Published Together: The Perplexities of Plastic Recycling

Each year, our team of waste reduction educators sets up a booth at the West Michigan Home and Garden Show to answer questions about recycling. As the Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW), we hear common questions about how to dispose of certain items — batteries, old paint, electronics — but during the last couple of years, we’ve heard a new question:

“Should I even recycle plastic? I heard most plastic isn’t recyclable and just ends up in a landfill anyway.”

The short answer: Yes, you should recycle plastic.

Every day, thousands of pounds of cardboard, plastic, and glass are delivered to the Kent County Recycling and Education Center to be sorted, baled, and stored so each material can be sent to a downstream processor to be recycled into new products. Over the past five years, we’ve seen a noticeable reduction in the amount of plastic coming into the facility to be recycled and more plastic arriving directly at our landfill or waste-to-energy facility. 

Are people giving up on plastic recycling?”

Several news stories have been published across the country in the past year highlighting the challenges of plastic recycling and calling for changes to the system. These stories have cited that only 5-10% of all plastic manufactured in the U.S. is getting recycled, and nearly 80% is ending up in landfills.

These stories have led some residents and businesses in Kent County to throw up their hands and ask, “What’s the point?” At the DPW, we’re asking residents to please put plastic in their recycling carts. We will process it and keep it out of landfills or from being incinerated.

What happens to plastic when it comes to the Kent County Recycling and Education Center?”

Waste haulers from across Kent County, and many surrounding counties, deliver curbside recycling to the Kent County Recycling and Education Center. It’s what we call single-stream recycling, because all the recyclables can be mixed together in one cart. At the Recycling and Education Center, we use people, optical sorters, robots and screens to separate that mix into individual piles where it is then baled. 

In the case of plastic, those bales of material are then sold to various processors across the Midwest to be shredded, melted, and turned into pellets. The pellets are typically used to manufacture products of lower quality, like polyester or carpet. Different plastics have varying degrees of value, which is the number you see by looking at the number in the middle of the “chasing arrows” on your plastic item. 

Types 1 and 2 are more valuable, mixed plastics 3-7 have less value, and plastic film has nearly zero value. This is problematic because in many parts of the country, recycling facilities only want higher-value plastics and end up landfilling the rest. This is not the case in Kent County.

What you can do

  • Keep using curbside recycling. Kent County can’t recycle plastic if it doesn’t get to us in the first place. Our waste studies show that we only receive a fraction of the available recyclable material in Kent County. 
  • Stop buying single-use and low-value plastic, which has the lowest chance of being recycled into new products.

What else is being done to change the system?

There’s a movement happening across the country to shift responsibility back to the producer of plastic, often called “extended producer responsibility.” Companies that produce or use a lot of plastic will be responsible for where that product ends up.

There are also many communities that are rethinking the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol and number system so consumers better understand what is truly recyclable and what they should avoid buying in the first place, because it can’t be processed in their region.

Several parts of the country are pushing for stronger regulation of single-use plastics like plastic bags and film, and limiting things that make packaging more difficult to recycle, like multilayered packaging with mixed materials. 

Even within Kent County, residents are confused about where their recycling goes. Not every recycling facility is the same, and many have a limited number of materials they truly process and recycle. Again, we’re fortunate that Kent County’s facility accepts a wide variety of materials and has end markets for all of them. If you’re still concerned about where your recycling goes, ask your waste hauler if they deliver to Kent County’s Recycling and Education Center.

At the DPW, we take great care to recycle anything that is recyclable, including plastics. So, Kent County residents, please place plastics in your recycling bin, and rest assured that they are being put to their highest and best use.

Learn more about Kent County’s Recycling and Education Center and view reports on where your recycling goes.


Steve Faber is the communications and marketing manager at Kent County Department of Public Works (DPW) where he leads community education, engagement, and partnerships. Steve is part of a team of waste reduction educators and resource recovery specialists that are keeping thousands of tons of material from going into landfills every year, protecting our air, land, and Great Lakes. Learn more about the efforts to divert material from landfill at

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