If you use many plastic items, the chances are that you have seen the universal recycled symbol on your packaging and thrown it in the recycling bin.
However, the symbols don’t give you an accurate representation of whether that item can be recycled.
In reality, over 90% of the recyclable plastic is not recycled.
Every type of plastic is made of a different material, and the symbols on the packaging determine factors such as their type and whether they can be thrown in the recycling bin.
In some circumstances, you can cause more harm than good by throwing your trash into the recycling. You can accidentally end up contaminating the entire batch of plastic just because your plastic was not able to be recycled.
By reading are interpreting the symbols on the packaging, you will be able to better help the environment by making a well-informed decision regarding your trash.
Resin identification code
You are probably already aware of the universal recycling symbol. The three infamous green arrows which form a triangle. What is more important, though, is the number inside the triangle.
This is known as the resin identification code. These were first created in 1988 to help better identify the plastic, and they give information about the chemical used in producing that plastic, how biodegradable it is, and how leaching effects that plastic.
The identification codes 1 to 7 and was developed to promote better separation of the materials.
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
Code 1 is used for Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET). This material is used to produce single, one-time use of plastic bottles. It can most commonly be found in plastics such as soft drink, beer, and water bottles.
It can also be used for food trays, salad dressing, and vegetable oil containers. You can probably also find PET in other containers such as for peanut butter and mouthwash.
The reason why it is single use only is due to the fact that it lets bacteria build up easily, which is extremely difficult to decontaminate and may require harmful chemicals.
PET can easily be recycled to form new containers, straps, carpet, various types of furniture, bags, fleece, jackets and many other products.
The plastic is crushed and shredded after which it is processed to make the multiple items.
PET is a lightweight and relatively inexpensive material, which is why it is one of the easiest materials to recycle. In most countries, they can easily be picked up in bulk without any issue.it is also one of the safest forms of plastic as is has a low risk of leaching.
The negatives when it comes to PET is that it lets bacteria accumulate, and although it has one of the highest recycling rates, less than 50% of PET is recycled all over the world.
High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Number 2 represents High-density polyethylene (HDPE).
HDPE is hard, lightweight and versatile plastic. It can be molded into virtually anything and can be recycled and reused.
It is most commonly found in household items such can milk jugs, bleach, detergent, and other cleaner containers. It is also used to make containers for butter, yogurt, and even motor oil.
It is also one of the most widely recycled plastics at 35%. Since it is a high-density plastic, it is cost-efficient to collect sort and recycle the plastic, and thus a large volume can be collected and recycled
The reason HDPE is commonly used is that it is incredibly resistant. It does not break easily and can withstand extreme conditions such as heat or pressure.
It is also resistant to mold, mildew, rotting, and insects, which makes it easy to reuse for more extended periods.
This type of plastic is accepted by almost all recycling programs where it is collected, washed, separated, shredded and then melted down to form pellets.
These can then be used to make larger items such as picnic tables, doghouses, benches, drainage pipes, fencing, floor tiles, and recycling containers.
However, it is a non-biodegradable plastic, which is why is it is recommended to reuse the containers to further save it from going in landfills.
Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC or V)
Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or vinyl is a versatile plastic. It can be rigid and used to keep structural integrity such as in pipes, or it can be flexible and malleable in plastic wrap.
it can be most commonly be found in window cleaners, detergent bottles, wire jacketing, pipes, and plumbing, as well as food packaging.
It is one of the most common materials used because of its versatility. However, recycling of PVC can be a significant issue.
PVC is not an easily recyclable plastic. It is not accepted by many roadside recycling programs. It is highly toxic and hazardous due to its high chlorine content and the harmful polymers which are added to the plastic.
The harmful polymers are necessary to make the plastic malleable be used in various types of plastic goods.
When it comes to recycling, the plastic must be first separated from other plastic materials before it can be recycled. There are two ways in which it can be recycled, mechanical and feedstock.
For mechanical recycling, the PVC is ground and shredded into smaller granules. They are then melted to form pellets which can later be reused to make other PVC plastics.
Feedstock recycling involves a chemical process which converts the PVC into its constituent chemicals. The processes involved can be hydrolysis, heating or pyrolysis.
These chemical components can then be used to make a new PVC plastic.
Less than 1% of PVC is recycled all around the world. It can be recycled to make window frames, garden hoses, raised beds, etc.
Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Low-density polyethylene is a highly flexible plastic. It is thin, light and relatively transparent. For these reasons, it is used mostly to make plastic bags, plastic lids, film and shrink wrap.
It is also used in specific articles of clothing as well as furniture.
