Plastics are not all the same, nor are they all recyclable. It is no surprise that many people don’t know this since it isn’t something regularly taught in our culture.
Plastic recycling is complex for several reasons:
- Plastics contain various materials, each with unique properties that make it difficult to recycle them together.
- Plastic need to be correctly sorted and cleaned before being sent for recycling.
- Many plastics are difficult to recycle, and the process can be expensive.
- There is a low demand for recycled plastic products, making the recycling process potentially less profitable.
- The lack of infrastructure and investment in recycling and the recycling industry also limits plastic recycling.
There are dozens of different types of plastic; however, we typically only come in contact with a few. The list below contains the most commonly used plastics. Each has a number that can help you remember what kind of plastic it is and whether or not it is recyclable.
Keep in mind:
It’s important to note that recycling facilities may have different processes and may not accept some types of plastic products. Check with your local recycling facility for their specific guidelines before recycling. Additionally, it’s essential to clean plastics properly and sort materials before recycling them to ensure the quality of the recyclable material.
So, what are the different types of plastic, and which ones are recyclable?
1-PET or PETE (Polyethylene terephthalate)
PET is a durable, lightweight, and flexible material that is highly resistant to moisture and chemicals. It’s also widely used in food packaging because it can be sterilized and is resistant to penetration by gases and liquids, keeping food fresh for a long time.
PET is a common type of plastic used to make products such as:
- Water bottles
- Soda Bottles
- Salad dressing and ketchup bottles
- Other drink bottles, such as Gatorade
- Plastic food container jars
- Cooking oil bottles
Yes, PET is recyclable!
PET is relatively easy to recycle compared to other types of plastic. The reason is that 1-PET is a thermoplastic material, which means it can be melted and reshaped without losing its properties.
PET is the most commonly recycled plastic globally to make new products, such as plastic fibers for clothing and carpets, tote bags, and new bottles.
2- HDPE (High-density polyethylene)
2-HDPE is another commonly used plastic. It is a food-grade type of plastic used to make:
- Shampoo and conditioner bottles
- Soap bottles
- Cleaning product containers
- Milk jugs
- Juice, water, and other liquid drink containers
- Laundry products
- Bleach bottles
This type of plastic can be opaque/colored or translucent. Fortunately, HDPE can be recycled into various products, such as plastic lumber, garden furniture, and even new plastic bottles.
Yes, HDPE is recyclable!
Like PET, HDPE is a relatively easy plastic to recycle because it is also a thermoplastic material that is meltable and reshapeable without losing its properties.
Recycling 2-HDPE can make products such as:
- “Plastic” lumber
- Water or soda bottles
- Traffic cones
- Trash cans
3-PVC (Polyvinyl chloride)
PVC, also sometimes referred to as vinyl, is a versatile, durable, and lightweight plastic commonly used in the building and construction industry.
This type of plastic makes:
- Kids toys
- Plastic trays and furniture
- Plastic tubing
- Medical devices
- Wire and cable insulation
- Shower curtains
PVC is a toxic plastic that is dangerous to human health and the enviornment. For this reason, it isn’t used to make food and drink containers.
3-PVC is not commonly recycled.
In the rare case that PVC is recycled, it is usually downcycled to create a lower-quality product that isn’t recyclable again.
4-LDPE (Low-density polyethylene)
4-LPDE is a durable and flexible type of plastic that doesn’t release harmful chemicals. This feature makes 4-LDPE a safe choice for food containers that require flexibility, such as ketchup and mustard bottles.
4-LDPE makes products such as:
- Shrink wrap
- Drycleaning bags
- Grocery bags
- Sliced bread bags
- Produce bags
- Flexible container lids
LDPE is not commonly recycled.
LDPE is commonly used to make products that are typically not collected through curbside recycling programs, and it may be hard to find a recycling facility that accepts LDPE.
LDPE makes plastic bags, food packaging, and plastic wraps. It is worth mentioning that some communities have banned single-use plastic bags, which makes it hard to recycle them.
However, when recycled, this plastic makes products such as:
- Floor tiles
- Plastic lumber
- Shipping envelopes
- Trash cans and liners
- Compost bins
- Landscape timber
5-PP has similar features to 1-PET, 2-HDPE, and 4-LDPE. However, it has a much higher melting point, making it a commonly used plastic for food containers. This plastic type comes in rigid forms (such as Tupperware) and flexible forms (such as cereal box liners).
Other products made with 5-PP include items as:
- Syrup bottles
- Bottle caps
- Yogurt containers
- To-go containers
- Disposable cups and plates
- Plastic diapers
- Food packaging (chip packets)
PP is not commonly recycled.
While PP is technically recyclable, not all recycling facilites accept it. The difficulty in processing and the low demand for recycled PP make it less often recycled compared to other plastics.
If recycled, however, it may be used to create various products, including plastic bottles, food containers, and household items.
Next time you pick up a set of plastic forks, spoons, and knives with your next takeout order, or drink out of a red solo cup, remember you are using plastic #6.
Some of the most common products made from polystyrene include:
- Plastic cutlery
- Packaging materials (such as foam peanuts)
- Food packaging disposable cups, plates, and food trays
- Foam products
- Medical devices such as test tubes, Petri dishes, and culture dishes
- Electronic devices
PS is usually not recyclable and is often not accepted in most recycling programs.
Polystyrene is not biodegradable, and it’s not easily recyclable. It also takes hundreds of years to decompose and can harm marine life if it ends up in oceans, and it is not an environmentally friendly option.
Additional Educational Resources
- The Plastic Pollution Coalition
- The Recycling Partnership
- Alliance to End Plastic Waste
- National Geographic: The World’s Plastic Pollution Crisis Explained
- Environmental Protection Agency: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle