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Recycling Roulette

When Folks Want to Help the Environment but Can’t Figure Out the Rules

Published in ChicagoNow July 31, 2019

I must confess I have been recycling incorrectly for years. I really want to do my share, but the rules are so confusing and the markings on containers are hard to find and difficult for old eyes to read. Consequently, I have been faithfully tossing the wrong plastics into my blue alley bin, filling it with materials that apparently end up never degrading in landfills rather than being used to create useful products.

An article in my local paper, the Evanston Roundtable entitled What Do Those Numbers on Plastic Containers Mean? was both enlightening and discouraging. Perhaps I missed the handout about what should go in my huge bin because I thought Styrofoam trays, if they were washed of all food, were fine. My bad. And I bothered to scrub them clean to boot.

Even more disheartening was learning that, while it’s fine to recycle plastics numbered 1-5 and 7 in my bin, these mixed plastics limit what they can be used to make unless they are re-sorted. For example, while products labeled 1 can be used to make soft drink bottles, those labeled 4 can make trash bags. Mixing all of these plastics in my bin limits their reuse potential unless they are resorted. I have no idea if they are.

The City of Evanston does provide an explanation online. Perhaps I missed the email, because I didn’t know about Styrofoam trays used by most markets to pack food items. It seems wrong to toss these in the garbage, but I’m not sure what the alternative is other than asking markets not to use them. I’ve been pretty good about obvious items like aluminum cans, small and food-free cardboard cartons, newspapers, and junk mail. And I know electronics and plastic bags are a no-no and need to be recycled elsewhere. I can take those thin plastic bags and wrappers to Jewel, and Target takes them, along with printer ink cartridges. Otherwise, I look for local opportunities to recycle broken printers and other electronic items.

Hard to read the number on this one

I blame the other part of recycling roulette on plastic manufacturers and stores like coffee shops that claim to recycle. I know I don’t have young eyes, but it is often hard to find the recycling symbol on plastics and even harder to read the number inside. Perhaps stamping them in a color or putting it on the label itself, and not covering them with an “expired by” date or sticker would help. And don’t get me started on coffee shops that have cute names for recycled materials but no explanation of what they are. So many times, I hear folks asking one another if an item can be recycled. Should I put the drink cup in one bin and the plastic straw (still working on that issue) in another? Again, simple signage would help.

I’m still unsure what to do with plastic that is not labeled. Or containers that I assume are aluminum but may not be:

I’m worried about our environment and the amount of garbage we produce. I really want to do my part. But many folks like me who want to do the right thing could benefit from receiving simple written directions. Perhaps those directions could also be posted on recycling bins and in businesses that provide a container for this purpose.

Now that China no longer wants our recycling, I do wonder if it simply ends up in the dump. That would be sad now that I finally understand how to play recycling roulette.


by Laurie Levy
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