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Plastics have been an enduring puzzle for recycling programs in Northwest Arkansas and around the country.

They come in endless variety and function divided by sometimes imperceptible distinctions: Despite appearances, a clear plastic water bottle, a clear plastic produce container and a clear plastic cup aren’t made of the same stuff. On top of that, these different plastics don’t mix well when reused, leaving consumers to either untangle the plastic thicket, simply throw it all way, or try the first option and end up with the second, anyway.

Local recycling programs tackle the problem by accepting narrow categories of plastic, usually only bottles and jugs marked #1 or #2. The search for a deeper solution continues, and it seems to be diverging into two approaches.

Avoiding the mix

On one hand are the recyclers that wrangle plastic’s diversity by keeping it under fastidious control. They receive specific types of plastic one at a time, typically direct from retailers rather than the general public, and provide them to manufacturers one at a time. Everyone knows what they have at every step of the way.

Ecotech, which recently moved its NWA operations from Springdale to a bigger facility in south Fayetteville, collects empty buckets that held icing for Walmart bakeries, processes them into tiny pellets and then makes them into food storage containers, for instance. Damaged storage bins, plant nursery pots, returned car seats for children and countless stretches of plastic film go down similarly separate paths to be remade into household items.

Alternative Plastics in Gentry takes the same approach, though it resells materials to manufacturers rather than reusing them itself. Shotgun shell casings, empty barrels for barbeque restaurants’ liquid smoke flavorings, yard signs, toilet seats — all are distinct streams of material that go exactly where they’re wanted.

“They say, ‘That can’t be recycled.’ I say, challenge accepted,” said Wil Ross, Alternative Plastics’ vice president of sales & purchasing. “It’s just finding the right and proper home for it.”

Embracing the mix

On the other hand are recyclers that make plastic’s variety a nonissue rather than a problem to solve.

For example, the Plastics Microfactory at Arizona State University’s Circular Living Lab allows the public to shred all sorts of old plastic into scraps that can be heated and squeezed into tabletops, stools and other goods. Another organization called Precious Plastic provides the machinery and other tools to do the same elsewhere.

Northwest Arkansas is joining in these efforts as well. The Bella Vista-based research and product development firm AON Invent last month announced it’s working with Ecotech to create a board-like product called Pcore out of unsorted mixtures of recycled plastic. It could be used in place of plywood and in other applications, and AON Invent is looking for companies interested in testing it out.