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Understanding the differences between types of plastic will help you make better decisions in choosing and recycling plastics…

By Eartheasy.com Posted May 2, 2012

recycle-logosThe well-recognized “chasing arrows” symbol we see on plastic containers and products does not mean the product is recyclable. The little number inside the triangle tells the real story.

Within each chasing arrows triangle, there is a number which ranges from one to seven. The purpose of the number is to identify the type of plastic used for the product, and not all plastics are recyclable or even reusable. There are numerous plastic-based products that cannot break down and cannot be recycled.

Understanding the seven plastic codes will make it easier to choose plastics and to know which plastics to recycle. For example, water bottles that display a three or a five cannot be recycled in most jurisdictions in the US. A three indicates that the water bottle has been made from polyvinyl chloride, a five means that it’s been made of polypropylene, two materials that are not accepted by most public recycling centers.

Here are the seven standard classifications for plastics, and the recycling and reuse information for each type:

#1 – PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

#1-PET-plasticPET is one of the most commonly used plastics in consumer products, and is found in most water and pop bottles, and some packaging. It is intended for single use applications; repeated use increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth. PET plastic is difficult to decontaminate, and proper cleaning requires harmful chemicals. Polyethylene terephthalates may leach carcinogens.

PET plastic is recyclable and about 25% of PET bottles in the US today are recycled. The plastic is crushed and then shredded into small flakes which are then reprocessed to make new PET bottles, or spun into polyester fiber. This recycled fiber is used to make textiles such as fleece garments, carpets, stuffing for pillows and life jackets, and similar products.

Products made of #1 (PET) plastic should be recycled but not reused.

#2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE-plasticHDPE plastic is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs, detergent and oil bottles, toys, and some plastic bags. HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic and is considered one of the safest forms of plastic. It is a relatively simple and cost-effective process to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use.

HDPE plastic is very hard-wearing and does not break down under exposure to sunlight or extremes of heating or freezing. For this reason, HDPE is used to make picnic tables, plastic lumber, waste bins, park benches, bed liners for trucks and other products which require durability and weather-resistance.

Products made of HDPE are reusable and recyclable.

#3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

PVC-plasticPVC is a soft, flexible plastic used to make clear plastic food wrapping, cooking oil bottles, teething rings, children’s and pets’ toys, and blister packaging for myriad consumer products. It is commonly used as the sheathing material for computer cables, and to make plastic pipes and parts for plumbing. Because PVC is relatively impervious to sunlight and weather, it is used to make window frames, garden hoses, arbors, raised beds and trellises.

PVC is dubbed the “poison plastic” because it contains numerous toxins which it can leach throughout its entire life cycle. Almost all products using PVC require virgin material for their construction; less than 1% of PVC material is recycled.

Products made using PVC plastic are not recyclable. While some PCV products can be repurposed, PVC products should not be reused for applications with food or for children’s use.

#4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

LDPE-plasticLDPE is often found in shrink wraps, dry cleaner garment bags, squeezable bottles, and the type of plastic bags used to package bread. The plastic grocery bags used in most stores today are made using LDPE plastic. Some clothing and furniture also uses this type of plastic.

LDPE is considered less toxic than other plastics, and relatively safe for use. It is not commonly recycled, however, although this is changing in many communities today as more recycling programs gear up to handle this material. When recycled, LDPE plastic is used for plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners and floor tiles. Products made using recycled LDPE are not as hard or rigid as those made using recycled HDPE plastic.

Products made using LDPE plastic are reusable, but not always recyclable. You need to check with your local collection service to see if they are accepting LDPE plastic items for recycling.

#5 – PP (Polypropylene)

PP-plasticPolypropylene plastic is tough and lightweight, and has excellent heat-resistance qualities. It serves as a barrier against moisture, grease and chemicals. When you try to open the thin plastic liner in a cereal box, it is polypropylene. This keeps your cereal dry and fresh. PP is also commonly used for disposable diapers, pails, plastic bottle tops, margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape and rope.

