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Home > Garbage and Recycling > Recyclable Materials > Plastic

Garbage and Recycling: Recyclable Materials: Plastics

Plastic
Plastics are made from fossil fuels. Recycling, reusing or using less plastic is a good idea to help lessen the use of crude oil. For some applications there are no good alternatives. This page explores the use of petroleum based plastics.  

 

Overview:
In 2010, 31 million tons of plastics entered the municipal waste stream. Only 8.2% of that was recycled. There are many reasons why there is such a low recycle rate.
    Thermoplastics can be heated, softened and remolded so they tend to be easily recycled. Thermosetting plastics, on the other hand, are not as easily recycled back into the same form. Some plastics can, however, be remolded into other useful products.
     Several years ago people wanted to be able to identify plastics so it would be easier to recycle them (or dispose of them).Therefore, In 1988, The Society of the Plastics Industry came up with the symbols we see today. We will look at them one at a time.

no. 1 plastic PETE Polyethylene Terephthalate. Number 1 plastic (PETE). This thermoplastic is the most recyclable of all the plastics, that is why it is number 1. A member of the polyester family this plastic is used for food and beverage containers. Commonly used for pop bottles, peanut butter jars, water bottles and many other containers.
     If a recycler takes plastic, this is the one they would most likely take. When recycling the containers, remove (and throw away) the lids because they are usually made out of a different material. If lids are left on the recycler's sorting process may result in the entire container being discarded.

no. 2 platic HDPE High Density Polyethylene. Number 2 plastic (HDPE or PEHD). This thermoplastic is recyclable but less so than number one. HDPE has many uses, such as, laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, plastic bags and many other things. Many recyclers take only 1 and 2 plastic. Remember to rinse and remove the lid to prepare for recycling.

no. 3 platic PVC Polyvinyl Chloride. Number 3 plastic (PVC). This thermoplastic is less recyclable than number 1 and 2 plastic. 50% of all PVC is made for the construction industry and is expected to reach 40 million tons a year of production by 2016. Used for flexible piping, clothing, upholstery and many other applications.
     Many recycle facilities do not take number 3 plastic because the energy and cost to recycle is more than making it from virgin materials. This plastic is well suited for the the jobs that it does and a replacement material would be hard to find. However, it is consider by many to be the most toxic.

no. 4 plastic, LDPE Low Density Polyethylene. Number 4 plastic (LDPE). Also a thermoplastic. This plastic is, of course, less recyclable than number 1,2 and 3 plastics. Commonly used in trays in restaurants, corrosion resistant surfaces, 6 pack rings and so on.
     If this is recycled it is usually mixed with virgin material to lessen the contamination that the recycled material would carry with it.
no. 5 plastic, PP Polypropylene: Number 5 plastic (PP). Also a thermoplastic that is less recyclable than number 1,2,3 and 4 plastic. This plastic is used because of its resistance to harsh chemicals, acids and bases. Examples of uses are: fast food cups, condiment bottles, caps, straws, laboratory containers and much more. In 2007, 45 million tons of this material were produced world wide.
     This plastic has limited recyclability as a number 5 plastic. It would have to be mixed with virgin materials and would provide little energy savings. Perhaps, this plastic can be made into other products.  

no. 6 plastic, PS Polystyrene (or Poly(1-phenylethane-1,2-diyl). Number 6 plastic (PS).  Also a thermoplastic this material is known as Styrofoam. This easily contaminated brittle foam plastic is used for packing materials and thermal insulation for drinking cups.
     There are actually some facilities that will take this and recycle it (carefully). Do not be surprised if your local recycler does not accept it. There are also alternatives made from vegetable material.

no. 7 plastic, OTHER Other: As the name implies, this is not number 1-6 plastic. The plastic could be thermoplastic or thermosetting plastic but in general is not recyclable.  This means that the plastic is one of the thousands of other plastics.
     All is not lost, however, many of these plastics are reusable over and over again. Some of these plastics include Nalgene, Bakelite, nylon, Kevlar, Teflon, Nomex and more.  Many of these plastics last for decades for their original purpose. If they are used it may be that they can just be washed and used again. Also, If they are at the end of their life, these plastics can be re-purposed, all we need is a little imagination and a market. The "OTHER" does not mean, "the worst".

More Helpful Links:

 

Items in our "Waste and Recycling" section.

  • Recycle Centers:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Composters:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Vermicomposters:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Garbage Bags:
    Home Recycling ________________
  • Recycle Kits:
    Home Recycling ________________

 

 

References:

EPA facts and figures 2010,, .pdf taken 3/12/12.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermosetting_polymer, thermosetting plastic, taken 3/16/12

http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#slide-5, #5 plastic (and others), TheDailyGreen.com, taken 4/2/13.

http://earth911.com/news/2009/02/03/plastic-5-recycling-got-you-feeling-blue/, #5 plastic recycling, Earth911.com, taken 4/3/13.