Good news for beach-lovers: the Association for Plastics Recyclers just announced that we can keep the caps on plastic bottles when we toss them in our recycling bins. Eight hundred million pounds of plastic caps on bottles entered our homes in the United States in 2014. Too many of these caps find their way into our oceans and wash onto our beaches. According to Ocean Conservancy, caps and lids are the fifth most common type of trash.
Like must be recycled with like. We were told for years to take the caps off plastic bottles before recycling because while bottles are made out of PET (#1), bottle caps are made from HDPE (#2) or PP (#5). When caps were left on bottles before, they contaminated the PET plastic. The more contaminated the plastic, the less likely it is to be recycled.
The rules have changed thanks to advances in recycling technology. Recycling plants shred bottles (caps and all) into flakes, then send the flakes to a tank of water. The PET flakes sink to the bottom and are removed. Caps, both PP and HDPE, float and are further separated by their different densities. Eventually the flakes turn into new things.
In theory, bottle caps could always be recycled. The plastic used in bottle caps has value and can be used again and again. But in practice, loose bottle caps slip through sorting machinery at Material Recovery Facilities or MRF’s. Anything less than 3″ by 3″ falls through the machinery. You can put it in your recycling bin, but it will get swept off the floor and sent to the landfill. Screw those caps back onto empty bottles, and they will make it through the sorting process at MRF’s without a problem.
Small, floating objects are usually the most common flotsam on our beaches. These are the things that slip through hands and machinery, fall out of garbage cans or fly off garbage trucks. They often leak into the ocean, ride the currents and wash up on beaches faraway. Keeping the caps on will help slow the flow of bottle caps into the ocean. Now we need a solution for other common ocean plastic that is too tiny to be recycled. Until we do, grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up those cigarette butts, straws and plastic forks, and toss them away.