It’s no secret, the increased use of plastic in humanity’s daily routines is creating significant threats to the world. Environmentalists, policy-makers, and governments raise awareness for plastic waste as it’s often disposed of in non environmentally-friendly ways. Which in turn results in polluting the landfill sites or oceans where they remain for years.
Plastic recycling aims to help protect our natural environment by giving us a sustainable and more improved method of waste management.
But all plastics are not recyclable or have eco-friendly disposal solutions. Therefore, understanding the different types of plastics and their ability to be recycled – as well as their impact on human health and the environment – is imperative.
Knowledge is power, and if eco-conscious consumption is your thing, knowing your plastic numbers can help you to better select products that can be recycled or reused to minimize their (and your) environmental impact.
Understanding the Plastic Numbers System
You may have noticed on most plastic products there is a logo that resembles a recycling logo and has a number captured in the center. When you flip your lunch container and see this logo you probably instantly think to yourself hey, cool, this is recyclable! I’m gonna get down on this amazing slice of capitalism and when I’m done, I’ll do my moral part and put it in the recycling bin.
And you go about enjoying your lunch™ most likely without even considering what the number even means. I know I did. But the keyword here is “resembles”…
A product made of plastic has a resin code marked on it that includes a number between 1 and 7 inside a small triangle made of arrows that suspiciously resembles the classic Recycling logo we all know and have grown to love like the tiny beacon of hope we’ve been told it is.
The presence of a resin code doesn’t necessarily mean that a plastic product is recyclable, but rather is intended to indicate the type of plastic an item is made of.
The Meaning Behind the Recycling Number
Wait… If it has a recycling logo on it then why isn’t it recyclable? Simply put, because it’s not a recycling logo. It is a resin identification code developed by The Society of Plastic Industry.
Since the 1970’s there has been generational outcry to change our manufacturing ways. And getting people to think there is no problem seems to do the trick when it comes to public outcry towards bad practices.
Think about the classic logo (below) and now look at the resin code (lower) – the arrows are a little different right? Notice them fold over in the old logo but not in the resin code. You’re free to develop your own conclusion here, but this seems like no coincidence.
These numbers between 1 and 7 indicate the grade of plastic, which gives information about the safety and proper usage of that particular product. There is good news about the resin code logo. If the logo appears, it does mean the product is deemed scientifically recyclable.
Which brings us to the bad news: more often than not the cost of recycling isn’t as cost efficient as making more plastic. Also, scientifically possible doesn’t mean we’ve recycled it before or even have the technology yet to recycle it. It just means somewhere in a lab they decided it’s physically possible. The all-mighty-dollar strikes again!
History of the Recycling Logo
The original recycling logo was designed in the year 1970 by Gary Anderson, a senior at the University of Southern California. He submitted his logo at the International Design Conference as part of the nationwide contest for high school and college students sponsored by the Container Corporation of America.
The competition was in response to the first Earth Day to increase consumer awareness and environmentalism. The symbol represents a Mobius loop which consists of three chasing arrows in the shape of a triangle with round vertices. Each arrow twists and turns to chase each other (unlike the resin code). Each of the three arrows represents one step in a three-step process that forms a closed loop.
- The first step represents the collection of materials to be recycled.
- The manufacturing process is the second arrow in the recycling symbol.
- The third step is the actual purchase and use of the products made from the recycled materials.
The Seven Plastic Numbers
Resin Code Identification classifies plastic into different categories based on the recycling process and reuse options suitable for each type. The seven types of plastic are explained below in detail.
Plastic #1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
Polyethylene terephthalate (PET or PETE) is a general-purpose thermoplastic polymer that is the most ubiquitous plastic in our society. PET is used to make plastic water/soda bottles, condiment bottles, and other food and beverage containers.
As these are food products and are commonly available for consumers, #1 plastic is relatively safe, but still not without its dangers. PET can, on occasion, leach a metal called antimony that’s used during the manufacturing process. Bottles left to sit longer will tend to contain higher amounts of antimony, especially if left in sunlight or exposed to high temperatures. Therefore it is advised never to reuse, refill, or reheat #1 plastics. Repeated use increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth that is harmful to human health.
#1 plastic is recyclable and is the most recycled plastic in the United States and worldwide. Commercially, PET can be recycled through washing and re-melting or chemically breaking it down into its component materials to make new PET resin. PET can be recycled into the polyester fabric and filling for clothing, carpet, and cushions.
#2 Plastic: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
#2 plastic is another frequently and successfully recycled type of plastic, and is commonly found in gallon jugs, laundry soap containers, shampoo/conditioner bottles, and some plastic bags. HDPE is usually thick and opaque and is considered one of the lowest hazard plastics as it carries a lower risk of leaching than plastic #1.
