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The ins and outs of recycling


Key Takeaways

  • 90% of the plastic items in our daily lives are used once and then thrown away.
  • At least 92% of plastic is not recycled.
  • Only #1, #2, and sometimes #5 plastics actually get recycled, and only if they’re clean and dry.
  • Black plastic and anything under 2 inches is never recycled.
  • Recycling misplaces blame and responsibility onto the consumer, rather than the industry itself. 


Plastic Recycling

What you can do to help:

  • Reduce your personal use of plastic, especially non-recyclable plastic, and choose refillable containers when possible.
  • Spread the word to your friends, family, and social networks that recycling isn’t the answer.
  • Support proposed legislation to regulate plastics by spreading the word on social media and contacting your legislators (see below for Massachusetts bills introduced this year).

How Recycling Works

Recyclable materials are collected, brought to a Materials Recycling Facility (MRF) where they are sorted, then sold to manufacturers to be processed and turned into new products. 

Collection — Single-stream vs. Multi-stream

Most recycling systems are currently single stream. That means that anything that can be recycled is dumped into the same collection bin, picked up by one truck, and brought to the MRF for processing.

While single stream is extremely easy for the consumer, it results in a much lower rate of successfully recycled products due to contamination (which we discuss further down). 

The alternative to single-stream is multi-stream, where consumers pre-sort their recyclables, put them in separate bins for paper, glass, metal and plastic, and different trucks (or sectioned trucks) pick them up and bring them to MRFs where they are processed. 


At the MRF the materials are sorted by specified machinery, then crushed and formed into bales and sold to manufacturers to further process.

Plastic is further processed through shredding, washing, more separation of material type, and then melted and extruded into pellets that can be used similar to virgin plastic.

Plastics are challenging to recycle because of

  • the variety of textures, shapes and chemicals used in their production
  • the fact that they are embedded in multi-layer packaging with other types of materials
  • and the low economic value of recycled plastic.

Most of our plastic bales were sold to China until 2018 when the country stopped accepting almost all foreign recycling bales due to their extremely high levels of contamination and resulting poor quality of plastic. 


Problems with Recycling


In our current method of single-stream collection, the bottles are rarely emptied completely, allowing their liquids to damage the paper, shortening their fibers; the glass ends up breaking into shards, further damaging the paper, as well as the machines at the paper mills; small bits of paper also contaminate the glass recycling; and many plastics that are not labeled #1,#2, or #5 are tossed in the bin.

Although the MRFs have extremely advanced sorting machinery, when everything is mixed together, it is impossible to have completely clean and segregated material bales.


Often, materials that can be recycled are instead downcycled into lesser products than their original versions.

Most plastics can only be recycled into their original form one or two times before losing integrity and needing to be downcycled into carpet or clothing or lumber products.

Once downcycled, the potential for further recycling is eliminated.

Plastic is not the only downcycled material. In Massachusetts, the only glass recycling facility closed in 2018, and since it is expensive to ship glass to a farther facility, the glass is ground up and added to road materials or as landfill cover instead of being turned into new glass. This is an unfortunate loss, because unlike plastic glass can be infinitely recycled, except when it’s stuck in the road! 

Recycling FAQ

Which numbers can be recycled?

While most plastic materials have the potential to be recycled, it doesn’t make financial or logistical sense for facilities to do so, so they don’t. A number on the plastic item does NOT indicate that the item will be recycled.

In our current system, only the following can be recycled effectively into new plastic products: 

#1 (soda, water, cooking oil bottles),

#2 (detergent bottles, milk and juice jugs) and sometimes

#5 (yogurt tubs)

Plastic film or bags cannot be recycled curbside, even if labeled as #2 because they get caught in the sorting machinery at the MRF. Black containers cannot be recycled even if they are labeled #1, #2, or #5 because the black color confuses the scanners on the sorting machines. 

What Happens with Store Drop-Offs?

Plastic bags, wraps, and films cannot be recycled in curbside recycling systems, but they can be brought to “Store Drop-Off” sites.

These programs are independently managed by retailers who contract with specific manufacturers of recycled material. The primary end uses of “Store Drop-Off” material are new plastic grocery bags and composite lumber.

The manufacturers much prefer the contents from the back-of-store (primarily clear shrink-wrap from pallets) as opposed to the front-of-store bins which have a wide variety of colors, materials, and contaminants.

The current store-drop-off infrastructure is not very robust and only has the capacity to process 5% of the plastic film that is discarded. 

What about those 5-Cent Deposits on Drink Containers?

Deposit-refund programs, also known as Bottle Bills, are extremely effective recycling tools when properly implemented. There are 10 states (including Massachusetts) that have laws requiring consumers to pay a 5 or 10 cent deposit per bottle that is refunded when they return the bottles to a redemption center.

The recycling of these containers is run by the beverage distributors. In these states, the rate of recovery of these containers is much higher, and the percentage of litter that they make up is much smaller, than in states without such systems.

In states with nickel deposits (MA), the return rates range from 51- 84 %. Michigan has a 10-cent deposit for all containers and has a redemption rate close to 100%.

An effective bottle recovery system can eventually lead to an effective refill system instead of recycling. For bottles that aren’t returned, unclaimed deposits go to different places in each state. In Massachusetts, 100% of unclaimed deposits go to the state general fund.

An updated Bottle Bill for MA is currently in the legislature. You can support it by expressing yourself on social media, writing letters to the editor for your local newspaper, or contacting your legislator asking them to support it.

Use of Recycled Plastics

A small number of US companies use recycled plastic to manufacture products with commercial value, including bottles and containers, carpeting and clothing, and composite lumber used for lawn furniture and playground equipment.

One large barrier to producing more products from recycled plastic is the cost of virgin plastic is less than the cost of recycled plastic. Mandating that products contain a minimum amount of recycled material will help with this.

However, because plastic is not infinitely recyclable (unlike aluminum and glass) improving recycling still isn’t the answer to the plastic waste problem.


Municipal regulations

  • Hundreds of municipalities across the US have ordinances that ban or tax single-use plastic bags and plastic/Styrofoam take out containers, cups, utensils, and straws. 144 of the 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts have plastic ban ordinances.
  • Brookline – In 2016 Town Meeting banned the use of plastic carryout bags provided by a store or restaurant at the point of sale that are not biodegradable or compostable. Town Meeting members banned the use of Styrofoam food and beverage containers in 2013. Both bans were temporarily suspended during the pandemic. 

Massachusetts state legislation

  • Massachusetts is one of only 25 states that have mandatory recycling laws.

Introduced in 2021:

  • H 3289 An Act to Expand the Bottle Bill: would expand the coverage to many more containers and increase the deposit to 10 cents. This bill is still alive. Show your support for it to pass!
  • H. 878 EPR for Packaging: would require manufacturers pay packaging disposal costs (including recycling), in the hopes they will reduce the use of non-recyclable materials and eventually move to reusables. Maine and Oregon were the first to pass similar laws. 

These were introduced but did not pass the first step of getting out of committee:

  • H. 3277 An Act to Encourage Plastic Bottle Recycling: would require increasing amounts of post-consumer recycled plastic every 5 years such that by 2030 containers will have a minimum of 50% recycled material.
  • H. 869 Omnibus Single Use Plastics Act: would ban single-use plastic bags, straws, wipes, nip bottles, helium balloon releases, foam packaging, plastic hotel toiletries, and black plastics, primarily because they are not recyclable. 

Deep Dive

Written by the Zero Waste team at Brookline Mothers Out Front