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A few decades ago, many people believed that the future of industry and society could be summed up in one word- plastics. Plastic was seen as a miraculous material, capable of assuming any desired form and possessing the intrinsic strength of much more expensive material, such as steel or wood. Consumers could not get enough plastic items, and indeed it seemed like our lives would be improved drastically as more and more plastic items were developed. Eventually, however, this early optimism was replaced by a sobering realization that these plastic items were becoming dangerous for the environment. Plastic products were viewed as disposable, which caused landfills to become overloaded with non-degrading milk cartons and plastic soda bottles.

But the one plastic item that became an inadvertent symbol for corporate waste and environmental disregard was the clamshell box developed for the fast food industry. Designed to be a more suitable container for sandwiches than expensive paper boxes, clamshells became the catalyst for the plastic recycling movement, even though they were not recyclable themselves. Since these foam boxes did not break down without light sources to aid them, environmentalists feared that the landscape would soon be overrun with these foam containers. Thus, the plastic recycling programs were created in the early 1980s.

But has the plastic recycling program been a boon for the environment and economy, or a costly and inefficient bust? That debate continues to this day, but a consumer needs to consider some lesser-known facts about plastics in general, and how they affect the recycling program debate.

First of all, there is no one substance known as 'plastic'. The plastics industry always refers to the plural 'plastics'. Plastics are various polymers that all share some common traits, but are not interchangeable. Almost all polymer plastics are by-products of petroleum, but that's where the similarities end. The plastics industry categorizes most plastics into 7 types of plastic, according to complex formulas. Of these 7 common types of plastics, only 2 are recyclable. A consumer who wants to know if their plastic item is truly recyclable should not depend on the familiar 'chasing arrows' symbol. Contrary to popular belief, this symbol is not a definitive representation of recyclability. There is usually a number within the symbol. If that number is a 1 or 2, the item is recyclable. Most commonly, milk cartons and plastic soda bottles are recyclable. Foam peanuts are not, but they can be reused in their present form. Plastics used in many heavy-duty consumer products, such as television sets and furniture, are not truly recyclable, either. The fast food industry has long abandoned the foam clamshell, but it was also non-recyclable.

The reluctance of some plastics companies to embrace the recycling program has more to do with economics than environmental concerns. Type 1 plastic, including soda containers, can either be made from virgin stock or recycled stock. The virgin stock can be expensive, making the recycling option very appealing for those manufacturers. Type 2 plastics, including milk cartons, are in a different position economically.
The virgin stock is preferred for its availability and lower expense. Recycled type 2 plastic often requires more intensive labor to become viable, including time spent removing old milk residue and other contaminants. The cost of using recycled type 2 stock can make the decision to use it less profitable in the long run. The rest of the plastics are not presently recyclable, so virgin stock is the only option for those manufacturers.

A recycling program has many hidden costs, which must be absorbed by at least one link in the recycling chain. Workers must be hired to separate material into their various types, and expensive machinery is used to make the plastic usable for the plastics companies. This recycled material must also be transported to the manufacturing plant, at a cost to the environment.

Materials that cannot be processed must also be transported to the proper landfills or other disposal sites. If the plastics company is willing to absorb these costs in order to produce a more environmentally-friendly product, then all is well and good with the recycling program. If the funding is not readily available, however, a recycling program can become a liability for the sponsors. Once the payroll and maintenance budget becomes problematic, the entire project can suffer.

Plastic recycling programs are great ideas which deserve public support, but keeping such a program alive in the face of economic pressures can be a tremendous challenge.