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What happens to plastic recycled in Helena?

Posted at 9:25 AM, Nov 20, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-21 11:42:12-05

HELENA — The city of Helena accepts plastic recycling, but what happens to that plastic after it’s dropped off? That’s what MTN viewer Elaine wanted to know. We went to Helena Recycling to get the answer.

Helena Recycling handles plastic, cardboard, paper, glass, aluminum and tin cans. They contract with the city of Helena to recycle plastics types one and two.

“A milk jug is a number two, a soda bottle is a number one, a water bottle is a number one, detergent bottle is a number two,” Helena Recycling owner John Hilton said.

The plastic number is usually found at the bottom of the plastic item. Before it is recycled, it must be emptied and cleaned. Plastics are collected and brought to Helena Recycling where they are baled and stacked.

According to Hilton, Helena Recycling handles between 2,200 and 2,700 tons of plastic every quarter.

“Yeah, we’re very busy,” Hilton said.

From Helena Recycling’s location in East Helena, plastic is brought to EFS Plastics in Lethbridge, Canada.

“They make a plastic pellet, and then they sell these pellets to companies that make plastic products,” Hilton said.

Helena only recycles plastics types one and two, the others—types three through seven—end up in the landfill. Helena is not alone in that, across the country, these plastics are not recycled because there is no end market for them.

Plastics types three through seven are things like cling wrap, plastic shopping bags, cosmetics containers, coffee pods, fast food cups and takeaway coffee lids. In April 2023, the EPA released a statement to the FTC saying the recycling sign on plastics—specifically types three through seven—is misleading because it does not necessarily denote recyclability.

While some plastic does get recycled, a 2022 report from Greenpeace said plastic waste in the US rose to 44 million metric tons, or about 295 pounds of plastic waste per person.

If you do recycle plastics type one and two in Helena, Hilton said those items do get recycled.