Think Twice Before Recycling Black Plastic

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Photo: Benjamin Chodroff (Flickr)

Throwing your black take-out containers in the recycling bin? Unfortunately, there’s a chance they’re ending up in our landfills, despite your efforts.

We often think of our recycling bin as a universal catch-all for all our plastic materials (someone will sort it, right?). Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case with all things made of black plastic, the Jan Brady of recyclable materials.

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In the recycling industry, black plastic is notoriously difficult to recycle because of its color. Scanners at recycling facilities reflect light via infrared cameras in order to distinguish one plastic material from another. Because black plastic absorbs light rather than reflecting it, it goes unsorted and winds up in landfills by accident.

Recycling black plastic can also become an incredibly costly process, and because it can only be recycled into other black plastic materials, unlike plastics of other colors, it doesn’t always justify the effort into sorting that’s necessary.

What products are we talking about exactly? Well, just about anything with carbon black, the pigment used in black plastics for its durability. Think about those take-out sushi trays or DVD cases or coffee cup lids.

A number of local curbside recycling programs in the U.S. have either stopped accepting black plastic or simply started dumping it in the trash, including Burbank and San Francisco, California (cities in the U.K. and Canada are facing their own problems with the material, too).

Worse, this plastic pollution presents a number of environmental and possible consumer health problems. In the U.K., electronic waste is used to make black plastic (yep). A 2018 study by U.K. researchers found that toxic chemicals, like lead, may contaminate this plastic, posing an enormous health risk when recycled into food containers.

Is this a U.S.-wide problem? Well, it depends where you live (some facilities may hand-sort, which brings up the other issue of time and major inconvenience).

I spoke to a spokesperson for the New York City Department of Sanitation who noted that New York does typically accept rigid plastics, but did not specifically name black plastic (we’ve asked for clarification, and will update if we get a response).

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So, what can you do to help curb the problem of black plastic? It goes without saying, but using fewer black plastic materials (and plastic in general) is the best way to do your part. Contact your curbside recycling program by doing a web search of your area’s local program and specifically asking if they accept black plastic (and what process is used to achieve that), so you can help a local facility that you’ll be sure will send your plastics to the right place. And, of course, if you’re looking to recycle a take-out container, be sure to rinse it out with water adequately before handing it over to your curbside program.


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