Plastic became popular after World War II in the 1950s. Only in the 1980s, after much concern, the plastic industry introduced recycling. In order to make it easier to identify plastic types they created the resin code system. The hate for plastics has been growing since plastics started washing up on beaches.
1. PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is often used in making polyester and drink bottles. Since it is economical to recycle, most kerbside recycling collects PET. Once recycled, manufacturers can produce recycled PET bottles and polyester among many other products.
2. HDPE – High-Density Polyethylene
Pipes and thicker bottles for milk and cleaning liquids use High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE). Like PET, HDPE also has very high recycling rates and recycled material can turn into new bottles and furniture.
3. PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride
Used in pipes, window frames and disposable gloves, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) is one of the most difficult plastic types to recycle. This is mainly because of the additives it contains like chlorine, cadmium and lead. So PVC has to be split from other plastics before recycling. Manufacturing plants can turn recycled PVC into flooring, cables and speed bumps.
4. LDPE – Low Density Polyethylene
Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) is a flexible plastic that you can find in toothpaste tubes, bread bags and frozen food bags. LDPE is difficult to recycle because toothpaste tubes contain aluminium and plastic bags can clog up in the recycling sorting machines. Supermarkets and big retailers collect plastic bags for recycling. Although toothpaste tubes are generally not recyclable, Terracycle offers recycling for Colgate tubes. Recycled LDPE can be used to make rubbish bins, furniture and bubble wrap.
5. PP – Polypropylene
Polypropylene (PP) is similar to polyethylene terephthalate (PET) in many aspects and has similar applications. You can effortlessly recycle some of the PP plastics but there are also PP plastics that you cannot recycle easily. Kerbside recycling for food containers is very common but we can’t say the same for straws, tape and disposable cutlery. When collected polypropylene can be recycled into brooms, brushes and plastic trays.
6. PS – Polystyrene
Polystyrene (PS) is another one of the hard-to-recycle plastics. Kerbside recycling rarely accepts PS because it’s not economical to recycle and it causes problems at sorting centres. When filled with air, polystyrene becomes expanded polystyrene (EPS) which you can find as takeaway packaging and insulation. Once recycled down to small beads, expanded polystyrene can be made into new EPS products.
7. Other – Other plastic types
All the other plastics use the resin code 7. Generally, recycling of these plastics is not common but compostable bioplastics are also under the resin code 7. Plastics such as acrylic, nylon, polycarbonate and polylactic acid (PLA) are under this resin code.
Why all the plastic hate?
- Some plastics are not economical to recycle because they are difficult to sort
- Plastic recycling process uses a lot of resources
- Recycled plastics are usually more expensive than virgin plastic
- Most plastics are recycled for up to 3 times before being discarded since recycled plastic is usually a worse product (downcycling)
- Plastic factories use unsustainable crude oil to produce virgin plastic
- Countries with higher minimum wage tend to send plastic to countries with less strict environmental regulations. These plastics can end up in landfill and oceans
- If not discarded properly, plastics stay in the nature for 100s of years
What can we do?
- Avoid plastic and prefer reusable alternatives when available
- People, countries and companies should be more responsible of their own waste
- When possible choose recycled plastic to increase the demand for recycled plastic
Final words about plastic
No doubt plastic has a lot of applications. Because it’s a lightweight material, transporting plastic produces less emissions. That said, the waste problems plastic causes outweighs all the transport benefits. Additionally, since it is a product of crude oil it is not very sustainable to produce either.
Do you think we’ll continue using plastic 50 years from now? Are there any industries that won’t be able to move away from plastic?
- History and Future of Plastics | Science History Institute
- Plastic Recycling – Wikipedia
- Recycling of PVC – Prospects and Challenges | EcoMENA
- How plastics are made – PlasticsEurope
- Is Plastic Recycling A Lie?: NPR