless others run into this issue constantly. Often people resort to wish-cycling, which refers to wishing or hoping the item you are placing in a recycling bin is recyclable. Unfortunately, this frequently ends up resulting in recyclables being contaminated with things that are in fact not recyclable. It might not seem like a big deal for a few things to slip through and contaminate a collection of recyclables, but it is. It often results in the entire lot being rejected and sent to a landfill or incineration. That’s a lot of valuable resources wasted in my opinion.

One interesting thing about this wish-cycling behavior is people that care about the environment the most also end up doing it the most. Think about it. Is your uncle Larry that doesn’t give a rats-a** about the environment going to put in the extra effort to put something in the recycling? No. He’s just going to throw it in the trash with everything else. You on the other hand will likely hope the item is recyclable. However, I don’t want you to just hope. I want to educate you so you are able to know the difference and dispose of these things correctly.

The first step to making sense of recyclables is starting with something that is often mis-recycled: Plastic. Plastic is one of those things that a lot of people just assume is recyclable, but that’s not always the case. There are a lot of varieties that are in fact recyclable though. The best way to start to learn the difference is to start taking note of those recycle codes on the bottom of your packages. So here is a brief overview of the 7 categories and their codes.

A super common code you will see is the #1, which is often just called PET, polyester, or its full name polyethylene terephthalate. This is the most common material used for things like water and soda bottles. This is also one of the most recyclable items you will see. It can both be recycled (turned into another bottle) or up-cycled (used for components in jackets and carpeting). Whenever you see this logo on a package, it’s safe to say it can be recycled.

#2 is also a super common code you will see. This code represents High Density Polyethylene. It is used for rugged containers like laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, or even grocery store bags. Although those items are recyclable, they are not always recyclable in your curbside recycling bins. Things like the milk jugs and detergent bottles are both recyclable at home, but HDPE flexible packaging should be taken to a store drop off. Flexible packaging refers to anything that’s really thin and malleable such as grocery bags or pouches.

The #3 code is probably one you don’t see as often. PVC stands for Polyvinyl Chloride. This is the same PVC that, you guessed it, PVC pipes are made out of. It is also used for things like garden hoses, blood bags, and those really annoying packages that scissors come in that require scissors to open (blister packs). While PVC can be very valuable to our day-to-day lives, its not so recyclable at the moment. In fact the vast majority of recycling facilities won’t accept PVC in their recycling. The chloride, or chlorine, component can be hazardous to work with once they break it down.

The #4 recycling code represents LDPE or Low Density Polyethylene. This a small variation in chemical structure that leads to some different properties. These changes lead to LDPE mostly being used for bags such as bread bags or even squeezable bottles. Just like with HDPE (#2), although LDPE is recyclable, only rigid containers are recyclable at your typical curbside. Well its unfortunate flexible packaging likes bags and pouches can’t be recycled on the curb, you can collect those items at home and drop them off at store-drop off locations.

The #4 recycling code is for PP, or Polypropylene. This plastic is often used for things like bottle caps, tubs (such as cool whip or sour cream containers), or straws. PP can often be recycled curbside, but this varies from area to area so its best to check with your local waste facility. The most recent information I have seen says to leave items like caps attached because when they are loose in recycling they can easily get mixed with other materials.

We’re almost there, only a couple more codes to go..

The last of the solid material types is #6 PS, or Polystyrene. This is what styrofoam is made out of. So it is used for the takeout containers, foam in shipping boxes, as well as things like plastic utensils. This is another plastic that is not recyclable and thus should always be tossed in the trash if you see it. One trick I use to remember this number is because the abbreviation is PS, I think of “P.S.” at the end of a letter to remember this is the last solid material code.

The last recycling code is #7 and really just refers to everything else. Often times manufactures will layer multiple plastic materials together to get the best properties from each of them and those will be listed under a #7 code. This code can also refer to other plastics not listed in the other 6 codes. Items with this code on them are never recyclable. There is simply no way for recycling facilities to separate the different materials out. Items such as baby bottles, fiberglass, or even small bags/pouches can be labeled #7.

Hopefully this gives you a better understanding of what to do when you see these numbers on the bottom of your packages. Try to see if you can find these numbers on the packages you use in your day to day life. Remember to clean and empty anything you put in the recycling bin and that not all plastic is recyclable. These numbers are there to help you sort out what goes where. When the wrong thing ends up in the recycling bin it can lead to a lot of extra trash and waste being created. Feel free to reach out to your local trash/recycling provider to check their rules. If you don’t see a number, toss it in the trash. It’s safer that way. There’s an easy rule to follow here: When in doubt, throw it out!

Plastic: The Good, The Bad, & The Baggy

When it comes to talking about trash, you can’t ignore the elephant in the room that is plastic. It is likely one of the first things you think of when you think of packaging waste and it’s many environmentalists worst nightmare. While I understand the concern around plastic waste, it is an oversimplification to label it exclusively as a bad thing.

The first step to making a decision about the pros and cons of anything starts with educating yourself. After all, you can’t label something as bad until you really understand it. As a Packaging Engineer for a flexible packaging company, I know a thing or two about plastic.  It comes in a variety of types and formats and overall, it simplifies our lives in a lot of ways despite how negatively it is often viewed by environmentalists. However, plastic is definitely a major issue and its functional value as a packaging material has lead to it being a major pollutant.

Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash

It can be hard looking at pictures like this without getting angry about how plastic is washing up on our shores and destroying our environment. However, I look at images like this and see a different problem. A people problem. It’s not plastic that threw itself out a car window or left itself behind after a day at the beach. We did it. Well, maybe not you or I, but people did this. Our constant craving for convenience leaves a trail of waste in our path.

The challenge is that removing plastic from this equation and replacing it with something else wouldn’t solve our waste accumulation. In fact, in many ways if we are going to continue living our lives the way we do, plastic is the better choice. For example compare plastic to glass. Although a lot of people like the more “natural” appearance of glass because they don’t associate it with chemicals, plastic has a lot of benefits. It requires significantly less energy to produce one container, it weighs significantly less which means fuel costs transporting it will be lower, and it is less fragile meaning less wasted products due to broken packaging. On the other hand, glass is infinitely recyclable, while it can be challenging to repeatedly recycle plastic into another package. Instead plastic is often up-cycled into things like carpet or jackets.

The answers to the challenge of the extensive pollution aren’t easy to solve. When we ask ourselves what the ideal materials are for the products we use, the answer is usually “it depends.” It’s not as black and white as we might hope. Plus a lot of items we use aren’t bottles and jars that make comparing glass and plastic even possible. Like all of our waste, it really starts by reducing our consumption and moving to reusable containers whenever possible.

I challenge you to try and go a single day without touching a single piece of plastic. It’s nearly impossible. I didn’t make it past my toothpaste container this morning. This isn’t just meant to point out the pervasive use of plastic in our lives, but also the versatility and flexibility that it offers us. How many plastic items did you need to touch throughout the day? Have any ideas on how we could replace them? I’m always open to learning new ideas.