Archived Story

Why can’t Styrofoam be recycled?

Published 10:23am Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Column: Randy Tuchtenhagen, Solid Waste Officer

A frequently ask question is why we can’t recycle Styrofoam. There seems to be a lot of it in shipping packages, meat products at the grocery and in boxes when we purchase large items such as a TV, computer or other electronic equipment. Styrofoam is most often labeled as No. 6. Looking at the “recycling information and instruction” sheet you will see we do not accept No. 6.

Randy Tuchtenhagen

Other examples of No. 6 may be the clear cover on a pie or cake sold at grocery stores. Not all are No. 6, but if so, are not recyclable. The number tells us “what kind of plastic” it is.

To give a simple explanation for No. 6 plastic it is a very, very low grade material with almost no value and can be difficult to melt down and reuse over again. On the other hand it is cheap and easy to make things with No. 6.

It’s economics, not whether or not the plastic can be recycled. Not so of other plastics.

Remember: The number inside the triangle of arrows tells “what kind” of plastic the container is made from. The numbers or arrow is not an indicator of whether or not it is recyclable. There are many, many kinds of plastic in the world and we recycle mostly food and beverage plastic containers. If you cannot find the chasing arrows with a number inside them the item cannot be recycled.

I mentioned a few months back that there may be some new numbers added to the plastic identification system. Those numbers may be No. 8, No. 9 and No. 10 if adopted. New plastics are being developed, some are biodegradable, some have a thinner wall to make them lighter but still have durability, etc.

Recycling processing centers need to sort the different types of plastics before they can be marketed and better identity marking will help. Many recycling centers use optical scanners to help them sort plastics and colors because it’s faster and more efficient.

That means we should help recyclers by making certain the containers are empty of product. How would you like to work at a machine that splits, cuts and smashes containers with liquid still inside them? And yes, lids can be recycled.

If you look closely at plastic lids you will find many of them to be No. 4. There is some discussion about removing or leaving the lids on, but to encourage people to empty them before placing in a recycling container I usually recommend to remove them.

On a positive note, recycling of aluminum containers is at an all time high. That is very good news for the environment because it takes 95 percent less energy to produce a new can from recycled materials.

While this news is exciting we need to consider that the national recycling rate for aluminum has been at about 57 percent and is now over 58 percent. Nothing to be overly proud of but still a good number. In states that have a beverage container deposit of 5 or 10 cents, the recycling rates are 80 percent and higher.

The price paid for aluminum cans is very good right now too. I know we could be recycling more aluminum because I continue to pick them up from the streets and along the roadside.

Randy Tuchtenhagen is the Freeborn County solid waste officer.