The annual observance of Earth Day lends itself very well to interesting news articles and blog posts. Earth Day 2023 did not disappoint. Recently, the internet has been teeming with posts discussing sustainability and environmental protection from nearly every angle. We even saw a healthy dose of posts explaining those numbers found on consumer plastics.
I cannot speak for anyone but myself, but those types of posts make me laugh. It has been decades since the plastic numbering system was implemented. All this time and we still don’t understand the numbers? Either Americans are not that intelligent, or the media just thinks we aren’t. I’ll let you make the call.
Never Intended for Us
If you really don’t know what the numbers mean, do not sweat it. They were never intended for us consumers anyway. The numbering system was developed back in the 1970s to help manufacturers easily identify the types of plastics with which they were working. They needed to know for obvious reasons.
Truth be told, there are hundreds of different types of plastics with their own unique characteristics. The numbering system divides plastics into seven different categories to help manufacturers identify them in sight.
The numbers apply to us only in terms of consumer recycling. In other words, perhaps your community has a mandatory recycling program in place. You only recycle plastics with certain numbers on them while the rest get thrown away. The numbers essentially tell you what to do with your plastic waste.
Mixing Plastics Doesn’t Work
Back in the 1970s, manufacturers already knew that mixing plastics doesn’t work well. So to avoid any confusion, a consortium of organizations within the plastics sector got together and came up with the numbering system. Putting numbers on plastics made it easier to keep them separate.
The practice continues today. In terms of practical examples, consider Seraphim Plastics. The Tennessee company buys commercial plastic waste and turns it into a product known as regrind. But again, they cannot mix different types of plastics together. So they must know exactly what they are dealing with.
Seraphim can easily discern the type of plastic a customer wants to sell to them by asking about the number. If it is plastic they can use, they will buy and recycle it. The subsequent regrind can be sold to a manufacturer who needs that particular type of plastic for its processes.
Plastics Have To Be Sorted
By now, you probably realize that different types of plastics have to be sorted from one another to keep manufacturers happy. Therein lies the secret to Seraphim’s success versus the failures of most municipal recycling programs.
Commercial plastic recycling works extremely well because customers separate their plastics prior to selling them to companies like Seraphim. When Seraphim picks up a load of dunnage trays, for example, that is all they are picking up. They don’t need to separate anything at the plant.
By contrast, municipal recycling programs pick up plastics, paper, and glass in the same receptacles. Sometimes, trash is mixed in. And of course, plastics with the wrong number are recycled as well. So when loads get back to the recycling facility, they need to be sorted. Sorting is time-consuming, inefficient, and expensive.
Now You Know
If you didn’t understand plastic recycling numbers before, you should now. You know that those numbers exist for manufacturers rather than consumers. Hopefully you also now understand why municipal plastic recycling is a losing proposition. Companies like Seraphim can make it work at the commercial level, but recycling consumer plastics at the municipal level just isn’t viable.