Everywhere you turn, you will find the products you use every day in a plastic bag or container. We use plastics for takeout boxes, bottles, storage containers, and other single-use applications, which is just the tip of the iceberg.
Despite the astronomical amount of plastics we use, many of us feel a pang of guilt when tossing them out with the regular trash.
Although plastics are the main cause of filling up landfills across the world, the truth is that most of them are recyclable. However, it is important to know which types of plastic are recyclable and how we use each of them.
As you may know, different types of plastics are used worldwide. These different plastic vary in size, color, application, and how they can be disposed of. Here is what you need to know to ensure you’re educated about which plastics you can recycle in time for your next trash pick-up.
Which Plastics Can Be Recycled?
In theory, all plastics can be recycled and repurposed to create something new. For various reasons, a few are typically not accepted at local recycling facilities. Of the seven plastics used worldwide, there are four that most recycling facilities will accept and process.
Different types of plastics are identified using acronyms that represent their source material. This can make it difficult to identify these plastics according to their actual use. You won’t have to worry about deciphering these different plastic types. The list below explains the applications of each.
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Because HDPE is one of the most easily recycled plastic polymers, it is accepted by most recycling facilities throughout the world. As a result, products made using HDPE plastics are collected by recycling businesses and sent to larger facilities to be processed.
Both HDPE and PET plastics are created in both transparent and pigmented variations. The applications of this plastic are found in various forms throughout your home, including:
- Film packaging
- Household cleaner bottles
- Detergent containers
- Motor oil bottles
This is not a plastic that you will see used for food applications. In most cases, HDPE products are down-cycled after they have been processed. This means they are used to create new products of lower value, such as curbs, tables, benches, plastic lumber, and other forms of durable plastic products.
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Plastic-type number four, also known as low-density polyethylene (LDPE), is used to make the world’s most controversial plastic products – plastic bags. Many governing bodies throughout the world have banned the use of these bags or created incentives to use less of them. However, they are still present in grocery stores and other retailers.
From a technical standpoint, LDPE and plastic bags can be recycled. Unfortunately, the process of recycling is neither profitable nor effective. These bags tend to clog up machines, potentially ruining the productivity of an entire facility.
LDPE plastic is low-quality but also cheap to make. Because of this, most recycling centers struggle to recreate LDPE plastics into valuable new products. However, when the LDPE is recycled, it can be turned into liners for bins and different packaging films.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)
PET is the most recycled plastic in the world. Believe it or not, many countries still struggle to recycle this plastic – despite its simple recycling process effectively. For example, South Korea, India, and most of Europe recycle PET at a rate of over 50%, while the United States and China can’t seem to achieve the same numbers.
Millions of tons of PET plastic have been collected all over the world – mostly as plastic bottles. While PET bottles are often turned back into plastic drinking bottles, they are also recycled into something else that may surprise you. A large amount of PET plastic is recycled to create source materials for fashion items.
These bottles are turned into textiles and fashion pieces such as backpacks, polar fleece, and carpets! This is achieved by transforming PET-mad bottles into plastic flakes. These flakes are then turned into synthetic yarn used to make clothes and other garments.
PP is another form of plastic used abundantly, but the recycling rate in the United States is only between one to three percent. This means that most PP plastics will end up in a landfill for a long time. Most PP plastics take at least twenty to thirty years to break down.
Why isn’t this plastic recycled more effectively? In short, it comes down to a matter of cost. It is just not as financially beneficial for local recycling facilities to process this plastic. PP plastic products are difficult and expensive to recycle. Aside from this financial burden, this plastic is initially created in dark colors like black and grey.
These dark colors, coupled with a distinctive and stubborn smell associated with this plastic, make it difficult for recycling facilities to find new uses for PP plastics – resulting in few products suited for this plastic in repurposed applications.
When PP products are recycled, there are a few useful things made from this plastic. These applications include speed bumps, plastic lumber, car parts, park benches, and other forms of industrial products.
Which Plastics Are Not Recycled?
Even though there are seven unique kinds of plastics used in today’s world for many purposes, only four are collected in substantial quantities to be recycled and reused. Some of these other plastics may make it to a recycling plant, but it is highly unlikely.
Three kinds of plastics almost always end up in a landfill when thrown away. These include:
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is the third-most widely produced plastic. Each year, 40 million tons are produced in flexible and rigid variations. You are probably most familiar with its rigid form, as these plastics are used in construction. For construction, PVC is used for pipes and applications for doors and windows.
While PVC can be recycled, it is rare for common recycling plants to accept and process it. As a result, the recycling process is difficult and seldom found at municipal facilities. What this means for you is that you do not include PVC products in the recycling bin with your other plastics.
PS plastics, like PVS products, are recyclable – but you are unlikely to find a processing plant that will recycle and repurpose these plastics. PS plastics are rigid, glassy thermoplastics that are sourced from petroleum.
You’ve seen this plastic many times in the form of CD and DVD cases, Styrofoam table wear, cases for electronic equipment, and many other encasements.
BPA, Polycarbonate, and LEXAN (Type-7)
Defining Type-7 plastics is complex. These products describe any kind of plastic that does not fit neatly into the six other groups. Although they are not often recycled, they are used for many purposes.
Products made with Type-7 plastics include:
- Sippy cups
- Baby bottles
- Car parts
- And many others
Even though some of these plastics are sourced with partial vegetable products, finding a plant that processes them is unbelievably difficult. For this reason, they are considered non-recyclable plastic.
Why Can’t We Recycle All Plastics?
Almost every kind of plastic can be recycled. But many factors determine whether municipalities will take the extra step to reprocess different types of discarded plastic. Some kinds of plastic are not recycled because it is not efficient from an environmental, economic, or technical standpoint.
Here are a few reasons explaining some obstacles to recycling different plastic:
Believe it or not, the plastics you use aren’t created the same. They use different source materials and manufacturing processes to best suit their unique applications. Many items are made with different plastics that are layered to create a finished product.
Because of this mixing, separating the different kinds of plastics can be difficult. This means the recycling process becomes unprofitable, especially when the volume of used materials is low.
Recycling plants are expensive to build and sustain. These facilities are only successful if a significant amount of plastic is recycled every day. Due to low efficiency and high prices, recycling may become unprofitable and uneconomical for small volumes of plastic.
The plastics you used to store and carry everyday items like food can leak into the container. Food, as well as other items, can contaminate plastics. Many recycling facilities will reject plastic waste that has been soiled.
Despite these obstacles, there are still many plastic products that are recycled into amazing and inventive products. The plastic items you use are made from plastic that has already been recycled. This means that the milk jugs, bottles, and packaging films you discard in the recycling bin will turn into recycled, post-consumer material after passing through the recycling process.
Final Thoughts on What Plastics Can Be Recycled
Most of the world’s plastic is not recycled. Instead, it ends up in landfills, on the side of the street, and in the world’s oceans. This does not mean that you can’t make an impact by recycling the right kinds of plastic and doing your best to stay away from those that are not recyclable or aren’t recycled often.
To better understand which plastics are recycled in your area, check with your municipality to determine which types are processed and recycled at your local recycling facility. Once you know this information, you can do your best to stick to the plastics you know will not end up at your local landfill.