Why Can't You Recycle Plastic Bottle Caps?

You can recycle plastic bottles, and even metal bottle caps. So why can't you recycle plastic bottle caps? Sierra magazine's Josie Garthwaite has the answer in another installment of the Bryant Park Project's one-question interview series.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MIKE PESCA, host:

So, here in New York, they have stickers that tell you what you can and can't recycle. They tell you to put plastic and glass bottles in a new can. Metal bottle caps go in that can, too. What about plastic bottle caps? Those, New York City tells you, just throw them away. This is kind of nationwide, and we want to know why. So, it's time for another BPP One-Question Interview, and I reserve the right to ask follow-up questions. Josie Garthwaite is the lifestyle editor of Sierra Magazine, and that's Sierra as in the environmental group, Sierra Club. Hello, how are you?

Ms. JOSIE GARTHWAITE (Lifestyle Editor, Sierra Magazine): I'm good, thanks.

PESCA: Well, thanks for coming on, because we have one question, and I hear that you can answer it.

Ms. GARTHWAITE: Well, I'm certainly going to try.

PESCA: And here's the question. Plastic bottle caps, why aren't they recycled? Can they be - that's two questions. I'll ask it like this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Can plastic bottle caps be recycled?

Ms. GARTHWAITE: Can they? Yes. But the interesting part is what makes the material collected in your city or not. And plastic bottle caps are made from a type of plastic called polypropylene. You would recognize it in those three chasing arrows as the number five and letter PP underneath that. Plastic bottles, on the other hand, are usually made from a different kind of plastic called polyethylene terepthalate, or number one and PET. And polypropylene, that number-five plastic bottle caps, those can be made into things like garden rakes, and brooms, and ice scrapers, usually sturdy things.

PESCA: Thick, yeah.

Ms. GARTHWAITE: And plastic bottles, they're usually made into the stuff that you see a lot of recycled content in. Police jackets, you've probably heard are made from bottles, comforter fill, essentially polyester. Now, your city, or your municipality, or county, depending on where you are, they decide whether or not they are going to collect the material based on whether there is a market for it or not. And the second part they have to look at is, how hard is it to sort? Now, number one and number five have very different properties because of how the plastic is made up from different chemical compounds.

PESCA: Right, meaning the bottle and the cap are very different.

Ms. GARTHWAITE: Yes, bottle and the cap are very different. And part of the difference is their melting point, which can be a big issue when it comes to processing it through the whole recycling system. It has to be sorted. It has to be washed. They shred it into flakes. They might sort it by density by putting it in water. But ultimately, it has to be melted. And there's about 100-degree difference between the melting point for the cap versus the bottle.

And so, when it comes down to it, and your municipality has to decide, well, are we going to take the bottle or the caps? Because they can't really take everything, maybe, because of their sorting system, they're going to take the bottles because they end up being more valuable on the market.

PESCA: Oh, they're more valuable. They take up more space. You know, would you rather have 100 bottle caps floating around or 100 bottles floating around unused? OK, we only have less than a minute left. If I'm - if I want to be a good environmentalist, and I know my city doesn't require that I throw the caps into the recycling bin, and in fact, they don't want them, what should I do with the caps?

Ms. GARTHWAITE: Well, there are a few things you can do. One is you can look at a website called earth911.org and see if maybe you're just lucky enough to be near a place that does collect them. You don't want to go really far outside of your usual commute to drop them off, because then you are dealing with pollution from the car and all of that. But it's possible you can find something that's on your way, somewhere and drop them off. And the other thing is, schools and charities sometimes do collection drives...

PESCA: Ah, that makes sense.

Ms. GARTHWAITE: For bottle caps, and then you can have a real niche application where a company knows exactly what they're getting. You know, they're going to get tons of bottle caps, and so, they'll find a use for it.

PESCA: Right, and one guy trucks them away, and don't worry about the carbon fuels in that case. Josie Garthwaite of Sierra Magazine. Thanks, Josie.

Ms. GARTHWAITE: Thanks a lot.

PESCA: Really good. Next up, sports with Bill Wolff on the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.