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The Glossary: Which Plastics Can Be Recycled?

  • Glossary
The Glossary: Recycling Plastics

The “chasing arrows” symbol is the internationally recognised symbol for recycling. But, do you know the number inside is what tells the real story? Within each chasing arrows triangle, there is a number from one to seven that’s used to identify the type of plastic in the product. Not all plastics are created equal – some can’t be broken down or recycled. Understanding the seven types of plastic will make your recycling life easier.

1 is PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

PET is one of the most commonly used plastics in consumer products and can most often be found in water and other drink bottles as well as food packaging. It’s recycled into polyester fibres and other lower grade products like carpets, too.

2 is HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE is a harder plastic that is used for detergent and oil bottles, milk containers, hair care products, and some plastic bags. HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic and it’s a relatively simple and cost-effective process to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use. The EU’s 2008 Waste Framework set a target recovery and recycling rate of plastic for 22.5% which the UK has surpassed by achieving 46.2%. Meanwhile, in America, only 29.6% of plastic is recycled. Here is where it gets a bit murkier. If you see the number 4, 5 or 6, the plastic, may be recyclable. You need to check with your local collection service to see if they are accepting that type of plastic material.

3 is PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC is used for all kinds of pipes and tiles but is most commonly found in plumbing pipes. It is only sometimes recycled, because it’s harmful if ingested so should not come in contact with food items.

4 is LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

LDPE is used in squeezable bottles, shrink wraps, shopping bags and the bags used for packaging bread. Some clothing and furniture also contain this type of plastic. While LDPE has not been commonly recycled, many places are beginning to accept the material in their recycling programs. When recycled, LDPE plastic is used for lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners and floor tiles.

5 is PP (Polypropylene)

Polypropylene plastic is resilient and thin. It serves as a barrier against moisture and is used to make bottle tops, yoghurt containers, and straws. Polypropylene is recyclable through some recycling programs, but only about 3% of PP products are currently being recycled in the US. Recycled PP is used to make landscaping border stripping, battery cases, brooms, bins, and trays.

6 is PS (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene is a lightweight plastic that is used in a variety of ways. Most often It is used to make Styrofoam. It can commonly be found in cups, take-out containers, egg cartons and foam packaging. Polystyrene is notorious for easily breaking down and polluting the environment. It may also leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products. Recycling is not widely available for polystyrene products.

The number 7 category is for everything else and any combination of the above plastics. Number 7 plastics are used to make baby bottles, cups, water cooler bottles, and car parts. The infamous BPA, a known endocrine disruptor, also falls into this group. On the other hand, bio-based polymers like corn starch or algae are also categorized as #7 but will have “PLA” near the chasing arrows symbol, meaning they are compostable.


Recycle: 1 and 2

Avoid: 3, 6 and 7

Check: 4 and 5

If you’re still not sure

It tends to be a bad idea to put something in the recycling bin if you don’t know whether or not it’s recyclable in your area. This is because if materials that can’t be recycled find their way into a recycling facility, they will disrupt the recycling process and can contaminate entire batches of materials. Recycling contamination means lots of otherwise recyclable materials have to be landfilled, so we must all do our best to pay attention to what we’re putting in our recycling bins. As The Recycling Association puts it, “if in doubt, throw it out.”

Are the rules global?

Most countries use the same 1 to 7 recycling codes above, including all of Europe, Australia and America. Some countries have adopted their own distinct codes, like China, where they have a comprehensive list of 140 different codes to identify various types of plastic.

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Written by - Alex Lilienfeld

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