Why can’t we recycle all plastics?

| 20/02/2019
Ask Auntie, CNS Local Life, Caymanian status

I attempt to recycle everything I can and even make product choices based on packaging. My question is, since all the recyclables are shipped off island for processing anyway, why are we only recycling types 1 and 2 of plastic through the DoE? Surely it would be to Cayman’s benefit to send everything we can for recycling, including the terribly common higher types of plastic?

Auntie’s answer: I am so glad you asked this question because in fact, the Department of Environmental Health (DEH) cannot recycle the other plastics you mention, which would be types 3-7 and, generally speaking, are “hard” plastics.

The DEH is not unique in this respect. Hard plastics include Styrofoam, PVCs (like salad dressing bottles) and LDPEs (squeezable bottles and many plastic bags); in these examples, the former is not recyclable and the last two are rarely accepted anywhere for recycling.

A DEH official confirmed that the department only collects types 1 and 2 plastics as there are currently more markets for these plastics than other types. In addition, the recycling process for types 1 and 2 “is different from many other types of plastics, and the DEH does not presently have the infrastructure to facilitate the recycling” of the other plastics.

Types 1 and 2 plastics are used to manufacture such items as soda and water bottles, milk jugs and detergent bottles, and are identified by PET or HDPE codes or the numbers 1 or 2 on the container. All other plastics should be added to non-recyclable garbage.

The official added, “While the DEH may be able to increase the types of recyclables that it accepts in the future, it urges residents to limit the use of types 3-7 plastics as much as possible through reuse, choosing products with less packaging and purchasing in bulk.”

And that is the answer to the reader’s question about recycling all plastics, but that is not the end of today’s column.

The information on non-recyclable plastic begs the question (at least it did for me) about how much of an issue is it to deal with mounds of the “wrong” plastic ending up in DEH recycle bins here. Not surprisingly this does pose a problem. “The DEH not only has a challenge with types 3-7 plastics but with other contaminants that are placed in the recycling containers,” the official explained.

From statistics gathered last year and included in an article posted on its Facebook page offering advice on how to avoid contaminating recycled items, the DEH noted that of the about 7,500 lbs of recyclables it collected every week, 20% of the items were not suitable for recycling and so ended up in the George Town landfill. I find that figure shockingly high.

While I realise that it is unfortunate that not all plastics can be recycled, at least for now, the other problem is that the DEH has to go through all of the items in its recycle bins and separate out one-fifth of what is deposited. That alone clearly requires a lot of effort and time, and the DEH has tried to prevent this by publishing information on what can be recycled and explaining that the load can be contaminated by either placing recyclables in the wrong containers (such as aluminium cans thrown in with plastic bottles) or tossing non-recyclable items, like types 3-7 plastics, in with recyclable ones.

For more information, the US Environmental Protection Agency offers a concise breakdown of recyclables on its website.

A column from last year also offers some tips on how everyone can do their part to be as green as possible (see Concerned about official recycling efforts).

Meanwhile, here’s hoping that those who recycle here (which should, of course, be everyone, and maybe one day that will be the case either voluntarily or through legislation) take a close look at the number on their plastic bottles before putting them into the “green” pile.

Send questions to auntie@caymannewsservice.com

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Category: Ask Auntie, Environmental Questions

Comments (4)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    So why does the DEH not just ban plastics that can’t be recycled? The non-recyclable plastics are easily replaceable with better types – or paper products. It seems rather odd that things like Styrofoam (which has numerous substitutes) are let into the country without there being a solution to dispose of it in a sustainable way.

    • Wait, not so fast slick Willie says:

      Probably because they’re in all your essential household items? Our modern society is dependent on some of these plastics, we need to weened off them as new alternatives are produced. This will most likely take another century at least or when our abundant supply of fossil fuels gets curtailed.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Bring on the waste-to-energy plant. All of these plastics can produce energy.

    • Economics of scale says:

      Yea but we’d have to start stock piling now and maybe in 20 years we might have enough to run a WTE plant for 6 months.