Compared to the other numbers, #2 plastic is easy to recycle. Most curbside recycling programs will collect HDPE waste and deliver it to other facility units for further processing. However, it’s important to note that thin, filmy #2 plastics like shopping bags are not curbside recyclable, but stores like WalMart and Target offer collection bins as a courtesy to shoppers.
#3 Plastic: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is a rigid or flexible plastic depending on the type. This plastic has many applications and is commonly found in a wide range of products including deli wrap, plastic toys, table cloths, and -you guessed it – PVC pipes.
#3 plastic is generally not recyclable as PVC often contains toxic chemicals, like softening agent DEHP. Only about 1% of all #3 products ends up being recycled.
Plastic #4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is a thermoplastic commonly used to make shrink wraps, squeezable bottles, and filmy plastic bags like dry cleaner garment bags, Ziploc bags, and bags used to package bread.
LDPE is known as “one of the safest plastics” for use (from a not-so-toxic to humans/ok to touch our food standpoint), but not super great for the planet.
Products made using LDPE plastic are somewhat reusable but not always recyclable. Historically recycling stats for LDPE haven’t been great, mostly due to fragments of plastic film clogging standard recycling machinery. But thanks to technological innovation, more centers are becoming capable of processing this type of plastic.
Although still not widely curbside recyclable, you can drop off #4 plastic at collection bins offered by many grocery retailers across America.
Plastic #5: Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene (PP) is a durable and lightweight plastic with excellent heat resistance compared to other plastics. It can also serve as a barrier against moisture, grease, and some chemicals. PP is commonly used to make things like diapers, chip bags, tops to plastic bottles, some kitchenware, and disposable (single-use) cups, plates, and cutlery.
#5 plastic is recyclable, but only about 3% of polypropylene products actually gets recycled in the United States.
Polypropylene is usually hard yet flexible, and while it‘s considered safe for reuse, it’s better to avoid putting this plastic in the microwave or dishwasher.
Plastic #6: Polystyrene (PS)
PS is an inexpensive and easily formed plastic with a variety of use. Its often present in Styrofoam cups and to-go containers, egg cartons, foam packing peanuts, and other protective shipping applications. Due to its lightweight nature, this plastic tends to break apart easily and disperse throughout the environment.
#6 plastic is typically not curbside recyclable, and more often than not ends up in the landfill. Still, it doesn’t hurt to check with your local transfer station to see if they host styrofoam collection days throughout the year.
Although PS can be unavoidable for the consumer in some cases (you didn’t pack up your new TV at factory, after all), we can definitely make more conscious choices to ditch styrofoam. What packing material we use when shipping something fragile or where we order takeout from are two that come to mind.
Plastic #7: Other (BPA, Polycarbonate, and LEXAN)
This category is basically a catch-all for all ”other” types of plastic, but is mainly for Polycarbonate (PC). Because many plastics fall in this category, there is no standardized recycling protocol for this number.
Many number 7 plastics tend to contain concerning chemicals that can leach into the product they hold. For example, in the last few years you may have noticed labels on plastic water bottles and food storage containers loudly announcing that they are “BPA Free!”
Despite the potential for hazards to human health if consumed, common items made of #7 plastic include baby bottles, sippy cups, water cooler bottles… and car parts.
Avoid using number 7 products where possible for safety reasons and also because they are not typically recycled. Number 7 plastics are not for reuse and are not recyclable in curbside or most other local recycling programs.
Final Words on Plastic Number System
People and government should take serious action to minimize plastic use and promote sustainable development. Education to the public is crucial. Policies concerning business measures need to be put into place. As long as it’s not criminal to pollute nothing will stop an industry full of employees that need to make a living from cutting corners. It’s understandable we all need to make a living but the greed and greenwashing can get very nauseating. Consumers should have adequate information about the plastic number system for increased efficiency. It is no coincidence that this isn’t common knowledge and the resin code resembles the recycling logo from the 70’s. A simple pamphlet (on recyclable paper) would help clear things up to many. Generally plastic numbers 2, 4, and 5 are the safest for recycling whereas, 1, 3, 6, and 7 should be avoided. All plastic products leach toxic chemicals when they are damaged or heated, so their use should be discouraged. Where possible, it is best to use other materials like glass, paper, or metal to reduce environmental impact.
Plastic recycling is challenging because of its low-density values. So it is recycled less than metal and glass items. Less than 10% of plastic products have ever recycled due to misleading symbols on the packaging and numerous technical hurdles. In addition to these limitations, each time recycled plastic includes additional virgin materials to improve the integrity of the end material. Therefore, even recycled plastic has new plastic material added to it. Almost all non-biodegradable plastics are recyclable.