Toward Zero Waste

The world of waste materials is so complicated that even the experts struggle to understand how to make the most impact. Still, there are obvious ways in which we can make a difference. One simply immediate way is to reduce packaging.

According to the EPA, containers and packaging accounted for 28% of waste received at municipal landfills (the latest figures available). Purchasing in bulk, bringing your own bags and selecting products with minimal packaging are good ways to keep some waste out of the landfill.

Clearly, reducing waste, heading for Zero Waste, is the ultimate goal. However, for most of us that will be a gradual process as we get more familiar with our waste stream and the alternatives we can choose.

We began the Recycling Intitiative to begin to help reduce waste in Floyd County. Over the past two years, we’ve established a presence at the Floyd Farmers Market on first Saturdays of the month. Our primary goal is to educate consumers. Our secondary goal is to reduce the County’s waste stream (it costs the County a lot to send trash to the landfill).

Recycling and Reuse Collections at the Floyd Farmers Market

We collect many harder-to-recycle items and items for reuse by local vendors on First Saturdays 10 AM-12:30 PM at the Floyd Farmers Market (outside during warm weather, in the Sustain Floyd office during cold weather). See the current list of items we are collecting and follow our Recycling & Reuse Collection Events on Facebook:

What is Zero Waste?

Blacksburg’s Carol Davis spoke with Woody Crenshaw during the Blue Ridge Eco Fair about her personal journey to Zero Waste. It is a detailed, specific, eye-opening, personal story that has been very inspiring for many of us.

Watch Carol Davis of The Town of Blacksburg describe her personal journey to less waste. Lots of good ideas here.

Some Facts About Plastics and Recycling

It’s confusing in the recycling world. You can put a recycling label—the one called chasing arrow–on any product, whether it can be recycled or not. The arrows with no number in the center indicate that there is no common recycling option for that product! Also, some of the numbers used eg. #7 are rarely accepted for recycling. #7 indicates ‘other plastics’ and is hard to deal with. Here’s more about California’s efforts to address this confusion:

So, what is the use of the recycling logos? They do help to identify the products that can be recycled, and they let you avoid buying the products that are to recycle—those that will almost certainly end up in our landfills and causing pollution.

The message for us all—we need to really pay attention to what’s between those chasing arrows.

Plastic waste can cause harm to the environment, wildlife, and humans.  Debris accumulation can cause habitat structures to be changed which can indirectly cause declines in species impacted.  Chemical impacts including toxins released from some types of plastics posing hazards to the food chain including some types of seafood and then to humans who consume them.  Threats to wildlife include consuming harmful particles of plastic debris and entanglement.

Trash Pile

The Seven Types of Plastics

Plastic Bottles

Type #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)

Widely used as bottles for beverages like water and soda.  One of the most widely recycled plastics in the world. Currently recycled by Floyd County

Examples:  Beverage bottles, Food bottles/jars (salad dressing, peanut butter, honey, etc.) and polyester clothing or rope. 

Type #2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

It is stronger and thicker than PET type 1 plastic. High-Density Polyethylene is strong and resistant to moisture and chemicals which makes it ideal to make containers. It is accepted at most recycling centers around the world. Currently recycled by Floyd County.

Examples: Milk cartons, detergent bottles, cereal box liners, toys, buckets, park benches and rigid pipes.

Plastic Detergent Bottles
Plastic PVC

Type #3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC or Vinyl)  

PVC is a hard and rigid plastic that is resistant to chemicals and weathering, as well as resistant to germs, which makes it ideal to use in medical and construction and building purposes.  PVC has been found to leach chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, lead, dioxins, mercury, and cadmium.

Plumbing pipes, credit cards, human and pet toys, rain gutters, teething rings, IV fluid bags and medical tubing and oxygen masks.

Type #4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Thinner and more flexible than HDPE.  It is cheap and easy to produce and most commonly recycled at your local grocery store.

Examples: Plastic/cling wrap, sandwich and bread bags, bubble wrap, garbage bags, grocery bags and beverage cups.

Cellophane and Plastic Bags
Plastic Straws and Yogurt Cups

Type #5. Polypropylene (PP)

A more heat resistant type of plastic than some others, used to hold hot foods or food packaging to be reheated. Currently collected at SustainFloyd Recycling events.

Examples: Straws, bottle caps, prescription bottles, hot food containers, packaging tape, disposable diapers and DVD/CD boxes

Type #6. Polystyrene (PS)

More widely known as Styrofoam.  It is not easily recyclable which means that most ends up in the landfill.  It is also known to leach harmful chemicals when heated. This group also includes CD cases, toys, jewellry and other items which can be recycled.

