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Sorting Out Plastics At The Grocery Store


When most of us walk out of the grocery store, we end up leaving with a lot of plastic packaging. And when it comes time to recycle that packaging, things may get confusing. NPR's Rebecca Davis visits a grocery store with a recycling expert to help us sort things out.

REBECCA DAVIS, BYLINE: Keefe Harrison gets a lot of questions about recycling.

KEEFE HARRISON: Yes, it's one of my favorite party tricks - helping people understand, can I recycle that? And sometimes, the answer is maybe.

DAVIS: Harrison is CEO of a nonprofit called The Recycling Partnership. She works with corporations and local governments to make recycling work better. She says recycling seems like it should be easy.

HARRISON: (Laughter) You put it in a bin, and you send it away, but, really, it's this mash up of 20,000 local governments doing their own thing, public, private interests. It's fascinating, but it's messy.

DAVIS: And there's no better place to see how that mess plays out than at the grocery store. This is where all that's great about plastic packaging collides with what's not so great. And shoppers trying to make environmentally sensitive choices can just end up confused.

HARRISON: Looking around this grocery store, we see beautiful colors - the reds and the greens - but many of it's wrapped in plastic.

DAVIS: And different types of plastic - hard, soft, crinkly. Some of it's good for recycling and some of it isn't. Harrison picks up a cucumber.

HARRISON: It's from Canada, and this plastic wrapper actually makes the cucumber last longer. Food waste is an important issue in our country. So if this plastic wrapper makes this cucumber more likely to be eaten, is that a good thing?

DAVIS: It seems like a good thing.

HARRISON: But then what do you do with the plastic?

DAVIS: Answer - you throw it in the trash, not the recycling bin. Next, Harrison reaches for a bag of red and yellow peppers.

HARRISON: You can hear the crinkliness of this plastic packaging around these peppers, and this is plastic that is not recyclable.

DAVIS: This, too, throw in the trash. It's destined for the landfill.

HARRISON: Yes. So here we have a beautiful tub of lettuce.

DAVIS: Harrison is holding up one of those plastic tubs. They're called clam shells. They're great for keeping your lettuce fresh longer. She turns it over and on the bottom is a No. 1 inside that triangle made of arrows.

HARRISON: I get this question all the time. If it has the little arrows on it and a number in there, I can recycle it, right?

DAVIS: Not necessarily. Harrison says those numbers inside the triangle are used to identify the kind of resin a plastic is made from - good information for recyclers who sell certain resins to manufacturers. For consumers, it can be helpful, but it can also be misleading. For example, this clamshell, it's a No. 1 just like plastic bottles, which are mostly recyclable, but clam shells are made using a different process.

HARRISON: The properties of this plastic material are different than a bottle - looks the same, has the one, but whether or not it's recyclable will depend on your local program.

DAVIS: And you can probably get that information on the Internet. We leave produce and head for the health and beauty aisle.

HARRISON: We are looking at a big wall of toothpaste and toothbrushes and wondering, what do we do with all of these things?

DAVIS: She's examining a package of purple toothbrushes. They're encased in a molded plastic.

HARRISON: Because would you want to buy a toothbrush that had been manhandled by everyone who's come down the aisle?

DAVIS: (Laughter) No.

HARRISON: Probably not.

DAVIS: Nice, but can the plastic casing be recycled?

HARRISON: Toothbrush covers are often a relatively small size, and if it's too small, it won't make it through the giant conveyors and belts and big disc screens that separate out paper from plastic. It will fall into the cracks and get lost and treated as trash. So we don't have a very good outcome in our toothbrush aisle either.

DAVIS: Next, we pass tampons, the ones with the plastic applicators - convenient and hygienic, yes. Recyclable...

HARRISON: No, they're not recyclable at all. That's all trash. Do you want to talk deodorant?

DAVIS: On this aisle, row after row of elaborate plastic containers line the shelves, each one like a billboard hawking its wares. Harrison says these deodorant containers are problematic because they're made using more than one type of plastic.

HARRISON: And when you add more types of plastics to one package, you reduce the likelihood of its recyclability.

DAVIS: Next - packaged foods.

HARRISON: All right. So here we are in flexible packaging world.

DAVIS: These packages are used for things like nuts and dried fruits, microwavable meals, crackers. Harrison says there is something good about this packaging - its weight. It's light, so it uses less fuel during shipping, which means it has a lower carbon footprint than heavier materials like glass.

HARRISON: But there is no end of life for this material because it's multilayers of different types of plastics.

DAVIS: So why is it that there's so much packaging on the shelves that cannot be recycled? Well, originally, recycling programs were just designed to collect and sort cardboard, cans and glass and then plastic bottles, the kind we see a lot of today.

HARRISON: So here we are on the condiment aisle. We're looking from pickles to mustards.

DAVIS: Almost everything here is in a plastic bottle.

HARRISON: This is your safe space. This is where I get to say, yes, you can recycle that.

DAVIS: The same is true of shampoo bottles and home cleaning products and, of course, water and soda bottles.

HARRISON: A soda bottle enjoys lots of different end markets. It could be carpeting. It could be a new soda bottle. It could be a filling in a pillow. It could be a fleece jacket.

DAVIS: But when companies develop new types of plastic packaging, like those deodorant containers, they don't say, hey, recycler, can you handle this material? We wrap up our grocery store tour in the baby food section where almost everything is in a convenient, unbreakable, don't-need-a-spoon plastic pouch.

HARRISON: So I have a 13-year-old and when she was a baby...


HARRISON: ...Baby food was - sounded like that. It was in a glass container. In that amount of time, it's all switched to pouches, which keep things fresh. You can reseal them if you don't eat them all and...

DAVIS: Recyclable?

HARRISON: No, not at all.

DAVIS: You sounded kind of sad and plaintive when you said that.

HARRISON: I am sad. I am sad that this is such a big challenge, and what I'm sad about is that I don't know how to fix it.

DAVIS: Keefe Harrison estimates that half of the plastic packaging found in grocery stores can be put into your recycling bin. To get the other half in there as well, companies will need to design their packaging so recyclers can actually process it. Otherwise, it will just be more plastic trash destined for the landfill.

Rebecca Davis, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.