The Recyclability of Plastic
Plastic is an incredibly versatile and useful material. However, it is not made from renewable resources and takes an extremely long time to breakdown into the natural environment. That is why it is very important to use recyclable plastic when a plastic lid or container is the best or only option for you. Recyclable plastics have a plastic resin code stamped on them to indicate their recyclability. Here is an overview of the seven plastic types, what they are commonly used for and how easily recyclable they are.
#1 PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
Because it is lightweight, easy to recycle, and inexpensive, this is the most common plastic for single-use containers. It is generally considered safe, but can absorb odors and flavors from foods and liquids stored in them, particularly when exposed to heat. The actual amount recycled is relatively low, at about 20%.
Product Examples: Bottled drinks, condiment bottles, peanut butter jars, and cooking oil containers.
Collection: PET/PETE is collected by most curbside recycling programs. Items must be cleaned to be collected and it is better to put container lids in the trash, as they are often made from different plastic.
Conversion: PET/PETE is recycled into: Polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, bottles and food containers (as long as the plastic is not contaminated).
#2 HDPE (High Density Polyethylene)
High Density Polyethylene is used in various ways, particularly for product and food packaging. It is much stronger than PET because of its internal structure and holds up well in both low and high temperatures. It is also easily recyclable and has a low leaching rate.
Product Examples: Milk jugs, juice bottles, cereal box liners, household cleaner bottles, shampoo bottles, some trash and shopping bags; motor oil containers and butter and yogurt tubs.
Collection: HDPE is also collected by most curbside recycling programs. Similar to PETE, items must be cleaned and it is better to put container lids in the trash. Thin plastics, like grocery bags and plastic wrap, can’t be recycled, but many grocery stores will collect and recycle them.
Conversion: HDPE is recycled into: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, toys, picnic tables, fencing, shampoo bottles.
#3 PVC or V (Polyvinyl chloride/Vinyl)
Polyvinyl chloride is strong and weather resistant, so it’s found in things like piping and siding. PVC is also inexpensive, so it’s often used in products and packaging. Because PVC contains chlorine, it can result in the release of highly dangerous dioxins during manufacturing, so it requires extra precaution in production.
Product Examples: Shampoo and cooking oil bottles, blister packaging, siding, windows, piping, credit cards
Collection: PVC and V can rarely be recycled, but it’s accepted by some plastic lumber makers. If you need to dispose of either material, ask your local waste management to see if you should put it in the trash or drop it off at a collection center.
Conversion: PVC or V is recycled into: Decks, paneling, mud-flaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, mats.
#4 LDPE (low density polyethylene)
Low density polyethylene has the simplest structure of all the plastics, which makes it easy to produce. It’s flexible, and often used for making bags. LDPE is clean and safe, so it is also found in household items like plastic wrap, frozen food containers and squeezable bottles. Unfortunately, it is not often accepted at American recycling centers, but more centers are slowly starting to accept it.
Product Examples: Squeezable bottles, bread, frozen food, tote bags, shopping bags and furniture.
Collection: LDPE is rarely collected by curbside programs, but some centers might accept it.
Conversion: Trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties, floor tile.
#5 PP (polypropylene)
Polypropylene is often chosen for containers that will hold hot liquid because it has a high melting point. It’s also a safe plastic, and so is used for making items or parts we often come in contact with.
Product Examples: Some yogurt containers, syrup and medicine bottles, caps, straws, Tupperware, car parts, thermal vests
Collection: It has not often been accepted at recycling facilities, but collection is slowly becoming more common.
Conversion: PP is recycled into: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays.
#6 PS (polystyrene)
Polystyrene can be made into rigid or foam products —the latter is commonly known as Styrofoam. It’s inexpensive and easy to create, and so is found everywhere. However, it is not safe because its chemicals can leach into food. It is also difficult to recycle. Most places don’t accept it in foam forms because it’s 98% air.
Product Examples: Disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, compact disc cases, insulation
Collection: Not many curbside recycling programs accept PS in the form of rigid plastics (and many manufacturers have switched to using PET instead). Since foam products tend to break apart into smaller pieces, you should place them in a bag, squeeze out the air, and tie it up before putting it in the trash to prevent pellets from dispersing.
Conversion: PS is recycled into: Insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers
Any other type of plastic is labeled as a #7 plastic. Many of these plastics are hard and will shatter when put under pressure. They don’t breakdown easily and so are difficult to recycle. They also contain harmful chemicals. Two examples of #7 plastic are Polycarbonate and Polylactic acid (PLA). PLA, however, is made from plants and is carbon neutral.
Product Examples: Three- and five-gallon water bottles, bulletproof materials, sunglasses, computer cases, signs and displays, certain food containers, nylon
Collection: These plastics are almost never collected.
Conversion: #7 plastic can be converted into plastic lumber and custom-made products.
Want a cheat sheet for quick reference? Check out this great chart from ourworldindata.org.
At SCT, we source recyclable plastics for our lids and window films. See our article on the materials we use for more information on making a sustainable choice.