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To honor America Recycles Day, which takes place this Sunday on November 15th, we put together this article as a guide to what common plastics can and can’t be recycled. You can find more info about America Recycles Day and recycling in general on the EPA website.

P lastics surround us everyday and it would be hard to deny how useful they are. But many of us are concerned about the negative environmental impact of plastic production and disposal.

When it comes to plastics around the home, we may use a wide variety, from hard plastics that are found in children’s toys and electronic goods to softer plastics used in the production of food and beverage containers.

With questions surrounding the effectiveness of global recycling efforts, surely the best practice is to minimize our consumption. But what about when this isn’t an option?

Many of us have access to recycling facilities, but do we really know what can be easily recycled and what cannot? We realized we knew very little about some of the plastic products that we encounter everyday. That’s why we put together this basic introduction to the most common types of plastics and how to distinguish them.

As the need for a more conscious form of consumerism has become inevitable, we hope this is a useful and informative guide for the environmentally inclined.

Identification

The most common types of plastics you will encounter are broken down into seven categories.

These are usually easily identifiable. Somewhere on the product you will find a stamped triangular logo consisting of three arrows with a number inside. Most of us will be very familiar with this logo, it is known as chasing arrows.

This will have a number inside which indicates the type of plastic the product is manufactured from. In the photograph below, the arrows encircle a No.1 which means this product is made from PET.

A ketchup bottle has the chasing arrows logo containing a No.1, indicating it is made of PET. (B. Halliday)

A ketchup bottle has the chasing arrows logo containing a No.1, indicating it is made of PET. (B. Halliday)

This number is part of the widely recognized Resin Identification Code (RIC) and only indicates the material of construction and not that it is actually recyclable.

Seven common types of plastic

Within the chasing arrows you will often see one of seven numbers, but what do they mean?

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate

PET is used in the manufacture of clear plastic water bottles, as well as packaging for other low temperature products such as soda, ketchup and mouthwash. It also turns up in textile production and is used in a fibrous form in modern fabrics and as padding in clothing and cushions.

Though it’s one of the most widely recyclable plastics, only about 20% of PET is currently recycled in the United States. PET should be collected by most recycling programs.

2. High-Density Polyethylene

HDPE is used in the manufacture of household packaging in a similar way to PET. Often used for plastic milk bottles and chemical detergent containers, it is tougher than PET and resistant to higher temperatures. It can be textured to allow for better grip and is largely resistant to most common chemicals.

HDPE is considered widely recyclable and should be collected by most recycling programs.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride

PVC can be either rigid or flexible, and is produced in large quantities every year. It is hard wearing and used in the construction of packaging, children’s toys, pipes, doors and windows and bank cards among other things.

PVC is rarely recycled but it is worth looking around to see if there is a facility near you.

4. Low-Density Polyethylene

LDPE is a soft flexible plastic often found in plastic grocery bags, toothpaste tubes, six-pack rings, cling film and plastic wrapping. In the US, though Polyethylenes account for a quarter of all plastics produced, less than 10% of LDPE is recycled each year.

LDPE is not currently widely recycled.

5. Polypropylene

PP is similar to HDPE but is harder and more brittle. It has a high heat resistance and because of this, it is often used for margarine tubs and soup containers, as well as bottle tops. It is also a useful material for producing face masks as it is naturally water repellent, blocks moisture droplets and is easy to clean.

PP is not currently widely recycled.

6. Polystyrene/Styrofoam

PS can be in a solid or foam form. It is most often encountered in food trays, disposable coffee and cups, packaging peanuts, and parcel packaging. Though widely considered to be non-biodegradable, it can be broken down by certain organisms but at a very slow rate.

PS is not currently widely recycled.

7. Other

Other is the category for the group of generic hard plastics that don’t fall into the previous six groups. This group contains items such as plastic frames for eyeglasses, computer and phone cases, CDs and DVDs, and other products.

Most of the items in this category are not able to be recycled.

An inconvenient truth

Unfortunately, many of the plastic items we encounter are still not widely recyclable. Even where plastic recycling facilities and programs exist, many items are not able to be processed or reused, and most will go into a landfill.

We can still take the initiative to be proactive in our consumption of plastic though. Avoiding single-use plastics where possible and substituting them with more ecologically sound biodegradable options is the easiest step you can take.

Try simple things such as avoiding plastic straws in restaurants, carrying a reusable water bottle, using reusable grocery bags and eating fresh fruit instead of drinking juice from plastic containers.

Plastic is an environmental problem, but it’s one we can solve with a little conscious effort.

To learn more about reducing plastic waste you can visit http://www.greeneducationfoundation.org.

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