The Problem 9 oz cups are used all over campus to serve refreshments at sporting events, lectures, and meetings. Despite being made of #6 plastics (polystyrene) these cups are not recyclable on campus.
E-mail Correspondence with Facilities Contact Gary Falasca
Email #1 Hi Mr. Falasca and Mr. Benner, I'm Tyler Tobin a sophomore in Professor Al Wurth's Politics of the Environment Class. I'm working on a group project with Tyler Kelley and Alexander Fegely to get some answers about a recent change in the recycling policy at Lehigh. From the day I set foot on Lehigh's Campus I've been able to throw all my recyclables in the single stream bins. But recently I was told that we are no longer allowed to recycle the #6 plastic 9oz cups that are oh so popular on campus. I was hoping either of you could provide some more information as to why this change has occurred and what can be done so that we can recycle these cups again because I'm sure they account for a large amount of waste here on campus. If its a problem with the recycling center I would greatly appreciate if you could put me in contact with the officials at the recycling center. Thank you for all your help. Sincerely, Tyler Tobin
Email #2 Hi Tyler,Thank you for your interest in our recycling program. We began single stream in the Fall of 2008 and it has been very successful in increasing our capture rate to 30% of all generated waste, up from 16% before single stream. Unfortunately, we have never been able to accept plastic cups. Information on our web site confirms this...http://www.lehigh.edu/~infac/acceptable.html We asked the recycler why the plastic cups are not acceptable. Their response was that only rigid plastic containers are acceptable-melting points are different.So, if you have been putting cups into the single stream bins, they are most likely being separated out at the recycling facility and sent out with the trash.We will continue to look for a source that will accept these cups, since there are so many on campus. Perhaps a better solution would be source reduction and simply not use this type of cup. Gary Falasca
Link Information As highlighted in Mr. Falasca’s response Lehigh’s recycling policy is lined out very well and does not accept plastic cups and cutlery
Email #3 Hi Mr. Falasca, I really appreciate your response, it answered a lot of my questions. And I'm very glad to hear you're looking for an alternative recycling center to handle this issue. I was just hoping you could send me some contact information of the center we are currently using so I can get in contact with them to fully learn their point of view so my group and I can education the public and help find a better solution. And I'll be sure to let you know if we find any viable solutions. Thank You, Tyler
Email #4 Tyler,Our recycling goes to:Greenstar North America 799 Smith Lane Northampton, PA 18067 610.262-6988
Contact with Greenstar North America On Monday April 19, 2010 at approximately 11am I dialed Greenstar and had a conversation with the operator named Michelle. I asked as to why #6 plastics were not recycled and alluded to Gary’s email mentioning varying melting points. The only reason certain types of plastic are not recycled is due to markets. I learned from my conversation that recycling centers are for profit organizations that get paid to collect the recycling, wash it, separate it, and in Greenstar’s case bail it. Then the bails of sorted plastics are sold to various companies that then reuse the plastics as they see fit. A carpet company was mentioned as a large buyer of recycled plastic. All plastics and other materials that are not bailed are just sent to the landfill. “Just because its got a recycling symbol on the bottom doesn’t mean that we can recycle it. We’re a for profit organization– people need to remember that” –Greenstar Rep Recycling is a profit driven market and the market dictates what is recyclable. #1 and #2 plastics are used often and are therefore easily recycled. Plastics #3-7 less easily recycled and therefore have a smaller market. Also in discussing Lehigh’s recycling contract with Greenstar it was clearly laid out that non rigid containers ie cups, salad containers, and the like are not included in Lehigh’s contract. This goes for plastic cutlery as well. It was advised by Greenstar that Lehigh pays per pound what goes to the recycling center. We could save Lehigh hauling and recycling center costs by separating our recyclables well.
