Plastic waste generated in Missoula follows a winding route to the West Coast and beyond, where it lands at facilities to be processed. For some plastic, though, that journey results in a dead-end, with no recycling in its future.

Informational campaigns have led Missoulians to believe that recycling is a green solution for dealing with plastics used in consumer goods. The truth, however, is more complicated.

Plastics are assigned a number ranging from one to seven, which indicates the chemical makeup of the material in the product. That number is stamped inside the familiar triangular recycling symbol, known as the chasing arrows.

“The general public thinks plastic is plastic,” said Chad Bauer, municipal manager for the state of Montana at Republic Services, the waste disposal company that collects Missoula’s trash and recycling. “80% of the general public would look at a piece of plastic, and they wouldn’t know the difference between whether it was No. 1 through 7.”

Just because plastic has a number and the chasing arrows on it, though, does not mean it is actually recyclable.

There is an end market for most of the materials Republic Services collects, said Bauer, including No. 1 and 2 plastics. They can be reused and recycled, but what happens to the No. 3 through 7 plastics is less certain. They are made with flimsy material, which makes them nearly impossible to recycle.

For Sarah Nesci from Recycling Works, the only glass recycler in Western Montana, plastic recycling is not on the agenda. “The end markets for most plastic recycling are almost all overseas,” Nesci said, which is one reason why plastic is not in their business model.

Montana does not have a glass processing facility, let alone one for plastic. According to Nesci, “facilities that recycle plastic in the United States are limited, and it is not an easy material to break down.”

Recycling Works ships its glass to Momentum Recycling in Salt Lake City, which makes new bottles and fiberglass from the glass it receives from Missoula.

Nesci wishes she had an answer for plastic recycling, but for now Recycling Works is sticking to glass and compost services only.

Sarah Lundquist, zero waste education manager at Home ReSource in Missoula, views plastic recycling as an equity issue.

“We have all of these low quality materials that we don’t want to deal with,” Lundquist said. “So, we are hoping that someone else would take them and make something out of them, but other countries are becoming our dumping ground.”

When companies send recycling offshore, there is less understanding of what happens with it. “It might be recycled, but it could end up in a landfill or pollute a community,” Lundquist said.

It is hard for individuals to know where the material ends up, and big recycling companies often don’t know either.

According to Lundquist, there are stories of recycling handlers in foreign countries taking plastic they could not use or recycle and disposing it in the ocean or unlined landfills.

Plastic can’t actually be recycled, only downcycled, noted Lundquist. This means its quality declines each time it is reprocessed. True recycling requires a material like aluminum, which takes a very long time to break down and can be made into cans again and again.

According to Lundquist, even the higher quality plastics like No. 1 and 2 can only be turned into simpler products like carpet backing or polyester material. This creates other environmental issues.

More than 90% of the waters tested in Montana for plastics by a team of citizen scientists last summer turned up positive results, though the source of the pollutants remains unknown. (Environment Montana)
More than 90% of the waters tested in Montana for plastics by a team of citizen scientists last summer turned up positive results, though the source of the pollutants remains unknown. (Environment Montana)

When plastic breaks down, it photodegrades, meaning it dissolves into tiny pieces that threaten the environment, said Lundquist. “There will be little microplastics that we can’t ever get rid of and will continue to contaminate the system.”

Lundquist believes it is still worth recycling plastic, because it does extend the life cycle of the material to some degree. But, she acknowledges recycling isn’t enough. “It’s a band aid solution. It doesn’t really address the root issue,” Lundquist said.

Lundquist hopes that individuals ultimately empower themselves to participate in a more circular economy. “We can design things out of waste, reuse things, recycle things endlessly, purchase more durable products that are less toxic and shift away to buying less in the first place,” she said.

Until that happens, though, much of the plastic from Missoula will have an uncertain future and will continue to take journeys to unknown destinations.

Erica Zurek is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Missoula and a Missoula Current contributing reporter.