Plastics are covering the globe with 300 million tonnes of fresh new virgin plastic is being produced each year. In order to reduce that demand, we have to increase the recycling rates of what we already have. This is the overwhelming reason why optimizing the lifespan of plastics by reusing and recycling plastic items as many times as possible is so important.
So recycling is the key to reduction.
When it comes to handling plastic use the mantra, REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPURPOSE, RECYCLE – with recycling being the last resort. That being said. When it comes to recycling, are you sure that you are doing all you can to make sure that your plastic is being recycled?
Dirty plastic, unsorted plastics, plastics bottles with their tops left on, and even flimsy plastics in the recycling can all be reasons for your recycling to be rejected. To make matters worse the whole lorry load of plastic can be rejected because the plant is unable to resort it.
So what can you do to prevent this?
In this guide, I will explain the basics of plastics recycling requirements. What each plastic-type is and what its made into. How to identify the plastic types, and what you can do to optimize the chances of it being recycled. Remember reduction is the key.
Unfortunately, there is no mandatory requirement to mark plastics with a recycling symbol for consumer use. However, to aid the recycling industry, the plastics manufacturers mark their larger items with a code of symbols and numbers. This code is usually found on the base of the product and will help you to sort your recycling.
The Resin Identification Code
This is the number enclosed within a triangle of three arrows looping back on themselves in a clockwise direction. The chasing arrows symbol, sometimes called the Mobius loop, indicates that a product can be recycled. However, not all plastics marked in this way are accepted by your local authority or actually recycled.
Therefore displaying the Mobius loop on plastic items only creates unnecessary confusion and argument. For this reason that the chasing arrows are being phased out and a solid triangle and number will take its place.
Here is a table showing the seven different types of plastic and their identification codes plus general uses:
What are the seven types of plastic?
- PET or PETE – Polyethylene Terephthalate – lightweight drinks bottles and cups
- HDPE – (HDPE) – High-Density Polyethylene – rigid bottles, cups, and jugs
- Polyvinyl Chloride – (PVC) – rigid pipes and tubes
- Low-Density Polyethylene – (LDPE) – beer 6 pack fasteners, squeezy bottles, and plastic bags
- Polypropylene – (PP) – food containers and automobile parts
- Polystyrene – (PS) – ultra-lightweight disposable cups, plates, and packaging
- Other – A general-purpose catch-all category for mixed plastics, acrylic, and nylon
How Do I Know What Can Be Recycled?
Recycling of plastic has come on a long way over the last twenty years, pushed in part by changing social acceptances. Plastic waste that was refused as little as ten years ago is now readily accepted. Indeed this is definitely the case for PVC, a previously none recyclable material. Now, the desire for this product actually outstrips availability in some areas!
With this in mind, you should check online to identify what your local authority currently accepts. Unfortunately, every state is different so you will have to check to see what applies in your local area. However, even if they don’t recycle a certain material, they may collect and dispose of it for you anyway!
#1 (PET or PETE) Polyethylene Terephthalate
PET plastic is the most common choice of packaging in bottle form for soft drinks and water. It is durable, lightweight, and easily molded into whatever shape the manufacturer desires. It can be designed for single or multi-use and is claimed to be a sustainable plastic.
Moreover, the PET plastic bottles of today are 30% lighter than 15 years ago. This is important as it considerably lowers its carbon footprint.
However, PET plastic has a very poor environmental record. It has a low recycle rate in comparison to its production and can be found in all waste across the globe. PET plastics also weather and become brittle over time and then shatter into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces have then been discovered in the bellies of a wide variety of animals.
To use less PET try moving to glass, tin, or ceramic containers.
How To Recycle PET Plastic
PET plastic is usually included in most curbside collection programs so long as it is clean. Most PET bottle caps are made from a different kind of plastic and so should be removed before collection. The recycling rate of PET plastic is increasing, however, it is still far below the amount possible. If you see an empty PET bottle on the floor please pick it up and add it to the recycling.
A dirty PET bottle may not be ejected from the recycling process due to the high cost of decontamination. Cleaning dirty PET bottles will include the use of highly toxic chemicals at a further cost to the environment. It is for these reasons that I encourage everybody to clean their recyclable materials before collection.
PET Found In
Soft drinks bottles, ketchup bottles, mouthwash bottles, makeup bottles plus various food containers, trays, and packaging.
PET is an easily recyclable material and can be fashioned into a wide variety of forms. These forms could include; carpet, strapping, polar fleece, tote bags, life jackets, and stuffing fibers. It can also be recycled into bottles and food containers so long as pre-set regulation purity standards have been met.
PET Toxins Information
Antimony is used in the manufacture of all PET plastic around the world. It is also the carcinogen that leached into bottled water during a water research test in march 2008. The amount of antinomy leached was at 0.226 ppb after 3 months at 22 degrees C. It is thought that increased temperatures increase the likelihood of antimony leaching. This figure is well within agency standards.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) maximum contaminant level of antimony is set at 6ppb.
However, the British Plastics Federation maintains that there are no carcinogens in PET Plastic. They claim that it is a myth that a plastic bottle left in a car will leach carcinogens into the soft drink that it contains. What do you think?
Bisphenol A (BPA):
BPA is a known endocrine disruptor. Exposure to BPA can cause:
- Changes in the development and behavior of infants and children
- Changes in a developing fetus
- Interference with the body’s natural hormones
- Changes in reproductive function
Bisphenol A is used in the manufacturer of some plastics which may include food and drink can linings. However, it is no longer used in Europe in PET food and drink containers. Nor is it acceptable in those of HDPE, or LDPE, or Polypropylene.
Phthalates are used in the manufacture of PVC plastics to aid flexibility. They are not used in the manufacture of PET plastic bottles.
The dangers of exposure to phthalates are not yet fully understood and are still being studied.
One phthalate, Di (2-Ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP), is an endocrine disruptor and can cause cancer. It is also thought that some other phthalates may adversely affect reproduction or development in humans.
#2 (HDPE) High-Density Polyethylene
HDPE is a hard-wearing plastic that is thicker than PET and is commonly found in most kitchens around the globe. This is largely because it is deemed safe for food use and readily resists the degrading effects of sunlight. It also has an excellent resistance to harsh chemicals which makes it an easy choice for bleaches, detergents, and cleaners.
HDPE is naturally translucent in color but will take a color pigment very easily. However, this is not so great for recycling as pigments reduce the ease and increase the cost of recycling processes.
HDPE Found In
HDPE is the go-to plastic for detergents, cleaners, industrial chemicals, antifreeze, and bleach. It is also used extensively for shampoo conditioner, motor oil, medicine bottles, and liquid soaps. Furthermore, your plastic grocery cart, shopping bag, and car boot liner are probably all made from HDPE!
In addition to this HDPE has a very low risk of leaching. It is therefore used extensively to store foods and liquids for human consumption.
How To Recycle HDPE Plastic
HDPE is readily picked up at the curbside and is welcomed at all recycling sites. From the view of the plastics industry, HDPE is a very sustainable plastic. This is because it can be recycled into a large range of products and can be re-recycled many times over. The exception to this is flimsy HDPE such as shopping bags that need a different recycling process.
In terms of plastic recycling, HDPE is easily recyclable and relatively inexpensive to do so. Plus after recycling has been achieved it retains it’s hard-wearing properties and is resistant to the extremes of weather. This makes it an excellent candidate for the production of outdoor goods.
Recycled HDPE is used to make guttering, lawn trims, garden planters, buckets, lumber, benches, bed liners for trucks, picnic tables, and even recycling bins!
To use less HDPE change your grocery bag to a sustainable hemp bag.
#3 (PVC) Polyvinyl Chloride
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is a solid plastic material made from vinyl chloride that is extremely durable. It can be colored, made rigid or soft. Plus with the addition of phthalates, and can be molded into a wide variety of shapes and sizes. PVC however, should never be burnt. Burning can release toxins within the plastic harmful to life. Therefore it should always be taken to an authorized recycling center.
Polyvinyl chloride could also contain traces of other chemicals including bisphenol A (BPA).
