Plastic recycling is a significant step toward going green, an idea that occasionally crosses our minds. However, contrary to popular belief, plastics are not made of the same material, meaning not all of them can be recycled.
Recycling some of these materials tends to bring more harm than good to the environment, while others are difficult to recycle. Therefore, disposing of plastics in the recycle bin while intending to curb environmental pollution could aggravate the situation.
Distinguishing plastics based on their material is a grey area for most people, but it isn’t as intricate as it seems. That said, tag along to find out what plastics cannot be recycled and why.
What are the Common Types of Plastics?
Knowledge of the type of material that makes up different plastics is the foundation of understanding whether the plastic in question belongs to the recycle bin or not.
Hardly a day goes by without us handling a plastic material, and it’s more than likely that you’ve come across the triangular recycling symbol with arrows on plastic products. This symbol comes in handy in identifying the type of plastic in question.
All you need to do is pay more attention to detail, and you will notice that inside the arrows that make up the recycling symbol is a number, often known as the resin ID code. The resin code ranges from number one to seven on different plastic products.
Here’s how to distinguish different types of plastics we encounter frequently based on their resin code:
Plastic 1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE)
Polyethylene terephthalate has resin code one and is among the most common plastics we encounter daily. The material is often transparent and is used for packaging food and drinks. You can also refer to it as polyester, meaning it makes up some fabrics, including clothes, carpets, and shopping bags.
Plastic 2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE)
Being a polyethylene material, HDPE is also a common plastic material, only that it exhibits a higher density than other polyethylene types and has a resin code of two.
Like other polyethylene materials, it’s also used in making containers, but thanks to its impeccable resilience, it makes containers and pipes usually exposed to harsh chemicals, including detergents. Its strength also makes it a suitable go-to for plastic surgery procedures.
Plastic 3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Polyvinyl chloride is a popular plastic material in construction projects thanks to its sturdy nature with affordability in the bargain. Additionally, its inability to conduct electricity makes it an ideal electrical insulator, meaning you may find it on electrical wires.
PVC also makes up pipes and containers with exposure to moisture and chemicals as it can withstand corrosion. Despite its numerous perks, PVC is one of the most hazardous plastic materials to the environment.
Plastic 4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
Low-density polyethylene is known for its flexibility and elasticity. Consider it as gentle polyethylene. Its resin code is number four, and it’s mainly used in making the everyday plastic items we use, including toys and utensils. LDPE is the plastic material that makes up your garbage bag. Its major downside is its highly flammable property.
Plastic 5: Polypropylene (PP)
You will often encounter Polypropylene on the handle of your cooking pots and pans because it’s highly resistant to heat, making it an ideal insulator. Thanks to its durability, the material is often used to make strong boxes to hold electronic devices.
Plastic 6: Polystyrene (PS)
Polystyrene can either be rigid plastic or foam depending on its usage. You should expect to encounter this material in utensils such as cups, cutlery, and food containers. When you expose this material to hot beverages and food items, it is likely to release hazardous toxins that may harm your health.
Plastic 7: Other resin
Plastic products with a resin code of seven are usually a combination of the above types of plastic materials. They can also be a product of other types of plastics that we rarely encounter daily. Some of these products can be recycled while others cannot, depending on their type of material.
What Plastics Cannot Be Recycled?
Recyclable and non-recyclable plastic materials vary from one locality to another, making it quite challenging to categorize the two solidly. However, some plastic types are widely non-recyclable, and these include:
- Plastic 3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
Despite being elastic, PVC is not recyclable, thanks to the many additives that make it up. Different toxic chemicals make up this plastic material such that when you expose it to heat, it can have tremendous effects on your health. Essentially, PVC owes its elasticity to carcinogens and should not go into the recycle bin.
- Plastic 6: Polystyrene (PS)
Just like PVC, Polystyrene, otherwise known as Styrofoam, comprises toxic chemicals that can be hazardous to the environment and your health upon degrading. Rather than disposing of this plastic material in the recycle bin, it is advisable to repurpose it instead.
- Plastic 7: Other resin
This compilation of different plastic types mainly contains Bisphenol A, a synthetic organic additive famous for harming marine life. The different materials also make it difficult to recycle such products as they can easily clog equipment in most recycling plants.
Additionally, although plastic number five is sometimes recyclable, the material is quite challenging to recycle and is therefore non-recyclable in most localities. Also, despite being known as microwave-safe plastic, this material contains chemicals that can be hazardous when you expose them to high heat.
