Recyclable Plastics 101

Everyone is familiar with the recycle symbol and what it stands for, but how many people actually know what the numbers (1-7) inside the symbol stands for?  Not me that’s for sure.  Here’s the breakdown (no pun intended):

#1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE), these are the easiest and most common plastics to recycle; soda and bottles are good examples.  Patagonia uses these to make fiberfill jackets, sleeping bags, and winter coats.

#2 – High Density Polyethylene (HPDE), heavier containers such as bottles for laundry detergent, milk, bleach, shampoo, etc.  They are often recycled into toys, pens and other containers.  It is readily recyclable into many consumer goods over and over.

#3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), used in plastic pipes, shower curtains, shampoo bottles, house siding etc.  It is rarely recycled but is accepted by many lumber makers because the material is tough weathers well and is often recycled into decks, paneling, truck mudflaps, and flooring.  Never burn PVC because it releases toxins.

#4 -Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE), found in most squeezable bottles, shopping bags, clothing, furniture, etc.  LDPE is often not allowed on curbside recycling.  It is recycled into trash can liners, compost bins, floor tiles, etc.

#5 – Polypropylene (PP), used in tupperware, ketchup bottles, yogurt containers, and straws among other things. They can be remade into auto battery cases, brooms/brushes, street signal lights, trays, etc.  PP has a high melting point so it is used for materials that must accept hot liquid (tupperware, coffee cups, etc).

#6 – Polystyrene (PS), better known as styrofoam and is seen in disposable plates, cups, trays, egg cartons, and carryout containers from restaurants.  It can be recycled into many different items such as coffee cups, packing peanuts, and cassette tapes.  Seems great right? Don’t be fooled because it cannot biodegrade and is produced in mass quantities for things like coffee and shipping.  Styrofoam takes up approximately 30% of American landfills, yikes.  Also evidence suggestions that stryofoam leaches potential toxins into foods.  Most places don’t accept it for recycling but some curbside programs allow it.  This is what my styrofoam plate looked like a few weeks ago at work after putting a toasted bagel on it, YIKES:

#7 – OTHER, a combination of the materials listed above found in sunglasses, dvds, ipods, computer cases, nylon, 3-5 gallon water jugs.  #7 is rarely accepted at recycle centers because it does not recycle well due to its hybrid nature.  However, many plastics that don’t fit into the above categories are simply lumped into #7 so cups that are made from plants (polyactide) are compostable.  Boloco Inspired Burritos is a good example of a company that uses #7 plastics well, all of their utensils and cups are biodegradable.  Also a shout out to True Grounds Coffee shop (@truegrounds), you were the first place I noticed a few years ago to use biodegradable iced coffee cups, nice hustle.

I really think that there should be be a new #8 plastic for biodegradable/compostable plastics.  I don’t really think it’s appropriate to lump them in with #7 plastics like dvds and water jugs because unlike ipod and laptop cases, biodegradable plastics are easy to recycle and compost.  I think it’s about time we expanded and gave them their own category.  This iced coffee cup from True Grounds doesn’t really look like the other #7 plastics shown above and is fundamentally quite different.

Recap:

Avoid using most #7 plastics unless they are biodegradable because for the most part the rest are really hard to recycle due to their composite/hybrid nature.  Avoid at all costs #6 (Styrofoam) because it is such a huge contributor to landfill waste in the United States, it is known to leak toxins into food, and doesn’t (let’s put it into a time frame) “ever” degrade naturally. Go ahead and use #1 and #2 plastics because they are easily recyclable, or better yet be fashion & environmentally forward and purchase clothing made out of them like jackets or underwear.

Here are a few of the sources that I used in this blog post in case you’re interested:

http://www.livestrong.com/article/159954-facts-about-landfill-styrofoam/

http://environment.about.com/od/earthtalkcolumns/a/recycleplastics.htm

http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321

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2 Responses to Recyclable Plastics 101

  1. Manhands says:

    This is really interesting I really didn’t know anything about these. What do you suggest we do with biodegradable #7 cups? I know boloco has their own trash receptacle for them but what do they do with it? if you throw them away, won’t they just biodegrade in the landfill? I really don’t know much about it…

    • I think that biodegradable plastics should at least be put into its own category of plastic. I am not sure what Boloco does with their cups after the fact. Perhaps they are recycled into new biodegradable cups/utensils or maybe they are just thrown into a compost. Throwing a biodegradable cup in the trash doesn’t seem to have any negative impacts environmentally (besides transportation to the landfill) but either of the previous options is better because it’s being reused in some way, i.e. the cup becomes compost for a flower or vegetable instead of becoming compost for a heap (or more likely, a mountain) of garbage.

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