PVC Found In
Apart from windows and doors, PVC can be found in Piping, traffic cones, garden hoses, cable coatings, shampoo, and cooking oil bottles plus some automotive parts. It is also used to make materials for selected food packaging, school supplies, housewares, shower curtains, housewares, medical supplies, and shoes.
In fact, PVC now accounts for about 20% of all plastic manufactured worldwide, second only to polyethylene.
How to Recycle PVC Plastic
PVC was at one time almost unrecyclable (technically all plastics are recyclable). However, the recycling of PVC plastic has changed greatly over the years. Due to its chemical structure, it cannot be left at the curbside but must be taken to an authorized collection point. A quick check online will advise you of your nearest point.
Recycled PVC production saves up to 90% more energy than virgin PVC production. Therefore recycling of PVC is strongly encouraged by the plastics industry. Recycling of PVC plastic prevents the creation of a substantial amount of greenhouse gases. Furthermore, it preserves natural resources and significantly reduces the volume of PVC going into landfill sites.
Cumulatively, 4.2 million tonnes of PVC have been recycled across Europe since 2000 compared to virtual nil 40 years ago! This figure is set to rise significantly as more facilities come online across the world.
That’s 4.2 million tonnes of potentially poisonous plastic that’s not in a landfill.
PVC is a plastic that is part of the circular recycling initiative. This initiative seeks to drastically reduce single-use plastics and remove plastics from landfills altogether. It can be recycled multiple times without loss of performance and reused in many ways including returning to its original product.
It can be recycled into pipes, polyvinyl flooring, hoses, cable coatings, medical devices, raincoats, toys, plumbing, speed bumps, and many other products.
To use less PVC ditch your plastic shrink wrap and use reusable or homemade beeswax wraps.
#4 (LDPE) Low-Density Polyethylene
LDPE is a very flexible semi-ridged form plastic which is largely unbreakable and can be easily molded. This makes it the first choice for manufacturers who want a strong but cheap and weatherproof squeezable bottle. You can use LDPE bottles for lotions, spreads, eye drop solutions, hair and beauty products, oils, and creams.
The plastic can be translucent but will take coloring easily. However, as LDPE is so soft it is not suited to excessive temperatures.
LDPE Found In
LDPE is used in a lot of different kinds of household products. These products include bags for bread and produce, bin liners, dry cleaning and shopping bags, toothpaste, and shrink wraps.
How To Recycle LDPE Plastic
LDPE is a plastic that had a low recycling rate however most recycling centers will now take these products. Therefore leave these items at the curbside for collection once they have been cleaned out and their lids removed.
The lids are usually constructed from type #7 plastic and may invalidate the recycling if left attached to the LDPE.
Low-Density Polyethylene can be recycled into carrier bags, soft buckets, outdoor lumber, and non-food bottles.
To use less LDPE consider making your own personal products and storing them in glass jars.
#5 (PP) Polypropylene
Polypropylene is a tough but lightweight plastic with excellent heat and chemical resistant properties. It is used in the production of containers that may carry hot liquids such as beakers, mugs, cups, and picnicware. It is harder than polyethylene but does not take pigments as easily. In its natural form, it is white or translucent.
PP Can Be Found In
Plastic bottle tops, yogurt cartons, rope, packing tape, non-stretchy bags, straws disposable diapers, and medicine bottles.
How To Recycle PP Plastic
PP can be recycled. However, you will need to check if your local waste management authority will collect this from the curbside.
Although this plastic is less cost-effective to recycle it is made into many different products. These products include landscape border edging, battery cases, outdoor furniture, signal lights, brooms, rakes, and plastic trays.
To use less PP consider switching to cloth diapers and cups made from sustainable materials such as bamboo.
#6 (PS) Polystyrene
Polystyrene can be made into solid or foam products and is incredibly light but very brittle by nature. It is one of the most widely used plastics in the world. You might recognize it as the peanut chips used as packaging material. Polystyrene is not biodegradable, although some organisms have been found to degrade it albeit very slowly.
Polystyrene is a major form of litter and is present in all the oceans of the world.
Animals often recognize polystyrene as food when it breaks up, blows in the wind, and floats on the water. Because of this, it is having serious detrimental effects on the health of our wildlife.
