A common misconception is that just because something is plastic means it’s recyclable. Well, technically you’re right. Everything IS recyclable but not everything is recycled. Recycling is a market. If there is a demand for one plastic, it will be recycled. If there is no demand for another type, it won’t be recycled. Not only that but if it costs a lot of money for little return, then what’s the point in the name of profits. Of course, if it were in the name of the earth, we would recycle everything, but it can get costly and very difficult to recycle some types of materials.
So, let’s dive into the different types of plastics, how to find out what type it is, and if you should recycle it in your curbside bin or not.
1. Polyethylene terephthalate: PET/PETE
2. High density polyethylene: HDPE/PE-HD
3. Polyvinyl chloride: V/PVC
4. Low density polyethylene: LDPE/PE-LD
5. Polypropylene: PP
6. Polystyrene: PS
7. Other resins: OTHER/O
Plastic #1: Polyethylene terephthalate, PET/PETE
This is probably the type of plastic you see the most often. This is things like water bottles, soda bottles, peanut butter tubs, and other food/drink packaging. It is clear (though also colored), strong, and lightweight which makes it a popular choice among distributors. PET was first synthesized in the 1940s and you can learn more about the history of plastic here.
PET is also the same plastic we see in synthetic clothing: polyester.
PET is also fully recyclable, which is great since it is so commonly used. It can be identified with a #1 inside the recycling triangle, most commonly seen on the bottom of your items. Though, it is not infinitely recyclable. It can only be recycled 1-2 times before new material needs to be added to strengthen the batch. We will talk about this more at the end. The recycling rate for PET is about 31% and when PET ends up in the landfill, it can leech harmful toxins into groundwater and soil over time.
Plastic #2: High density polyethylene, HDPE/PE-HD
HDPE is exactly what it sounds like: high density plastic. This makes it considerably stronger than PET. They are commonly opaque, meaning you can’t see through them, at least not entirely. Thing of things like grocery store bags, milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, shampoo bottles, and so forth. It is also resistant to corrosion and high levels of heat which makes this another popular choice for manufacturers.
HDPE is fully recyclable as well. Because it is so thick and durable, it is more energy efficient to recycle HDPE than to create brand new HDPE. It takes about 1.75kg of oil to make just 1kg of HDPE. So, recycling of these plastics is of utmost importance to save energy and oil. To recycle, look for the plastic #2 inside the recycling triangle, most likely on the bottom of your container.
Plastic #3: Polyvinyl chloride, V/PVC
This is the most commonly used plastic when it comes to toys, cling wrap, paper binders/notebooks, and medical tubing. It used to be the most common type of plastic behind PET but has since been discovered to have health risks and environmental pollution hazards so it seems to be being phased out a bit. It is considered the most hazardous type of plastic.
PVC is recyclable, but the recycling process for PVC is quite hazardous when it comes to air pollution. In order to produce the best product after recycling, PVC can never be recycled with other types of plastics. Of course, it would be just as harmful to send this stuff to the landfill, so some companies in Europe are trying to create better recycling initiatives for PVC.
Plastics #4: Low density polyethylene, LDPE/PE-LD
LDPE is similar to PET and HDPE but again, it’s in the name, its low density. It is generally thinner and more flexible than its cousins PET/HDPE. It is commonly seen as grocery store bags, bread bags, garbage bags, coffee cup lids, and other thin plastics. This type of plastic is generally considered safe health-wise, but its thinness makes it very difficult to recycle.
It can be recycled and when it does, it gets shredded into flakes and re-melted into a new product. But, here is the thing. Since it’s so thin, when it is re-melted, there is not much left to work with. It’s a high energy process for not much return.
Plastic #5: Polypropylene, PP
To me, polypropylene is kinda in between HDPE and LDPE. It’s often thinner than plastics you’d see in a laundry detergent jug, but not as thin as plastic film. It is still stiff and resistant to heat and is used in food containers like red solo cups and other items like diapers and sanitary pads. It is considered to be a safe form of plastic but is also hard to recycle.