Polypropylene is recyclable through some curbside recycling programs, but only about 3% of PP products are currently being recycled in the US. Recycled PP is used to make landscaping border stripping, battery cases, brooms, bins and trays. However, #5 plastic is today becoming more accepted by recyclers.

PP is considered safe for reuse. To recycle products made from PP, check with your local curbside program to see if they are now accepting this material.

#6 – PS (Polystyrene)

PS-plasticPolystyrene is an inexpensive, lightweight and easily-formed plastic with a wide variety of uses. It is most often used to make disposable styrofoam drinking cups, take-out “clamshell” food containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, foam packaging and those ubiquitous “peanut” foam chips used to fill shipping boxes to protect the contents. Polystyrene is also widely used to make rigid foam insulation and underlay sheeting for laminate flooring used in home construction.

Because polystyrene is structurally weak and ultra-lightweight, it breaks up easily and is dispersed readily throughout the natural environment. Beaches all over the world have bits of polystyrene lapping at the shores, and an untold number of marine species have ingested this plastic with immeasurable consequences to their health.

Polystyrene may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products (especially when heated in a microwave). Chemicals present in polystyrene have been linked with human health and reproductive system dysfunction.

Recycling is not widely available for polystyrene products. Most curbside collection services will not accept polystyrene, which is why this material accounts for about 35% of US landfill material. While the technology for recycling polystyrene is available, the market for recycling is small. Awareness among consumers has grown, however, and polystyrene is being reused more often. While it is difficult to find a recycler for PS, some businesses like Mailboxes Etc. which provide shipping services are happy to receive foam packing chips for reuse.

Polystyrene should be avoided where possible.

#7 – Other (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN)

plastic baby bottlesThe #7 category was designed as a catch-all for polycarbonate (PC) and “other” plastics, so reuse and recycling protocols are not standardized within this category. Of primary concern with #7 plastics, however, is the potential for chemical leaching into food or drink products packaged in polycarbonate containers made using BPA (Bisphenol A). BPA is a xenoestrogen, a known endocrine disruptor.

Number 7 plastics are used to make baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles and car parts. BPA is found in polycarbonate plastic food containers often marked on the bottom with the letters “PC” by the recycling label #7. Some polycarbonate water bottles are marketed as ‘non-leaching’ for minimizing plastic taste or odor, however there is still a possibility that trace amounts of BPA will migrate from these containers, particularly if used to heat liquids.

A new generation of compostable plastics, made from bio-based polymers like corn starch, is being developed to replace polycarbonates. These are also included in category #7, which can be confusing to the consumer. These compostable plastics have the initials “PLA” on the bottom near the recycling symbol. Some may also say “Compostable.”

#7 plastics are not for reuse, unless they have the PLA compostable coding. When possible it is best to avoid #7 plastics, especially for children’s food. Plastics with the recycling labels #1, #2 and #4 on the bottom are safer choices and do not contain BPA. PLA coded plastics should be thrown in the compost and not the recycle bin since PLA compostable plastics are not recyclable.

The plastics industry has conformed to regulations by applying the required codes to consumer products, but it is up to individuals to read and understand the codes. BY understanding these simple classifications, we can best use plastics to our advantage while minimizing the health and disposal issues that may otherwise arise.
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Posted in Healthy Home Tags , ,
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001063281089 Nancy Rose

    great article to help understand the differences. And the awareness that recycling in the US has lots of room for improvement. 

  • http://external-harddrivedeals.com/western-digital/my-book-live WDMyBookLive

    If PVC is called the poison plastic then why are we still letting our children chew on their PVC made teething rings? Wow this post informed me a lot about plastic and what to avoid. For the record, the arrow signs are misleading. If it wasn’t for this post you would think that all plastic containers with that sign is recyclable.

    • Bradley Cook

      My thoughts exactly about the PVC and children’s teething toys. What’s the purpose of grading plastics if they’re going to be used anyway in inappropriate ways?

  • http://menbuy.net/ Jane Anusha

    I’m glad I read this post. All these types are plastics are used by us on a daily basis and it’s good to know what is good for us and what is not.