That said, for materials such as Polypropylene, be sure to consult your nearest recycling center or, better still, your locality’s website to establish whether the material is recyclable in your area or not.
More importantly, we should keep other materials that we frequently use, such as plastic bags or wraps, plastic lids, or greasy food containers, away from the recycle bin. In essence, such flimsy materials are capable of jamming recycling machines.
How to Tell if Plastic is Recyclable
It is understandable to assume that all plastics containing the recycling symbol are recyclable unless you’re a professional. Fortunately, with a few tips on separating plastic materials according to their properties, you should be able to separate plastic wastes like a pro.
One of the most straightforward criteria for differentiating recyclable and non-recyclable plastics is to check the level of hardness of the plastic product. The harder the material is, the more challenging it is to recycle.
On the other hand, plastic materials that exhibit utmost flexibility or elasticity tend to be more malleable and are, therefore, easier to recycle. Although this indicator may not be as efficient, it should give you a head start on separating your plastic waste materials.
The resin identification code is a more efficient way to tell if the plastic material is recyclable. A lower resin code (one or two) indicates that the material is recyclable. In contrast, plastic numbers three, six, and seven are the least recyclable plastics in most areas.
For the remaining resin ID codes, consider checking with the recycling system in your area to confirm whether they are recyclable. For instance, although plastic number 4 (Low-density polyethylene) is recyclable, the recycling rate is very low. The material isn’t adequately safe for the environment, and recycling it requires special conditions.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What Plastics Can Be Recycled?
Plastic number one and two are the most easily recycled materials in most localities. Fortunately, they are among the materials we use more frequently every day. Plastics four and five are also recyclable but require special equipment. They are therefore only recycled in limited quantities.
Essentially, plastics that can be recycled usually have minimal effects on our health and are relatively environmentally safe compared to most of their counterparts.
What Happens to Plastic That Isn’t Recycled?
Playing your part by religiously disposing of all plastics into the recycle bin only to find out that not all of them are recycled could make you wonder what happens to these materials. The fate of our recycled plastic materials is incineration or decomposition in the landfill site near you. The remaining plastic wastes are most likely littered in the environment.
These materials take decades to degrade, and when they do, they essentially turn into the food contaminants, water, or air pollutants that serve as the root of some illnesses today.
How are Plastics Recycled?
You’ll be surprised to find out that plastics are among the most challenging materials to recycle. Plastic recycling is a tedious process that begins with collection to remodeling the material into new products. Upon collection, sorting, cleaning, and shredding, the plastics follow to facilitate smooth recycling.
This process can either be mechanical or advanced, depending on the facilities available at your local research plants. Mechanical plastic recycling involves melting the plastic materials and molding them into new products, while advanced recycling entails breaking them down chemically.
Which Plastics Are Safe to Reuse?
If you find yourself doubting whether to dispose of your plastic container in the recycle bin or not, reusing it might be the ultimate solution. However, you cannot reuse all plastic materials as some can contain highly carcinogenic chemicals.
More importantly, reusable plastic materials are only safe to reuse if you wash them thoroughly with hot water and soap. Below are some of the plastic materials that are safe to reuse:
- Plastic #1 (PET)
Being the most common plastic material we use, knowing that it is safe to reuse and recycle is a relief. This means that you can safely reuse your transparent food container as long as you clean it thoroughly.
Also, while reusing these containers, desist from exposing them to heat as they can release potentially harmful chemicals. Ensure you check with the product’s manufacturer if you’re in doubt, as some manufacturers might recommend one-time usage.
- Plastic #2 (HDPE)
HDPE is safe to reuse after washing, but you can also recycle it. Feel free to repurpose this material as you please because it is known to release minimal toxic chemicals to the environment if any.
- Plastic #4 (LDPE)
As the name implies, LDPE exhibits a relatively lightweight, meaning you should be careful while handling the material even though it is safe to reuse.
- Plastic #5 (PP)
Polypropylene is among the plastic materials that aren’t recyclable in some localities. Therefore, if this is the case in your locality, reusing the material can be an ideal option because recycling is difficult.
In a nutshell, plastics are here to stay as they grace us with undeniable convenience, and finding a way to eliminate them could be a wild goose chase. Although convenient, poor management of plastic waste can have detrimental effects on our health and the environment.
Other than proper disposal of plastic waste, consider using eco-friendly, recyclable, or reusable plastic products while minimizing the use of non-recyclable products, as this could go a long way. By equipping yourself with such tips on how best to manage different plastic materials, you’ll be doing yourself and the environment a solid.