The Six Types of Plastic and What to Do With Them
What to do with your plastics
The Six Types of Plastic and What to Do With Them – Plastics have come to shape our modern world, for both better and worse. They are the heart of so many critical pieces that comprise our daily lives, from food to transportation to the shoes on our feet. But their increasing presence in our oceans, our landfills and the fact that they don’t quickly or naturally decompose is one of the great challenges of our generation. It’s estimated that humans have produced just under 10 billion tons of plastics. Where do they all go? And how do we keep them out of places they don’t belong?
The first crucial step is understanding the various types of plastics and knowing what we can do with them once they have served their purpose. Here are the “Big Six” of plastics, what they are generally used for, and what to do with them:
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET #1)
Every bottle of water, soda, shampoo or cleaning spray you’ve ever used was made from polyethylene terephthalate, also known as PET #1. It’s also commonly used for food packaging like peanut butter, cooking oil and salad dressing, and even used to make tennis balls. In protective packaging, clear thermoform trays are made from PET material. PET #1 is the most widely-recycled plastic in the world and can be disposed of in any curbside bin.
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE #2)
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE #2) is the most widely-produced synthetic plastic polymer in the world. It’s used in many different forms where its balance of being lightweight and strong is beneficial, including toys, plastic crates, milk jugs, automobile fuel tanks, folding chairs and tables, banners, natural gas pipes and much more. Polyethylene is also used in protective packaging because of its innate cushioning properties, which allows for reliable protection from multiple impacts.
Fun fact: HDPE #2 was first introduced to the world in the form of a hula hoop. It’s also easily recyclable curbside, as long as it’s clean.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC #3)
The third-most common type of plastic in the world, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC #3) is widely used in construction, plumbing, healthcare, electronics, flooring, window frames, food wrap and more. It’s resistant to corrosion, which makes it an extremely popular replacement for metal pipes in homes and offices. It is not readily accepted for recycling in a lot of places because of the chemicals required to make it, and consumers need to check with their municipalities before they automatically toss it in the recycling bin.
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE #4)
Low-Density Polyethylene is found in many food applications, as it’s considered safe for contact with food and liquids. You can find LDPE #4 in sandwich bags, cling wrap, squeezable bottles, produce bags and ice cream container lids. LDPE #4 bags are not accepted for curbside recycling, as the bags tend to jam up sorting equipment at materials recovery facilities (MRFs) and have to be removed by hand, but certain grocery stores are accepting them for recycling. Rigid LDPE items like squeezable ketchup and mustard bottles are accepted but they have to be thoroughly cleaned first to avoid contamination.
Polypropylene (PP #5)
When you reach for that tub of yogurt at the store, you’re reaching for a polypropylene (PP #5) container. It’s also found in straws, margarine tubs, Tupperware, plastic diapers, stadium beverage cups, bottle caps, disposable plates and prescription bottles. Polypropylene is also frequently used in protective packaging as cushioning material. PP #5 is considered curbside recyclable, but please check your local area’s rules before you toss it in the blue bin.
Polystyrene (PS #6)
Polystyrene (sometimes mistakenly called “Styrofoam”) is the much-vilified foam that makes up single-use food and drink containers, plastic utensils, EPS packing material, and other items that are being outlawed in cities around the world. PS #6 is the variety of plastic that currently constitutes a third of the entire volume of all the trash in American landfills. Scientific estimates for how long it takes to completely biodegrade range from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of years. It is technically recyclable, but not curbside recyclable. Unfortunately, it serves as some of the worst litter in the world, as it is lightweight and easily blown along streets and through storm drains out to the ocean. Per the Clean Water Action, EPS has a very low recycling rate. According to a 2004 study by the California Integrated Waste Management Board, of the 377,580 tons of polystyrene produced in the state, only 0.8% is recycled. Definitely check in your local region to see if they recycle it anywhere.
One more good recycling tip! Don’t bag all your bottles, cans and other recyclables, as the bags cause chaos at the MRFs by jamming up the sorting equipment, which then means that they have to be removed from the machines by hand.