At A&C Plastics, we love talking about all the different ways plastic can help make our lives safer, stronger and more colorful. But the environmental effects of plastics can't be left out of the conversation. The plastic waste epidemic is causing major problems around the world, on land and at sea. Thankfully, there is a simple way to tell whether a plastic is recyclable or not, and also if it's safe to be reused or should be avoided altogether. And it's already printed on just about every plastic item you purchase.
We're all familiar with the chasing arrows triangle symbol that represents the recycling process. You may have also noticed that on most plastics, there's a number between 1-7 inside the triangle. However, you might not know what exactly that number means. It's a simple answer: the number represents the kind of plastic an item is made of. Here's a break down:
- 1 = Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
- 2 = High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
- 3 = Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
- 4 = Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
- 5 = Polypropylene (PP)
- 6 = Polystyrene (PS)
- 7 = Other (acrylic, polycarbonate, nylon, fiberglass, etc.)
Knowing the type of plastic you're buying is good for a variety of reasons. First, it tells you whether or not an item can be recycled since some plastics are too volatile to be repurposed. Second, you can decide whether or not you want to buy the product at all — just because a product is made of plastic doesn't mean it's safe to use for things like eating and drinking. To start, let's take a look at which materials cannot be recycled to begin to understand the environmental toll of these plastics.
Plastics to Avoid
If a plastic cannot be recycled or is dangerous to your health, you should try to avoid it as much as possible. This will not only keep you away from harmful carcinogens, it will also reduce the environmental impact of plastic by keeping waste out of landfills.
Try to stay away from items marked with the number 3, or PVC plastic. The chemical makeup of PVC makes it extremely difficult to recycle, and as such, many recyclable waste collection services won't take it. Luckily, PVC has an amazing tolerance for UV-rays and other weather factors, so it can be used for an extremely long time in applications like piping, garden hoses and window frames.
Plastic number 4 is fairly non-toxic, so it's often used in dry cleaner garment bags, squeeze bottles and bread bags. When it can be recycled, it's used for applications ranging from plastic lumber to garbage can liners. However, because it's generally viewed as non-recyclable, many recycling pickup services do not include it on their list of acceptable items. It's best to ask your local pickup company which plastics they take so you don't accidentally add unwanted materials like LDPE to the mix.
Plastic number 6 should be avoided the most in terms of both recycling and general use. This plastic is used to make things like styrofoam, seen in packing peanuts and takeout containers. However, polystyrene tends to leach styrene into food products, which is a possible human carcinogen. This is the reason why you've probably been advised against reheating food in styrofoam containers in the microwave — the radiation expedites the speed of the styrene leaching.
In addition, polystyrene is too toxic to be reused, so it cannot be recycled and given new life. This is why a staggering 35% of landfill material in the US is polystyrene-based products. If we want to truly curb the environmental toll of plastics, avoiding polystyrene and stopping its production is a good place to start.
Plastics to Use
Thankfully, many of the most common plastics in circulation are safe to use and recycle! They can be reused both in your home and in material recovery facilities, where they're sorted and shipped to places that can transform them into something new.
The poster child of the recycling movement, plastic number 1 is most commonly used to make water and soda bottles. These can be cut into small flakes and reprocessed in order to make new bottles or polyester fiber for life jacket stuffing, fleece garments, carpeting and more. However, PET products are not recommended for extensive reuse since they can begin leaching harmful chemicals or growing bacteria. To reduce the personal and environmental impact of this plastic, use it once and toss it in the green bin!
High-density polyethylene, or plastic number 2, is one of the safest forms of plastic, making it a great option for both reuse and recycling. HDPE is found in milk jugs, detergent bottles, toys and much more, thanks to its resistance to extreme temperatures, weather and abrasions. It can be recycled into truck beds, park benches and picnic tables.
Polypropylene is another plastic eligible for both reuse and recycling. It has great heat-resistance qualities while also being lightweight and sturdy, so it's often used in disposable diapers, gardening pails, yogurt containers and even the liners that hold your cereal inside the box. Most disposal and recycling companies accept polypropylene, but it never hurts to check.
Category number 7, simply called "Other," can be a bit more complicated to distinguish. Certain plastics in this category, like BPA, can leach harmful toxins that make them unrecyclable and also inadvisable to use. On the other hand, certain #7 plastics have additional PLA compostable coding, meaning they can go into a compost bin because they will break down over time. Most of the time, unfortunately, these plastics are not recyclable.
Continue Learning About Plastics & the Environment
With A&C Plastics, you can continue learning about the environmental effects of plastics and so much more. For example, you can read about the different ways that recyclable plastics are helping shape innovative green technology to help preserve and restore our planet! Learn more or contact us today with questions about how we can assist in your next project.