Recycling plastic may keep some of it out of landfill, but it doesn’t help much with their carbon footprint since recycling plastic takes almost as much energy as manufacturing it originally. Using glass or other refillable vessels is the best environmental choice. There are 7 categories of plastics, identified by their numbers or names on products. Every community is different, so check what can and can’t be recycled where you live.
1. PET (polyethylene terephthalate)
Recyclable and safe to use.
This is the most common plastic, used in soft-drink bottles, plastic jam, peanut and condiment jars, and most household cleaner bottles. It is one of the safest plastics to produce and can be recycled into fabrics and carpet.
2. HDPE (high-density polyethylene)
Recyclable and safe to use.
It is used to make detergent and cleaning spray bottles, and milk bottles. It is relatively safe to produce and can be recycled, where it is broken down into small flakes, cleaned and reused.
3. PVC (polyvinyl chloride)
Not recyclable. Should be avoided.
PVC (vinyl) is dangerous to produce and leaves carcinogenic by-products that are released into the environment. It is used to make shower curtains, school bags, raincoats, waterproof boots, plumbing pipe and auto interiors. That ‘new car smell’ is mainly the off-gassing (leaking) of PVC and other plastics. Do not dispose of PVC plastics in recycling bins – if possible, find out where your local hazardous waste disposal facility is.
PVC is landfill releases chemicals and heavy metals which eventually leach into groundwater. If PVC is burnt, or a fire occurs at a landfill, PVC releases dioxine into the air. Dioxine is one the deadliest chemicals in the world. Some PVC manufacturers are now actively phasing out the use of PVC plastics, such as Microsoft, IKEA, Victoria’s Secret, Sears, Walmart and others.
4. LDPE (low-density polyethylene)
Recyclable. Use should be limited.
LDPE is best known as the clear plastic bags in supermarkets. It is also used for dry-cleaning bags, disposable diapers, garbage bags and drink bottles. LDPE is relatively easy to recycle, but it’s better not produced in the first place. Some cities, companies and even countries have banned disposable plastic bags because of their detrimental impact on the environment, specifically the poisoning and choking of marine animals which mistake plastic bags for food.
5. PP (polypropylene)
Recyclable. Safe to use.
PP is used for carpet and rug backing, clothing, yoghurt containers and syrup bottles, among other uses. It can be recycled and made into other products, but not all countries or communities recycle it.
6. PS (polystyrene)
Recyclable. Should be avoided.
Polystyrene, or Styrofoam, is made into everything from disposable drinking cups and takeaway food containers to meat trays and packing beads. It can be recycled and made into building and other materials, but if it ends up in nature, it breaks down into small beads which can be eaten by birds, marine life and other animals. It also takes centuries to break down. Many communities and even countries are now starting to ban the manufacture and use of Styrofoam. If you want to recycle it yourself or give it away for recycling, it can be used and reuses as packing beads, once broken up into smaller pieces.
7. Other plastics, including polycarbonate, ABS and PPO/PPE
Not recyclable. Limit or avoid use.
This category of plastics is used for everything else from Tupperware to toys. These are usually not recycled and require specialized recycling if they are, due to challenges in reusing the recycled materials, which become brittle or chemically unstable. It is best to phase these plastics out completely and find safer alternatives. Some new bio-plastics also fall into this category. They can’t be recycled, but are compostable under high heat.