Examples: Cups, takeout food containers, shipping and product packaging, egg cartons, cutlery and building insulation.

CDs, Plastic Water Jugs and Baby Bottle

Type #7: Miscellaneous/Other

These are not included within the plastics of #1-6 and are typically not recyclable, they also include plastics that are layered or mixed with other plastics.

Examples: Eyeglasses, baby and sports bottles, electronics, CD/DVDs, lighting fixtures and clear plastic cutlery.

Steps of Plastic Recycling

  1. Collection + distribution: This step includes collection of recyclables from consumers either by the government or private companies.
  2. Sorting & Organizing: Plastics are sorted by machines in a recycling plant by type of plastic and by other properties like thickness, color, and use.
  3. Washing: This step removes impurities like labels, food residue, and dirt.
  4. Shredding: The plastic is fed into shredders and broken down into smaller pieces, this process allows for any remaining impurities to be found like metals.
  5. Identification and separation of plastics: Plastics are then sorted based on density and thickness and sorted into different classes and quality levels.
  6. Extruding + compounding: This final step is where the plastics are turned into a product that can then be used by manufacturers. The shredded plastic gets melted and crushed together to form pellets. 

The Facts About Plastic Recycling

1960-2018 Total Plastic Containers and Packaging MSW by Weight (in thousands of U.S. tons)
Management Pathway1960197019801990200020052010201520172018
Combustion with Energy Recovery701,1301,9602,0202,0902,4602,4702,460
The data is from 1960 to 2018, relating to the total number of tons of plastic containers and packaging generated, recycled, composted, combusted with energy recovery and landfilled. * A dash in the table means that data is not available.

Sources: American Chemistry Council and National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).

In 2019, a minimum of 5,094.1 million pounds of post-consumer plastic material sourced in the U.S. was recovered for recycling in the categories of Bottles (by resin), Non-bottle Rigids, Film, and Other Plastics (excluding foam).

As was the case in 2018, most of the plastic recovered for recycling in the U.S. was purchased by reclaimers in the U.S. or Canada (87.9%) versus by overseas markets. A total of 4,476.3 million pounds was reported as reclaimed in the U.S. and Canada. The remaining 617.8 million pounds, or 12.1%, of plastic recovered for recycling was exported overseas.

Plastic bottles continued to make up the majority of the recycled plastic recovered for recycling at 55.2%, or 2,809.4 million pounds, a decrease of 48.5 million pounds as compared to 2018. The amount of plastic resin generated for use in bottles increased by 11 million pounds to 9,878 million pounds in 2019. The all-bottle recycling rate for 2019 was 28.4%, down half a percentage point from 2018.7

EPA estimated 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging were generated in 2018, approximately 5.0 percent of MSW generation. (Plastic packaging as a category in this analysis does not include single-service plates and cups, and trash bags, both of which are classified as nondurable goods).

The recycling rate of PET bottles and jars was 29.1 percent in 2018 (910,000 tons). It is estimated that recycling of HDPE natural bottles (e.g., milk and water bottles) was 220,000 tons, or 29.3 percent of generation. Overall, the amount of recycled plastic containers and packaging in 2018 was almost 2 million tons or 13.6 percent of plastic containers and packaging generated. Additionally, 16.9 percent of the plastic containers and packaging waste generated was combusted with energy recovery, while the remainder (over 69 percent) was landfilled.

The total generation of municipal solid waste (MSW) in 2018 was 292.4 million tons (U.S. short tons, unless specified) or 4.9 pounds per person per day. Of the MSW generated, approximately 69 million tons were recycled and 25 million tons were composted. Together,  almost 94 million tons of MSW were recycled and composted, equivalent to a 32.1 percent recycling and composting rate.

The recycling rate (including composting) was 32.1 percent in 2018, down from 34.7 percent in 2015.The per capita rates in 2018 were:

  • 1.16 pounds per person per day for recycling.
  • 0.42 pounds per person per day for composting.
  • 0.30 pounds per person per day for other food management.

The EPA estimates that 75% of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30% of it” Despite only representing 5% of the world population, the U.S. generates more waste than any other country in the world. (World Watch Institute)

In less than 15 years, worldwide waste is expected to double. (World Watch Institute)

Recycling one ton of plastic bottles saves the equivalent energy usage of a two person household for one year.


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