Unlucky Seven

Published Tuesday, October 30, 2012, in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to ask a question because, instead of ending up with an answer, you just end up with more questions.  I came face to face with that reality recently.

The question
My question arose after a recent fall supper where I was helping out.  Because of limited capacity on the dishwashing line, our committee had to compromise and use plastic cups for cold drinks.  We got what we thought was a ‘green’ brand: the box said the cups were ‘100% compostable’ and ‘made from plants’. 

However, in sorting through the recyclables afterwards, I noticed the cups carried the recycling symbol with the number seven and the word ‘other’.  And upon closer examination of the box, I noticed the ‘100% compostable’ claim had a qualifier: ‘industrially compostable’.

A little voice inside me said, “Don’t ask; just put them in the blue bin!”  But it was overruled by another little voice wondering, “So... what does that seven mean, and should I compost or recycle these cups?”

Unlucky seven
After a bit of research, I learned that today’s system of coding plastics for recyclability dates back to 1988.  Back then, most plastic products were produced from one of six different types of resin, so six classes of recyclables were designated.  They had long technical names like polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or high density polyethylene (HDPE), but most of us came to know them better by their symbols: a triangle of arrows around a number from one to six.  Good so far.

However, even in 1988, not every single plastic product fit neatly into one of the six classes.  Some were blends and some were just different.  So a class seven was designated – basically, a catch-all for plastic products that didn’t fit anywhere else. 

Unfortunately, the catch-all nature of that class seven has made it virtually impossible to recycle any products that fall into it.  They may carry the triangular symbol we’ve come to accept as an indicator of recyclability, but they are for all practical purposes garbage, destined for the landfill.

Compost, recycle or trash?
Now I was even less sure of what to do with those cups.  The seven seemed to indicate that they were not recyclable, and ‘industrially compostable’ had me worried my backyard heap wouldn’t cut it. 

Hoping for clarity, I called the company’s toll free number and two NB landfills.  I learned that the cups are made from a unique corn-based plastic that does not have a number of its own; that’s why they fall into category seven.  And:

  1. They are recyclable into new cups, BUT ONLY IF they are separated from all other types of plastic.  Unfortunately, that’s extremely difficult for most recycling facilities because corn-based plastic looks just like regular plastic.  The only way to be sure is to literally check the symbol on every container, and that’s just not very feasible.  The company indicated that the cups could also be recycled with regular hard plastic.  My recycling contacts suggested that’s true, but only if it’s a small percentage in the recycling mix; in larger amounts, it becomes a contaminant that could downgrade the entire batch.
  2. The cups will break down well if composted in facilities that get hot enough - IE like the facilities operated by many solid waste commissions.  Unfortunately, if you live in a region with central composting, putting plastic-looking cups in your compost bin may result in it getting rejected by the collectors.

In the end, the cups are recyclable and compostable, but with so many conditions that neither option appears very practical.  It would seem to call into question the benefits of plant-based plastics.

So what to do?

  1. If possible, avoid products marked with the seven symbol, because even if you put them into your blue box, at best they’ll end up landfilled and at worst they’ll be contaminants in streams of true recyclables.
  2. Call your local recycling hotline for advice on how to dispose of individual materials you’re unsure about.
  3. Your feedback matters: consider calling the consumer hotline of products packaged in materials with the seven symbol to ask them to use packaging that is recyclable.

So what of my cups?  They’ll be delivered to the composting facility of my local solid waste commission the next time I happen to be in that area.

Phew – talk about complicated.  But in the end, I guess it’s a good thing I asked.