  • http://www.simondewey.co.uk/ Simon Dewey

    That’s a great help. I’ve often ended up throwing all sorts in the bin out of fear that my collection is going to be refused.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Angela-Vullo/1362745212 Angela Vullo

    Great article but the pic of the baby bottles may confuse some people. Most of those baby bottles I am familiar with and they are not made with BPA. Some are PP and one is made of glass. :/

    • Mohd Sharib

      Hi..
      The United States FDA has removed the use of BPA in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant formula packaging based on market abandonment, not safety.The European Union and Canada have banned BPA use in baby bottles.

      • Angela Vullo

        That may be true but you can’t just take BPA out of plastic and not replace it. It it a plasticizer that softens the material and makes it flexible. They have found a replacement, I have read it’s called BPS, but who really knows? The best way to avoid it is to avoid plastic that is recycle symbol #7 or no symbol at all. A simple “BPA FREE” in the plastic is not enough to make it considered “safe”. Symbol #5 (PP) is your best bet for plastic.

        • Deirdre

          Patently false, BPA is not a plasticizer. BPA is the monomer of polycarbonate (a polymer is made of of a bunch of monomers linked together). As such, BPA can ONLY be found in PC and epoxy resins, don’t believe anyone that tells you it can be found in other plastics (HDPE, LDPE, PP, etc) because that is just a flat out untruth that makes absolutely no sense if you have basic knowledge of polymer chemistry.

          Now, DEHP is a plasticizer that can be found in things like baby binkies and IV/blood bags, but no one freaks out about that, haha.

  • Estelle Page

    Great article, I think more people need to be made aware of the different ways we can recycle plastic, and the government need to be more proactive about it because of the large volumes of waste each year.

    I have also looked into other ways that we can recycle plastic and found a great blog on great blog on how PVC-U plastic for window and door frames can be recycled 100% to be used over and over again.
    The recycled PVC-U also looks completely new. More people need to be made aware so they can opt for business that utilize this when buying or getting rid of door/window frames.

  • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

    Our suggestion is to use glass or stainless steel bottles for drinking water.

  • KeurigUser

    Keurig needs to ditch the #7 plastic water reservoirs in their k-cup coffee makers!!!

    $200.00 for a coffee maker that makes coffee that tastes & smells like plastic..who knows what kind of toxins we consume with every cup…BUYER BEWARE.

    Keurig Platinum Plus
    Model: K79
    Sold by QVC
    Christmas 2013

  • http://www.shabra.com/ adamsmith

    Hi nice information very good post……thanks

  • Sree

    Hi Friends,

    To confirm PP5 is good for kitchen and 7 is good for Kid water bottles. Am I correct?

    Allan

  • Fred Copithorn

    the screw lids for soda and juice bottles is #5 I believe. This would make the recycling of #1 bottles difficult, as lids often get thrown in too. Am I correct?

    • http://eartheasy.com/ Greg Seaman

      Yes. You need to separate out the lids.

  • http://www.reallifesolutions.ownanewbusiness.com Bentina

    I just noticed that the Lego movie cups that McDonalds gave away with the happy meals in 2013 are #7 plastic…. nice :(

  • Mark Forsyth

    The biggest problem we have here in the environmentally sensitive St Lawrence River area is the inability to recycle number 6 foam food trays from the grocery store.It all goes into the land fill or ends up as litter.Our closest landfill is located on a creek that is no more than a half mile from the river.The North Country Recyclables Org.sent out a brochure that indicates that 6 is recyclable but our local DPW refuses to pick it up.

  • rick watts

    was worried about reusing #2 buckets from big box stores. no more ,thanks for explaining

  • Deirdre

    The article is misleading, all plastics are recyclable, just not all of them get recycled. Just because a recycling company refuses to take a certain type of plastic doesn’t mean it’s not recyclable, it usually has to do with their machinery not being set up to handle certain things.
    I think KeurigUser is unclear on the identity of the #7 label, it’s actually a catch-all label for quite a few different formulations of plastic. It does include polycarbonate, which is the source of the BPA scare, but it also includes things like blends of HDPE+LDPE and things like that, which won’t have any BPA

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