There are so many small details to recycling. At times, we may be concerned with these details (i.e. caps on or caps off?), but most of the time we just want to put the recyclables in the bin and be done with it. For many of us, the material seems the same: plastic is plastic regardless of shape, color or rigidity; aluminum is aluminum, whether it’s a foil baking pan or a used beverage container; and, paper is paper, despite being soiled, coated, clipped, or colored.
Of course, these small details are a concern to the recycling industry whose goal is to collect valuable recyclables. On the other hand, when recycling gets easier, public participation goes up.
A recent partnership between the Association of Postconsumer Plastic Recyclers (APR) and the Closure and Container Manufacturers Association (CCMA) intends to increase the recycling rates of plastic by encouraging residents to keep the caps on at time of recycling. This is an "about-face" change from industry-based recycling requirements that, for many years, asked consumers to rinse containers and keep the lids and caps off. Metal lids were acceptable because metal retains its value. Plastic lids and caps had no value, until now.
The message to remove the cap has officially changed. The announcement came in January 2012 when the "Caps On" campaign was released to industry officials. Improvements in processing technology and an increase in demand for the recyclable
A common concern with leaving the caps-on is the processing method. Inquiring recyclers ask, "Is it true that someone at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) has to unscrew all the caps and remove the lids?" Fortunately, it is not true. The machinery manages this through crushing and grinding techniques. When the containers arrive at the MRF, they are sorted and baled. Many MRFs do not operate a perforation machine to puncture the bottles before baling. Heavy-duty pressure from the horizontal baler crushes the bottle into a cubic yard block. Many of the caps remain on the bottles, although sometimes rupturing bottles in a baler can create projectiles. Luckily, baler manufacturers have included guards for worker protection and MRF staff wears personal protection equipment.
Once the baled plastic is delivered from the MRF to the manufacturer, the bottles are ground into flake then vigorously washed in the recycling process. A water bath float/sink process separates the shredded cap material from the shredded bottle material. The bottle material sinks. The cap material floats. Both materials are then recycled into new items.
Container manufacturers do consider the material used to make their containers. Their first concern is function and aesthetics, but many manufacturers are now considering recyclability during the design process. This is why the caps and bottles are intentionally made from different types of plastic. The float/sink process helps recyclers process the material more easily.
With approximately 1.5 billion pounds of plastic closures produced every year, efforts are being made to recover, reprocess and recycle more plastic. Studies show that the most effective way to recover the valuable cap and lid material is by including it on the container itself as opposed to throwing them loosely into recycling containers.
Help recyclers reduce the environmental impact of packaging, keep caps on!
Cindy Sterling Clark has had her hands in solid waste since 1987. For 25 years, she has helped residents, businesses, schools and municipalities discover the best possible management practice for stuff they no longer use. When she’s not dumpster diving, Cindy is an adjunct professor of geography, grant writer, yoga teacher and therapist.