#1 Number 1 PlasticsPET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) Found in: Soft drink, water and beer bottles; mouthwash bottles; peanut butter containers; salad dressing and vegetable oil containers; ovenable food trays.Recycling: Picked up through most curbside recycling programs.Recycled into: Polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, (occasionally) new containers PET plastic is the most common for single-use bottled beverages, because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to recycle. It poses low risk of leaching breakdown products. Recycling rates remain relatively low (around 20%), though the material is in high demand by remanufacturers. Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#ixzz0mADJHhkY
#2 Number 2 Plastics HDPE (high density polyethylene) Found in: Milk jugs, juice bottles; bleach, detergent and household cleaner bottles; shampoo bottles; some trash and shopping bags; motor oil bottles; butter and yogurt tubs; cereal box linersRecycling: Picked up through most curbside recycling programs, although some allow only those containers with necks.Recycled into: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, picnic tables, fencing HDPE is a versatile plastic with many uses, especially for packaging. It carries low risk of leaching and is readily recyclable into many goods. Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#ixzz0mADdbUlq
#3 Number 3 PlasticsV (Vinyl) or PVC Found in: Window cleaner and detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, cooking oil bottles, clear food packaging, wire jacketing, medical equipment, siding, windows, pipingRecycling: Rarely recycled; accepted by some plastic lumber makers. Recycled into: Decks, paneling, mudflaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, mats PVC is tough and weathers well, so it is commonly used for piping, siding and similar applications. PVC contains chlorine, so its manufacture can release highly dangerous dioxins. If you must cook with PVC, don't let the plastic touch food. Also never burn PVC, because it releases toxins. Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#ixzz0mADoTVaq
#4 Number 4 Plastics LDPE (low density polyethylene) Found in: Squeezable bottles; bread, frozen food, dry cleaning and shopping bags; tote bags; clothing; furniture; carpet Recycling: LDPE is not often recycled through curbside programs, but some communities will accept it. Plastic shopping bags can be returned to many stores for recycling.Recycled into: Trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties, floor tile LDPE is a flexible plastic with many applications. Historically it has not been accepted through most American curbside recycling programs, but more and more communities are starting to accept it. Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#ixzz0mADwZthG
#5 Number 5 Plastics PP (polypropylene) Found in: Some yogurt containers, syrup bottles, ketchup bottles, caps, straws, medicine bottles Recycling: Number 5 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs. Recycled into: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays Polypropylene has a high melting point, and so is often chosen for containers that must accept hot liquid. It is gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers. Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#ixzz0mAE4PkFD
#6 Number 6 Plastics PS (polystyrene) Found in: Disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, compact disc cases Recycling: Number 6 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs.Recycled into: Insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers Polystyrene can be made into rigid or foam products -- in the latter case it is popularly known as the trademark Styrofoam. Evidence suggests polystyrene can leach potential toxins into foods. The material was long on environmentalists' hit lists for dispersing widely across the landscape, and for being notoriously difficult to recycle. Most places still don't accept it, though it is gradually gaining traction. Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#ixzz0mAEEtkMY
#7 Number 7 Plastics Miscellaneous Found in: Three- and five-gallon water bottles, 'bullet-proof' materials, sunglasses, DVDs, iPod and computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon Recycling: Number 7 plastics have traditionally not been recycled, though some curbside programs now take them.Recycled into: Plastic lumber, custom-made products A wide variety of plastic resins that don't fit into the previous categories are lumped into number 7. A few are even made from plants (polyactide) and are compostable. Polycarbonate is number 7, and is the hard plastic that has parents worried these days, after studies have shown it can leach potential hormone disruptors. Read more: http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#ixzz0mAEN0600
Other Options Doesn’t seems as though much research has been done as to whether paper is better than plastic. There is a compostable option… comes from processed corn, will compost in under a year in a home composter, ½ year in industrial composter. Far more expensive though.
Paper Cups Pro’s Will slowly biodegrade, even slower in a landfill. Raw material is from trees, a rather renewable resource. Con’s High energy costs, even higher than comparable Styrofoam cups. Wax coating, and dyes make this hard to biodegrade, and hardly real paper at all.
Styrofoam Pro’s Cheap to produce, with less energy cost than paper cups Recyclable in some areas (not Lehigh though) Relatively inert in a landfill Con’s Lasts forever in landfill, similar plastics account for ~25% of volume of most landfills Some plastic compositions can leach harmful organics into the environment. When burned produces the most toxic substance know to man – dioxin. Produced from non renewable petroleum derivatives.
Conventional Plastic Pro’s Cheap to produce, with less energy cost than paper cups Recyclable in some areas especially #1 and #2 Relatively inert in a landfill Con’s Lasts forever in landfill, similar plastics account for ~25% of volume of most landfills Some plastic compositions can leach harmful organics into the environment. When burned produces the most toxic substance know to man – dioxin. Produced from non renewable petroleum derivatives.
Compostable Plastic Pro’s Compostable Made from PLA (polylatic acid) which comes from corn a renewable resource Con’s Expensive to produce and buy Takes about a year to compost in home composters, ½ year in industrial composters
Reusable Cups Pro’s Virtually no waste Con’s Small energy/resource consumption to wash after use High initial energy/resource cost Lack of convience
Conclusions My thoughts for people considering how they can reduce their ecological footprint would be to use a reusable cup when possible. However, when necessary I’d say a recyclable plastic cups is the next best alternative. Unfortunately any cups we, at Lehigh, try recycle will just end up in landfill so its really important to use a reusable cup. Maybe one day compostable cups will be a viable alternative but now they take too long to decompose and are just too expensive to reasonable replace cheap plastic cups we use today. Paper seems like it should be a good option but really it puts more mass into landfills and is more costly in terms of energy than plastic and is never recyclable.
Sources for Cup Pro’s and Con’s http://en.allexperts.com/q/Environmental-Science-1471/disosable-paper-drinking-cups.htm http://www.portlandmercury.com/portland/Content?oid=29552&category=34029 http://www.newton.dep.anl.gov/askasci/gen99/gen99498.htm http://www.ecoproductsstore.com/cold_cups_and_lids.html