The Building Wave of #5 Plastics Recycling

 

Written by John Lively, director, Environment and Material Science at Preserve. Preserve partners with our Brita® team to recycle #5 plastic water filters.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), #5 plastic is the most common plastic found in the U.S. municipal waste stream. For Preserve, the company where I’ve worked for almost 15 years, this stream of plastic is a treasure-trove of sustainable material.

First of all, #5 plastic is one of the least impactful plastics according to many metrics and analyses. From its efficient chemical structure to its lack of harmful byproducts like BPA, on many measures #5 plastic routinely ranks as one of the most sustainable options for makers of plastic products. Yet one metric where it does not perform well is its reliance on fossil fuels. While some petrochemical companies have begun to develop #5 plastic from bio-based resources like sugar cane, Preserve has tackled this challenge by sourcing 100 percent recycled #5 plastic for our products.

This has not been for the faint-hearted. Recycling rates for #5 plastic have been a lowly 2 percent for over 20 years — most of which comes from the gardening industry and automobile recycling efforts (think batteries and bumpers). This stuff is not fit for Preserve’s products, like toothbrushes, cups, cutting boards and food storage containers. That’s why in 2001, Preserve started partnering with Stonyfield Farm to recycle their #5 yogurt cups into our products.

Once Preserve became known as the company that turns yogurt cups into toothbrushes, we started to get some intriguing phone calls.

Me: “Hello.  Thanks for calling Preserve.”
Caller: “Hi.  Do you take yogurt cups for recycling?  I’ve got a big box of them that I’d like to send you.”
Me: “Umm.  Hmm.  OK.  But why don’t you recycle them in your town? “|
Caller: “Our town only recycles #1 and #2 plastics.”
Me: “Bummer!  Well, send us your #5s and we’ll recycle them.”
Caller: “Great!  Sure would be nice if I didn’t have to pay for postage.”
Me: “Umm.  Hmm.  I hear you.  We can’t do that right now.  It is just too expensive for us.”

Fast forward a few years and the conversation goes a little differently …

Caller: “Our town only recycles #1 and #2 plastics.”
Me: “Bummer!  We’re running a collection program called Gimme 5.  Simply drop off your #5s at one of our locations and we’ll take it from there.”
Caller: “Great!  Glad you’ve been listening to me.”
Me: “You know it!”

In those few years, we discovered that #5 plastic like yogurt cups were rarely collected and then separated in the recycling process. So we started our own collection program called Gimme 5. Gimme 5 collects clean, stamped #5 plastic and works with local materials recovery facilities and recyclers to turn it into new products. Gimme 5 also collects harder-to-recycle items, like Brita® water filters, where we use the #5 plastic in them to make new products.

And things have been improving. Almost 60 percent of U.S. households have access to programs that collect #5 plastics.  And prices for these recovered #5 plastics are increasing, allowing more and more towns to actually spend the time to separate these #5 plastics when they collect it. Many recyclers are also now targeting waste streams from grocery stores as a good supply of #5 plastic.

But they’ve still got a long way to go. Many challenges lie ahead for #5 plastics recycling, from varying material properties to cleanliness to color. As well, lack of recyclers who can turn post-consumer #5 into food grade #5 plastic is another barrier to increasing these rates.

And finally, many of us are asking, “Where are we really going?” #1 plastic bottles (think soda and water) have been a focus of the plastics recycling industry, yet only about 20 percent of #1 plastic is recycled. This is a laudable success but a far cry from the high recycling rates (over 50 percent) that we envision for a sustainable future.

Read more about Preserve’s Gimme 5 program.

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