This plastic has excellent resistance to acids, oils, and bases, which is why it is a popular material used for packing, which needs heat sealing.
It is considered less toxic than most of the other plastics, which is why it is more commonly and widely used.
After the LDPE products are received by manufacturing companies, the plastic is melted down.
This is to remove any impurities and contaminants in the plastic. After this, they are made into thin sheets of plastic.
These sheets can then be sold once again to manufacturers who can create new packaging and products with them, including plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners, etc.
Polypropylene is another safe form of plastic. Although many recycling programs do not accept it, it is increasingly being recognized.
It is a thermoplastic addition polymer which is made by combing many propylene monomers.
In the food packaging industry, it is used for bottles and containers such as ketchup and syrup and even for yogurt tubs and medicine bottles.
Polypropylene is a sturdy, chemically resistant, elastic and insulated plastic. It is for these reasons that it is most widely known and used.
It can be reused quickly and are able to withstand even the harshest conditions. Its extreme resistance to electricity Is the reason why it is mostly used in electrical components.
The chemical resistivity is excellent for storing medicine and any liquids since the plastic does not react with any of the acids or bases in the product. It can also be made transparent or left opaque and changed accordingly for aesthetics.
Although it is one of the most popular plastics in the world, only 1% of it is recycled. The rest of the plastics is taken into landfills. The way polypropylene is recycled is by first collecting the plastics.
After it has been obtained, it is then cleaned and sorted accordingly.
It is then melted to form pellets or ground and then melted. These palettes are then used to make more PP products such as brooms, auto battery cases, bins, ice scrapers, etc.
Polystyrene is a naturally transparent plastic which is formed in 2 types. In a rigid solid plastic and a foam-like material, it is extremely difficult to recycle, which is why it is hazardous for the environment.
It is found in egg cartons, meat trays as well as for plastic cups and plates.
Polystyrene is a hazardous material. It reacts with acids and bases to form harmful chemicals. It does react fairly quickly and dissolve with chlorinated and hydrocarbons are added.
Polystyrene is relatively challenging to recycle. Since it is used in food packaging, it is difficult to clean.
It gets mixed with paper and other scraps which increase the costs. When it can be recycled, it is formed into egg cartons, foam packaging as well as insulation.
Any other type of plastics that do not fit into any categories like BPA, Polycarbonate, and LEXAN have the number 7 on them. This category is mainly to collect all polycarbonates (PC).
It also contains plastics that have multiple different plastics or numerous layers of plastic in it.
These types of plastics can be found in items such as baby bottles, water coolers, and sippy cups. They can also be found in many automobile parts.
The plastics that fit into the 7th category are not for reuse.
As of right now, most of the plastic that falls in the number 7 category is not currently recyclable, but it will become recyclable in the future.
These are the less commonly used plastics and are not acceptable by most of the recycling programs.
Other types of recycling symbols
This type of symbol is located on plastics that are collected by more than 75% of the recycling programs. It is situated on items such as plastic bottles and beer bottles.
Other types of widely recycled symbols include rinse, lid-on, flatten cap on and sleeve.
These mean to rinse the packaging before disposal.
The lid on packaging asks the covers to be left on the containers even if they are a different material. Flatten and cap on plastics should be flattened. This will increase the space you have in your recycling bin.
Some packaging will even ask for caps to be left on.
The green arrows
This symbol has nothing to do with whether the item can be recycled on not.
It merely means that the producer of the packaging or the product has made a financial donation to recycle and recover plastic packaging.
Universal recycling symbol
This symbol means that the plastic is capable of being recycled.
It does mean that this plastic will most definitely be recycled or that it will be accepted by most recycling programs.
It simply signifies that the plastic has the potential of being recycled.
If there is a percentage along with the symbol, that identifies how much of the material in the packaging is recyclable.
This only implies that the aluminum in the packaging can be recycled.
Items which are certifiably compostable in accordance with the standard set by the European standard.
This logo indicates that the item is compostable and should not be placed in the recycling with other recyclable items.
Doing so can run the risk of contaminating the plastics.
Not yet recycled
This symbol is located on those types of plastics which are collected by less than 20% of the recycling programs. This applies to items such as crisp packets and other such items.
Items that have this symbol on then have extremely varied rates depending on the location. The number of programs that collect that type of plastic can be as low as 20% or as high as 70%.
To be certain in the packaging is accepted by your local programs, you can visit the local government’s website to find out.
So, next time you are thinking of throwing an item in the recycling you will know exactly what type of plastic it is and that if it is even possible to recycle it.