If you have some polystyrene please consider the wildlife and dispose of it properly.
Polystyrene can come in many forms such as foam packing chips, insulation, and polystyrene cups. It can also be made into disposable razors, aspirin bottles, DVD cases, yogurt containers, egg boxes, and disposable plates.
How To Recycle PS Plastic
In general, polystyrene is not accepted in curbside collection recycling programs.
There are two main types of polystyrene which are the hard, ridged type, and the soft expanded foam types. So you will need to check with your local authority as to which, if any, they will collect. Most polystyrene ends up as litter or in landfill sites with the US reporting a staggering 35% of landfills being polystyrene products!
Although it is not generally recycled it is possible to easily recycle Polystyrene. EPS or Expanded polystyrene if you prefer, can be turned into insulation sheets and molds. If enough EPS is collected then it can be turned into park benches, flower pots, seedling containers, picture frames, architectural moldings, and clothes hangers.
To use less Polystyrene consider taking your containers to the takeaway and refusing the foam trays that they supply.
This categorizes all other plastics including bioplastics, composite plastics, plastic-coated wrapping paper, and polycarbonate (which contains BPA). These plastics are not recyclable under normal conditions. However, due to advancements in the chemical recycling of plastics industry, we may soon have an answer to this problem.
Phthalates are used in the manufacture of plastics to aid flexibility. Therefore as the structure of plastics in this category are unknown they may contain phthalates and other undisclosed additives.
As these plastics can contain several types of plastic the products they are made into can be hard to identify. However, they can generally be found in the following products. Bottle tops, bulletproof jackets, nylon products, signs, displays, computer cases DVDs, sunglasses, and certain authorized food containers.
How To Recycle "Other" Plastic
These items are rarely accepted into the recycling system. Why not see if you can repurpose them instead, get creative today, and make your very own plastic predator!
On the few occasions where this plastic-type is recycled, it is made into park benches, lumber, and custom made objects.
Why Are Some Plastics Not Recycled
It’s not economically or environmentally effective, (carbon footprint), to recycle some forms of plastic. For example plastic films, wraps, and bags run the risk of clogging the machinery. Other plastics may be heavily contaminated from dirt or a food source which will require the use of toxic chemicals to remove.
In such cases, a judgment call needs to be made and an investment sponsored into the building of specialized plants. This is why I say technically all plastic can be recycled but it is not the case that all plastic is recycled.
So now you know all about your plastic waste, what it is and what it becomes. However apart from sorting, how can you improve its chances of being recycled and not going to landfill or the incinerator?
Here are some tips:
- Check with your local authority what plastic they will collect from you
- Create a list of plastics you need to take to authorized collection points
- Replace your plastic with plastic-free items and purchases over time ( Plastic-Free)
- Wash and separate your plastics before collection
- Remove all bottle tops as they may make your plastic donation invalid
- Do not include flimsy bags, wrap or films unless advised to do so
- If your local authority does not pick accept a plastic-type petition them to do so
Say “No” To Plastic
Remember, the best way to ensure sustainability around plastic is to use as little as possible of it. Then ensure that what we do use we recycle and don’t encourage the addition of virgin plastics into our world.
- Say no when offered a plastic item
- Turn down the plastic bags including shopping bags
- Buy loose items never over-packaged items
- Use plastic-free reusable water bottles
- Seek out ethically minded businesses who minimize their use of plastic
- Carry a none plastic plate and cutlery when going out
The reduction of plastic is the key. Remember to use the mantra REFUSE, REDUCE, REUSE, REPURPOSE, RECYCLE – with recycling of plastic being the last resort. It must be handled responsibly once it becomes waste and given the optimum chance of staying out of the landfill sites.
Finally, don’t forget to make sure the containers are clean, empty, and squashed (where possible) when recycling. A contaminated lorry load that is poorly sorted and cleaned runs the risk of being sent to a landfill site.
Mark Aspland is a proud father of two boys, would be amateur actor and green living enthusiast. He has been sharing hints, tips and sustainable living content on his website Sustainability Dad since august 2019.
He now has an army of followers who are like hearted individuals passionate about the environment and how to affect positive change through peaceful action.