Many of us consider recycling plastic to be a great step towards lowering our ecological footprint and doing our part in maintaining a healthy environment. However, research shows that less than 10% of the plastic that is produced will actually be recycled. The reasons why this number is so low are manifold, and starts with the fact that there are many more than just one type of plastic. We often simply throw all our plastics into the recycling bin, but due to their material properties, not all types can be recycled.
Did you know that some types of plastic are reusable, and others aren't?
Plastic can be found in a variety of different shapes and colors, and each type has different uses. Because of the chemicals they contain, some plastic products can be recycled and others not at all. This is the problem the world is facing.
In order to help you make better-informed decisions about the products you buy, we will go through the seven different types of plastic, how they differ and their impact on the environment.
The 7 most popular and commonly used plastics:
In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry introduced the Resin Identification Code (RIC) system which divided plastic resins into seven different categories.
Plastics were classified this way to provide a consistent system, and to facilitate the recycling of post-consumer plastics. Since then, the RIC has been recognized as the worldwide standard for plastic classification. All plastic products are labelled with the type of plastic they are made from, which makes it easier for us to find out if - and how - they can be recycled!
1 – Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
Plastics that belong to this group are made out of Polyethylene Terephthalate or PET. It holds the number one spot because it’s mostly used for food and drink packaging purposes due to its strong ability to prevent oxygen from getting in and spoiling the product inside. It’s usually picked up through most recycling programs. PET bottles are the most widely recycled plastic in the world! Beverage bottles are among the main plastic items that come for PET.
It is always better to opt for alternatives to plastic, in this case you can bring a reusable water bottle and refill it at a tap station or buy your soft drink in a can instead of a PET bottle. However, if you do buy that PET bottle, make sure you throw it in the bin so that it can be recycled.
2 – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
High-Density Polyethylene is an incredible resistant resin used for grocery bags, milk jugs, recycling bins, agricultural pipe, but also playground equipment, lids, and shampoo bottles. It’s made with long polymer chains and it’s much stronger and thicker than PET. Also, it is relatively hard and resistant to impact and can be subjected to temperatures of up to 120 °C without being affected. HDPE is accepted at most recycling centers in the world, as it is one of the easiest plastic polymers to recycle.
Again, we would encourage you to get yourself a reusable shopping bag that can carry your goodies every time you go to the store. You can also find more and more shampoo bars, which come without the plastic packaging.
3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is largely used in the construction industry to produce door and window profiles and pipes (drinking and wastewater). Polyvinyl chloride is the world's third-most widely produced synthetic plastic polymer. It comes in two basic forms: rigid and flexible.
When mixed with other substances, it can be applied to plumbing, wiring, and electrical cable insulation and flooring. Thanks to its versatile properties, such as lightness, durability, and easiness of processability, PVC is now replacing traditional building materials like wood, metal, concrete, rubber, ceramics, etc.
PVC is hardly recyclable and should therefore be avoided, whenever possible.
If you're building a house, you can opt traditional materials such as clay, glass, ceramics and linoleum. In those cases where traditional materials cannot be used as a replacement, even chlorine-free plastics are preferable to PVC.
4 – Low Density Polyetheen (LDPE)
This type of plastic is characterized by low-density molecules, giving this resin a thinner and more flexible design. It has the simplest structure of all the plastics, making it easy and cheap to produce. It is commonly used in plastic bags, six-pack rings, various containers, dispensing bottles, and most famously for plastic wraps. Very important to know is that these types of products are not often recycled through curbside programs. Usually used for a few seconds and then discarded.
These types of plastics are easily avoided. Invest in the world by getting some reusable (cotton, wool, bamboo) bags, durable containers you can bring with you to the restaurant for your take-away and beeswax wraps to cover your food when you want to keep it for another day. It costs a bit more when you buy it, but it will last you much longer - which means it's cheaper in the end.
5 – Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene is currently the second-most widely produced commodity plastic and the forecasts are that its market will grow even more in the coming years. Hard and sturdy, it is found in Tupperware, car parts, thermal vests, yogurt containers, and even disposable diapers.
Reusable diapers have become more popular again, and more and more (fashion and car) brands are investing in research into using recycled materials instead of Polypropylene. It takes a bit of research, but you'll end up helping nature a lot!
6 – Polystyrene (PS)
This type of plastic can be found everywhere: from beverage cups, insulation, packing materials to egg cartons and disposable dinnerware. It’s highly inflammable and dangerous as it can leach harmful chemicals, especially when heated. Environmentally-speaking it’s among the worst types of plastic, because it is not biodegradable. You might have seen Polystyrene foam cups crumble into little white balls that blows away on the wind. It is so lightweight that it is even able to float on water. Way too often, it ends up in the natural environment, staying there until someone cleans it up.
What is more, animals do not recognize Polystyrene as artificial and may mistake it for food. This has serious effects on the health of birds or marine animals that might swallow it. Polystyrene is not accepted in curbside collection recycling programs and is not separated and recycled.
What this means for us; avoid this type of plastic! This is not hard at all, because you can use a glass, ceramic, or stainless steel cups, packaging and dinnerware. You can also find more and more natural and biodegradable options in the shops these days.
7 – Polycarbonate (PC) and other plastics
If plastic cannot be identified as one of the six types mentioned above, then it will be included in group number 7; The Others. The most known plastics in this group are Polycarbonates (PC) and are used to build strong, tough products. PCs are commonly used to make items that protect our eyes like the lenses for sunglasses, as well as those used for sport and safety goggles. But they can also be found on mobile phones and in toys.
The use of these resins has been controversial because at high temperatures, they release bisphenol A (BPA); a compound that is on the list of potential environmental hazardous chemicals. The decomposition of BPA in landfills is persistent in the ground and will eventually find its way into water bodies - contributing to aquatic pollution. On top of all this, plastics grouped in this category are never recycled.
Try to find a biodegradable version of PC or use Acrylic instead. You can find toys made from wood or cloth. You can also challenge yourself to buy only what you really need, or consider buying solely second-hand products.
Remember to opt for reusable alternatives to plastic.
The big issue with plastic is that creating virgin plastic is still cheaper than processing and recycling plastic. What we can do, as a community, is avoid purchasing the dangerous types of plastic and opt for alternatives where possible. If we do use plastic, we can simply make sure it does not end up in our natural habitats, where it harms people and all biodiversity alike.
Meanwhile, continue to take care of your oceans and help to clean our seashores!