You gave Penny H. a good recap of recycling history last week ["Dr. Know: Is Anything Still Actually Being Recycled?" WW, Oct. 25, 2020]. However, since I too have been recycling since God was a child, I'd like an actual answer. —Marcy H. (no relation)
I can always tell one of my columns has piqued the public's interest when they actually notice that I didn't answer the question. (Thank God this doesn't happen often.)
In fairness to me—and I'm nothing if not fair to me—I did feel that Penny buried the lead: Not only has most of our plastic been going into landfills since China stopped buying it, it's been going into landfills the whole time.
Absent a single-use plastics tax (hint, hint), it's still easier to make "virgin" plastic out of crude oil (which, perversely, gets cheaper the more we reduce demand by conserving it) than it is to recycle old plastic.
But what about the numbers in those little Captain Planet recycling triangles stamped on all our plastic packaging? As an investigation by Pro Publica and NPR's Planet Money revealed last year, those codes were invented decades ago by the plastics lobby.
The industry realized that public opinion was beginning to shift against single-use plastics, for all the obvious and completely justified reasons you might imagine. So their public relations familiars, cackling horribly, came up with the plan of putting recycling codes on all their plastic crap.
This was supposed to create the impression that somehow, somewhere (maybe China?) someone was responsibly recycling the stuff, rather than just throwing it into the ocean, possibly after wiping their butts with it just for spite. And it worked!
I can tell you're thinking I'm not going to answer the question again, so here you go: Paper (not including pizza boxes or coffee cups) and metal are almost always worth recycling.
Plastics stamped #3 through #7 are, as above, little more than a veiled "screw you" from the industry (the especially unrecyclable #7 adds a veiled "…and your whore mother"), but plastics #1 and #2 are actually pretty recyclable.
Remember, though, when in doubt, call upon your inner Don Draper and throw that nature-despoiling single-use item straight into the trash. At least you know Metro won't wipe their butts with it.
Questions? Send them to email@example.com.