5 packaging materials you didn’t know are difficult to recycle

Recycling bin
CC BY 2.0 Colin Davis

Recycling is confusing, even for the most well-intentioned and informed conscious consumers. Capabilities of municipal recycling facilities vary from region to region, and items that are difficult-to-recycle sometimes get looped in with regularly accepted items.

Not all paper, metal, glass and plastic packaging is created equal, and many common items that seem to fall in the “recyclable” category are far from it. Knowing to “watch out” for these common household waste items will help you prevent contamination at your local municipal recycling facility (MRF) and ensure that the items you do recycle are kept at their highest value at all times:

1. Black plastic
Plastic is plastic, right? With regards to the types of plastic accepted curbside in general, we know this to be vastly untrue, but black plastic is a big recycling “watch out” that many people are unaware of. The optical scanners used to identify types of plastic at municipal recycling facilities using the reflection of light deem black plastic unrecyclable in the current infrastructure. Why? Black plastic does not reflect light. Thus, the rigid plastic of black microwave food trays, takeout containers and other items are not accepted by most MRFs, even if the resin number on the bottom is accepted in your bin.

2. Gradient glass
Glass is one of the most highly recyclable materials accepted by MRFs, but depending on where you live, some curbside programs require residents to sort colored glass from clear glass, or only accept clear and brown (both of which generally have high market demand). Once colored, glass cannot be turned into another color, so when it comes to gradient or multi-colored glass, the material is not recyclable because these colors cannot be separated.

When contaminants (i.e. different color glass or other materials) are mixed in with glass, it decreases the value of the recovered glass, increases costs and slows production. Gradient and multi-colored glass, then, is basically a contaminant to itself in the current recycling infrastructure. But on the up side, this discarded glass, if captured, is often milled and ground for use in concrete.

3. Natural and synthetic packaging combos
Multi-compositional packaging configurations (i.e. flexible plastic) are a recycling “don’t” due to the need for separation at the material level, but items comprised of entirely separate, recyclable waste streams become difficult if not isolated. For example, a coated paper coffee cup with a plastic top would not be recyclable if thrown away as a unit—the lid must be separated from the cup (which is generally not recyclable due to the plastic lining) and tossed in the recycling receptacle on its own.

Other examples of unrecyclable natural and synthetic combinations are paper blister packs with foil and single-serve beverage pods.

4. Biodegradable and bioplastic
Bioplastics can be broadly broken down into two categories: durable and biodegradable. For instance, the PlantBottle is a durable bioplastic alternative to traditional PET bottles made by Coca-Cola. Made with up to 30 percent ethanol sourced from plant material, the PlantBottle won’t decompose, but it can be recycled with traditional PET containers and bottles. It is important to note that this is an outstanding example, as not all bioplastics are recyclable.

Biodegradable bioplastics on the other hand, like increasingly popular PLA (polylactic acid), are exactly as they sound: in theory, they break down naturally in the environment or may be composted. However, in most cases, biodegradable bioplastics will only break down in a high-temperature industrial composting facility, not your average household compost bin. Plus, these are not recyclable.

5. Post-consumer recycled content (PCR)
The whole point of recycling is to capture the value of materials like discarded metal, paper and plastic for use in the production of new items. But the inclusion of post-consumer recycled content (PCR) in the production of these new items does not always equal recyclability. PCR plastic content is often multi-compositional and has little traceability, which means that once aggregated, it is difficult to know where exactly it came from and what types of plastic it is comprised of.

However, integrating PCR can result in a fully recyclable product. For example, Procter & Gamble teamed up with TerraCycle and SUEZ in Europe to create the world’s first fully recyclable shampoo bottle made from PCR beach plastic. Special sorting and processing logistics mean the right kinds of PCR content is used in the production of a bottle that can go in the blue bin.

5 packaging materials you didn’t know are difficult to recycle
How many of these common items have you placed in your blue bin?