The Life of Plastic in Blaine County, Idaho
By: Ashlee Forman, Sustainability Fellow
To demonstrate the complex process of recycling, especially when it comes to plastics, let’s follow the life of a plastic water bottle from step 1: collection, to step 5: remanufacturing beginning in Blaine County, Idaho. You might be surprised where your waste ends up!
Step 1: Collection
The journey of plastics recycling begins the moment you toss a plastic product into your recycling bin. The first step in the process is up to the consumer to get right. Figuring out what to recycle can be confusing. We’ve all been there, standing in front of the bin, looking at the number on the bottom of the bottle or trying to remember what your friend told you about plastic bottle lids (all lids must come off!). The reality is that plastic recycling is complicated. What goes in your bin depends on many factors including where you live, if you are recycling at work or home, and the quality of the material (no food residue on anything you recycle!). This makes the recycling process feel a bit confusing but with the right resources and knowledge, it can be simplified.
What is plastic and why is recycling it so complicated?
Let's start by getting some facts about plastics straight. Part of the reason why recycling them can be complicated is due to their natural composition. Plastics are made up of chains of synthetic polymers, the word polymer translates to “many parts” and synthetic means not naturally occurring. So plastics are made up of long chains of atoms that are so long they do not occur in nature, instead they must be made by humans! The educational website, Science History, explains why the composition of plastics is important,
“It is the length of these polymer chains, and the patterns in which they are arrayed, that make polymers strong, lightweight, and flexible. In other words, it’s what makes them so plasticky.” 
You might be asking, well if all plastics are synthetic polymers, then why can’t we just melt all of them together and make new products? There are different types of plastics and each type has different physical characteristics. We denote these differences by numbers on the bottoms of products ranging from 1-7. Each type is a different resin (type of plastic) that has its own properties like melting and cooling temperatures. Therefore, plastics need to be separated before they are processed. 
Step 2: Processing
The Clear Creek Disposal recycling truck has just picked up your plastic bottle, and all the other cleaned, non-black, plastics #1-5, from your recycling bin. The recyclables stay sorted throughout the entire recycling process, because the hauler truck has several separated compartments to store different types of recyclables.
Lamar Waters, who has served as supervisor of the Recycle Center for 12 years now, explains what happens after the plastics are dropped off. “First, the plastics are dumped into a bin before we begin sorting.” He goes on to explain that “There are often a lot of contaminants like black plastics, plastic film, food waste and what not that individuals throw into their recycling. We spend hours picking out these contaminants by hand. Then, the plastics are baled and prepared to be sold.”
You may be wondering why certain plastics are considered contaminants. Plastic is a commodity and like any other commodity, its value fluctuates with the market. The reason why we can only recycle certain types of plastics is all because of the market for those plastics. For example, there is a small market for black plastics, meaning not many people want to buy and recycle them, so it doesn’t make any sense for Blaine County to recycle them since it would end up costing the Recycle Center more money than they could make. After the plastics are hand sorted, Lamar and his team compress the plastics into a large square bale using a baler so that the material is easier to transport. It takes about a week for Clear Creek to collect all of the recyclables throughout the valley. Once everything from the week is baled, the bales are staged for a photo that is sent to the middleman, also known as a broker, Alan Morrison with ACP solutions.
Step 3: Selling
Alan Morrison has been in the plastics industry for several years. At ACP solutions, Alan collaborates with various organizations, from small local governments like Blaine County to retail mega-brands like Cliff Bar, to transport and sell their plastics and other recyclables to remanufacturing facilities.
Another plastics broker Blaine County often works with is CellMark, an international brand that also helps sellers find markets for their recycling products. Glen Snider, head of the plastics division at CellMark, explained that companies like ACP Solutions and CellMark are simultaneously competitors and collaborators, working together to move products through the recycling process.
CellMark prioritizes sustainability and has an entire dedicated division of its company to focus on these practices. According to their sustainability report from 2021, “Our commitment to creating sustainable cities can be seen in the over 2 million tons of recycled products that were sourced and traded globally in 2021”. 
Step 4: Remanufacturing
Let’s get back to following the journey of our plastic bottle now that it’s been bailed and transported to Alan’s facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. From here Alan may contact CellMark who often buys our bales of plastic, or he may contact a remanufacturing facility directly. Remanufacturers are located all around the world.
In the case of a plastic water bottle, once purchased by a remanufacturer, it is often melted down and turned into pellets which can be used to make other plastic based products like plastic containers, vinyl flooring, carpet, and more. But each time plastic is recycled it loses some of its quality, eventually becoming an unusable product. Therefore, recycling is not an end all solution to waste reduction and plastics recycling is not a truly circular process.
Unfortunately, along with the benefits of reuse and pollution reduction, some of the other costs of recycling plastics are high, on our environment and on the people we depend on to recycle much of our waste. According to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, the United States exported 1.07 million tons of plastic waste in 2018.  Most of this waste is going to poor countries that are unfit to handle its influx given their limited processing infrastructure. You can read more about this problem in the guardians article, Where Does Your Plastic Go?
Lamar with the Recycle Center stresses the need for better consumer education and choices when it comes to recycling and plastic consumption and Alan mentioned similar ideas. They both see the importance of consumer choice in the waste reduction process, and that recycling isn’t the first line of defense against waste, reducing and reusing come first. When the community puts care and time into recycling their waste, it makes the Blaine County Recycle Center team’s job easier and ensures that more of what goes into the recycling bin gets recycled and not sent to a landfill.
The next time you toss something away, take a moment to think about the life of that product. Can it be reused? Did you have an alternative non-plastic option to begin with? Is it prepared to be recycled? Where will it end up? This moment of thoughtfulness can make a difference in your home and in your community.
 Science Matters: The Case of Plastics, 2022 Science History Institute, https://www.sciencehistory.or
 Science Matters: The Case of Plastics
Warwick Sanatation and Recycling Center, Why can't all plastics be recycled?, www.https://www.warwickri.gov/
 CellMark Sustainability Report 2021, Lilla Boman, Page 18
 The Ecology Center, Recycled plastic products – a Hierarchy of Uses, https://ecologycenter.org
 Plastic Pollution Coalition, Jan Dell, 157,000 Shipping Containers of U.S. Plastic Waste Exported to Countries with Poor Waste Management in 2018, www.plasticpollutioncoalition.org