THE 7 TYPES OF PLASTIC // how to tell them apart and how to recycle them

Hello everybody! While recycling is a good place to start, but a bad place to stop, we still need to talk about it, so we can consume materials in the most conscious way possible. Therefore, today’s post is going to concern the different types of plastic, what they’re used for and how, or if, they can be recycled. Now I want to note that what is and what is not recyclable can vary greatly from country to country, city to city, and even from municipality to municipality, so it is always a good idea to find out what your local recycling options are before you start sorting your waste.

Incorrectly sorting unrecyclable with actual recyclable material can be harmful to the entire recycling batch, even if it is meant with good intentions. “Wishcycling”, meaning sorting some materials for recycling even though you know they might not be, can be doing more harm than good.

QUICK TIPS:

  • You can see what type of plastic you are dealing with by looking at the small tringle with the number inside, sometimes there are also letters to describe the plastic, check down below what they mean.
  • Rinse out packaging and containers to remove food leftovers, because often, dirty material is not accepted
  • Even plastic is recycled it does not happen in a closed-loop, with every recycling cycle the quality of the plastic will become worse and worse, after 1-3 cycles new plastic has to be added to maintain quality
  • Plastic is also basically also downcycled, so a plastic bottle is not likely to be recycled into a plastic bottle again, instead, it will be used to make filling for jackets or pillow stuffing.

PET(E) (1), often recyclable:

also called polyethylene and terephthalate, is used to make soft plastic bottles for water, juice, or cooking oil. PET(E) does not contain BPA, but if the material is left out in the sunlight it can release antimony, a moderately toxic metalloid, it is absorbed in liquid and can irritate the stomach and large intestines. It is often recycled or purposed into filling for jackets, sleeping bags, and isolation, it is used in rugs, shoes, luggage, and boat sails. Other uses for (1): soda bottles, water bottles, salad dressing bottles, medicine jars, peanut butter jars, jelly jars, combs, bean bags, rope, synthetic tote bags, carpet, filling material in winter clothing.

This is one of the most commonly used types of plastics in the world. PET(E) makes up 96% of all plastic bottle containers in the US, however, merely 25% is recycled.

HDPE (2), often recyclable:

also called high-density polyethylene. This is used as packaging for cleaning products, shampoo bottles, and foils. Generally described as safe by the plastic industry, but some studies show that if exposed to lots of direct sunlight or heat, HDPE can release substances that imitate estrogen. HDPE is often recycled into plastic crates or fencing. Other uses for (2): milk jugs, juice containers, grocery bags, trash bags, motor oil containers, shampoo and conditioner bottles, soap bottles, detergent containers, bleach containers, and toys.

This was initially used for pipes, storm sewers, drains, and culverts. However, today this plastic is much more widely used. HDPE is also a commonly recycled plastic because it tends to be sturdier and does not break down as easily under exposure. Only 12% of HDPE products are recycled, so the bar for “commonly recycled plastic” is not very high.

PVC (3), sometimes recyclable:

also, called polyvinyl chloride. This is used in construction and for pipes and plumbing but it can also be found in packaging. PVC contains phthalates, which is a softening component that has shown to be highly hormone disruptive and can affect testosterone production. PVC is often recycling for flooring and automobile parts.  Other uses for (3): some synthetic tote bags, plumbing pipes, grocery bags, tile, cling films, shoes, gutters, window frames, ducts, and sewage pipes.

PVC is one of the oldest synthetic materials in industrial production. PVC is one of the least recycled materials; generally, less than 1% of PVC plastic is recycled each year. It has been called the “poison plastic” because it contains numerous toxins and is harmful to our health and the environment.

LDPE (4), sometimes recyclable:

also called low-density polyethylene. This is used for plastic shopping bags and often for packaging as well. This type of plastic does not contain BPA either, but just like HDPE, it can release substances that imitate estrogen. LDPE can often be recycled into garbage cans and lumber. Other uses for (4): cling wrap, sandwich bags, squeezable bottles for condiments such as honey and mustard, grocery bags, frozen food bags, and flexible container lids.

LDPE was the first polyethylene to be produced, making it the grandfather of the material. It has less mass than HDPE, which is why it’s considered a separate material for recycling. Packaging and containers made from LDPE make up about 56% of all plastic waste, 75% of which comes from residential households

PP (5) sometimes recyclable:

also called Polypropylene. This is often used in furniture, suitcases, as well as in cars and toys. This type of plastic generally poses no harm when exposed to heat and does not release toxins as many other types of plastic might. PP can be recycled into ice scrapers, rakes, and battery cables. Other uses for (5): plastic diapers, Tupperware, kitchenware, margarine tubs, yogurt containers, prescription bottles, stadium cups, bottle caps, take-out containers, disposable cups, and plates.

PS (6) most often not recyclable:

 also called polystyrene or styrofoam. This is also used in toy production, as well as for hard packagings like DVD cases or containers for cosmetics. PS is also known as polystyrene and can be made into soft plastic foam. Under influence of high temperatures, PS will release styrene which is a known carcinogen. PS is often recycled into insulation, license plate frames, and rulers. Other uses for (6): disposable coffee cups, plastic food boxes, plastic cutlery, packing foam, packing peanuts.

Polystryene is rather lightweight and easy to shape into different materials, however, it is also fragile and breaks easily, making it extra harmful when it ends up in the ocean. Polystyrene accounts for about 35% of US landfill materials.

Other (7), almost never recyclable:

This is the last category, and it includes miscellaneous plastics (polycarbonate, polylactide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon). These types are used to make everything from CDs to baby bottles. Studies find that this category generally releases both BPA and other hormone disruptors and is connected to type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This category is also used for: large water bottles with multiple-gallon capacity, medical storage containers, eyeglasses, exterior lighting fixtures. Even reused/recycled it can be turned into plastic lumber (which is often used in outdoor decks, molding, and park benches).

Many BPA products fall into this category, which means it’s best to avoid them, especially for food products. It is not very easy to break down these plastics once they are created unless they are exposed to high temperatures. This means they are nearly impossible to recycle.

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