Once again, plastics #5 are technically recyclable but they are difficult to do so meaning many municipalities are not equipped to do so. This means if you want to recycled your plastic #5, you must seek out a recycler that specializes in recycling #5 plastic or recycle through programs like TerraCycle.
Plastic #6: Polystyrene, PS
Also known as: Styrofoam, AKA the bane of my existence. I hate Styrofoam, and you will understand why from a recycling standpoint in a minute, but they are essentially air-puffed beads of plastic. They break down extremely easily when they are litter and burst into handfuls of Microplastics. It’s everywhere too: egg cartons, take-out, disposable cups and plates, in many of our packages from online shopping, boogie boards, bike helmets, and much more. It is also quite risky when exposed to high heat and the worst of all, it’s very, VERY hard to recycle.
We already know, all plastic is hard or ineffective to recycle, but that especially goes for Styrofoam. Once again, not all recycling facilities are built to handle plastic #6. It needs special equipment in order to be broken down for reuse. It’s also extremely bulky, but light. This means they would require huge amounts of storage space and vehicles for transportation and for little reward. When it is melted down, there isn’t much left since the product itself is mostly air.
Plastic #7: Other resins, OTHER/O
Exactly what it sounds like, plastics #7 are literally any other plastic not encompassed in #1-6. This includes two main types: polycarbonate (PC) and bisphenol A (BPA). Neither have a good rep. PC is associated with BPA which is contained in a lot of plastic we use in our everyday lives and has been shown to have adverse health effects. #7s could also be bioplastics or combined plastics. Are bioplastics recyclable though? That is something I want to dive into in the future, but for now, you can check out this video on bioplastics vs petroleum based plastics. This type typically cannot be recycled.
What do they have in common?
All plastics are made from oil. If that is the first time you’re hearing this, I highly encourage you check out my video on the history of plastic. They are all very closely related but how they vary is their compounds/monomers.
They all also pose health risks in one form or another and you should avoid heating up plastic whenever possible. The “safer” options are PET, HDPE, and PP, numbers 1, 2, and 5. Coincidently, these are also the most commonly accepted for recycling which we will talk more on down below.
Which ones can I recycle?
Generally speaking, plastics #1-2 are accepted almost everywhere and #5s are also very common. If you’ve watched any of my recycling videos before this, you already know what I’m going to say: check your local recycling facility. I don’t know about you, but my recycling bin has our recycling rules for the city on the lid so I know what I can and cannot put in my curbside recycling (generally speaking, you also can’t put these 100 things or these 45 things in your curbside recycling, either, but you can surprisingly recycling these 100 things through special programs). If you don’t have your rules on your bin or as a pamphlet they handed out or something, simply call or email them asking them what types of plastics they will and will not accept.
I highly encourage you to watch this video, too, about why recycling correctly is so important. Recycling shouldn’t be our full burden as consumers, but it is. So, we need to take recycling correctly seriously and do our part to ensure the highest recycling rates as we can. Oil is finite. We will run out eventually so we should recycle what we can.
What type of plastic should I use?
Given the health risks and environmental risks (from Microplastics to emissions from creation), avoid plastic as much as possible. I know it’s not always possible, I still use some plastic, too. If you have to use plastic, opt for one that can be accepted for recycling or easily reused like I reuse my coconut oil tubs. Recycling is just a Band-Aid, sure, but it is much better than the landfill.
Thank you so much for reading along, I really appreciate your time. If you have any questions, please leave them down below, I’d love to follow up and ensure we have the highest level of recycling education as we can. Recycling education is quite poor, so I hope that this post helped you. If you’re a visual learner, I highly encourage you to check out the video version. If you think someone else will benefit from this information, please share it with them. I never say that for personal gain but for the gain of us all. The better we recycle, the better our recycling systems can become. But also remember, reduce first, reuse second, and then recycle.
Thanks again, as always, remember that your small actions have a big impact in the long run J