Recycling Different Types of Plastic

Despite the efforts of many green organizations worldwide, many people are still confused as to what materials they can and cannot recycle. The most question marks usually surround plastics. Plastics can be especially confusing, since different kinds of plastic require different types of processing to be reconstructed and then re-used as a raw material. Some municipalities will accept any and all types of plastic for recycling, while others, however, only accept specific containers and bottles with code numbers stamped on the bottom.

The symbol code commonly found on recyclables is a single digit number between 1 to 7 that is surrounded by a triangle of arrows. This system was designed by The Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI) in 1998, in order to allow consumers as well as recyclers to discern the difference between different types of plastics while at the same time providing a consistent coding system for the manufacturers.

39 of the 50 U.S. states now require the numbers to be molded or stamped on all eight-ounce to five-gallon containers that can accommodate the ½” minimum-size symbol, and that symbol serves to identify the specific type of plastic. According to an industry trade group called the American Plastics Council, the symbols also serve to help recyclers perform their jobs more effectively.

Plastics made from polyethylene terephthalate (PETE) are by far the easiest plastics to recycle, and they are marked with the number 1. They are also among the most common. Examples of PETE plastics are water bottles, medicine containers, and several other popular consumer containers. Once it has been successfully processed by a recycling plant, PETE plastic can serve many purposes, such as fiberfill for coats or sleeping bags and life preservers. In addition, it cal also be used to make rope, car bumpers, bean bags, combs, furniture, and more. It can also of course be used to produce more plastic bottles!

High density, heavy polyethylene plastics are used for products such as laundry detergent containers and motor oil containers. These plastics are labeled with a number two. Plastics bearing the number 2 label are often recycled into toys, plastic lumber, piping and rope. Similar to number 1 plastics, these plastics are accepted at the vast majority of recycling centers.

Number three is reserved for Polyvinyl chloride, a material commonly used in shower curtains, plastic pipes, vinyl dashboards, medial tubing, and even in some baby bottle nipples. Similar to numbers 4 (wrapping films, zip-loc type bags) and 5 (plastics used for items like Tupperware, among other products), few public recycling centers will accept these items due to their relatively low rate of recyclability.

The number 6 label belongs to polystyrene, better known as Styrofoam. Polystyrene is commonly used in disposable coffee cups and cutlery, meat trays, insulation, and packing “peanuts”. This particular plastic is widely accepted by recycling centers because it can be reprocessed into a vast array of items.

The most difficult items to recycle are those which are comprised of a combination of the other types of plastics. These somewhat more obscure plastics usually bear the number 7 or no number entirely and are hardly ever collected or recycled. Consumers can in most cases return this type of packaging to the manufacturer to avoid making additions to the local waste stream, and in effect defer the responsibility of proper disposal to the manufacturer.