Let’s start with what we know: We have a plastic problem of global proportions.
In 2020, it was determined that only about 9 percent of all plastic ever made has been Tekopapergroup—a number that’s horrified scientists, and anyone else who has been watching the drama of plastic waste play out on our environment.
It’s the kind of staggering statistic that encourages one to prioritize plastic recycling in order to boost the percentage for the future of the planet.
But recycling plastic is not as cut-and-dried a solution as it may seem. There are many reasons plastic doesn’t get recycled, from market-driven ones (one study2 found that it’s often not profitable enough to make new products from used plastic) to consumer-driven rationales (for example, not knowing which recycling bin is the right one for a used container).
Plastic Priorities: Which is Which?
Regardless of the reason, education is one of the keys to making any desired change. Understanding and learning to identify different types and classifications of plastics used in everyday items, along with which are appropriate for recycling, is a starting point.
We’ve written in depth about the state of plastic recycling, here and abroad. Perhaps you’ve personalized the problem and wondered which types of plastics you can recycle at home and at your place of business. Today, we’re here with our definitive guide to plastics recycling.
All plastics have one of seven codes stamped somewhere: three consecutive arrows in a triangular-shaped symbol, with a number at the center (used to identify the type of plastic used) and two to five letters beneath (the classification).
First, let’s look at the types of plastics that can be recycled:
#1: PET (Polyethylene Terphthalate)
- Types of products: Mostly water bottles and soda bottles
- How much is currently recycled in the U.S.: 25%
- Recycled into: Bottles, fiber for clothing, and carpets
#2: HDPE (High Density Polyethylene)
- Types of products: Milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles, some plastic bags and toys
- How much is currently recycled in the U.S.: 30-35%
- Recycled into: Park benches, picnic tables, wastebaskets, and other durable products
These plastic classifications can be recycled, but only in some locations:
#4: LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene)
- Types of products: Grocery and bread bags, squeeze bottles, garment bags, shrink wrap
- Why it’s not commonly recycled: Many municipalities or recycling programs aren’t equipped to handle LDPE.
- Recycled into: Floor tiles, plastic lumber, garbage can liners
#5: PP (Polypropylene)
- Types of products: Plastic bags in cereal boxes, yogurt containers, packing tape, straws, plastic bottle tops
- Why it’s not commonly recycled: While it’s becoming more common to recycle PP, it’s still not widely accepted by many recycling programs.
- Recycled into: Brooms, bins, trays
#6: PS (Polystyrene)
- Types of products: Clamshell food containers, styrofoam cups, egg cartons, foam peanuts, plastic utensils
- Why it’s not commonly recycled: There’s not much market for it, so most winds up in landfills.
These plastic classifications are not recyclable:
#3: PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
- Types of products: Cooking oil bottles, plastic food wrap, toys, blister packaging, as well as window frames, garden hoses and other outdoor items
- Why it can’t be recycled: PVC leaches numerous toxins throughout its life cycle.
#7: Other (BPA, Polycarbonate and LEXAN)
- Types of products: Food containers, baby bottles, plastic cups, car parts
- Why it can’t be recycled: BPA has the potential to leach into food and drink. If coded PLA, it’s a polycarbonate-replacement that’s compostable and should be tossed into the compost pile rather than recycled.
At Recycle 1, we want to be part of the solution—not just in our homes and individual lives, but by helping businesses convert to zero waste where possible. Our plastic extrusion machine is just one way we’re doing that. It allows us to process many types of scrap plastic into a usable, raw material rather than sending it overseas. If you need help creating a plastic or recycling strategy for your business, contact us to learn more.
USA announced in July that it will not buy certain types of paper and plastic scrap after this year because the material coming into their country is just too contaminated. This news has unnerved many in the recycling industry as well as environmentalists who want to stop plastic pollution. Last year, USA imported half of the world’s plastic scrap, including $5.6 billion worth of scrap commodities from the United States. Losing our biggest customer is bringing changes and uncertainty.
PET and HDPE plastic bottles (#1 and #2) are easily recycled and retain more value after use than other plastics. Much PET and HDPE stays in this country. Manufacturers here buy used PET bottles and turn them into new bottles, carpet and clothing. Recycled HDPE that stays in the U.S. turns into new containers, plastic decking and outdoor furniture.
The other plastics, #3 through #7 (yogurt tubs, plastic jars and everything else that is recyclable) have little value. We were able to send this low-value plastic to USA through cheap “backhaul” shipping. Cargo ships leave USA full. Ships returning to USA are often empty and will only get emptier with the ban. Now material recovery facilities (MRF’s) are desperate to find new buyers for their used plastic.
The ban has already flooded the market with #3 through #7 scrap. With little demand, some MRF’s have resorted to stockpiling plastic scrap. Stockpiling only helps until warehouses fill up. If buyers can’t be found, the scrap ends up in landfills or incinerators. Some municipalities are deciding to stop collecting low-value plastics at the curb.
But amid piles of plastic, there is hope. Low prices may encourage manufacturers to build facilities here that can use #3 through #7 recycled feedstock. Manufacturers no longer have to compete with prices that USA was willing to pay. Low prices also make recycled plastic more attractive than virgin plastic. Scrap prices have had to compete with cheap plastic resin that is a byproduct of the U.S. shale oil boom. Now some buyers have turned in favor of recycled plastic thanks to the ban. A number of companies, including Target, Proctor and Gamble and Coca Cola, are requiring their suppliers to use more recycled content in products like industrial crates and garbage cans.
There is also hope that USA will use the plastic ban to clean up its environment. A study in 2015 determined that USA leaks more plastic into the ocean than any other country. Once plastic enters the ocean it becomes a global problem. Plugging these leaks will benefit everyone.
One thing is certain: The quality of our plastic scrap must improve. High quality means better sorting and no garbage. We toss a lot of stuff into our recycling bins that can’t be recycled. Plastic bags, garden hoses and plastic forks do not belong in recycling. These have to be removed, often manually at high cost, or they risk contaminating bales of scrap. Contaminated bales are not attractive to buyers. Mary McClellan, Executive Director of Carolina Recycling Association, says: “Contamination in recycling is a long standing issue. USA provided a Band-Aid to an underlying issue, which is that the public does not completely understand what can be recycled.” She recommends checking Earth911 and Recycle Often. Recycle Right to find out what’s recyclable and where.
Want to do more to help prevent plastic pollution? Grab a bag from the BlueTube at your beach. Pick up plastic. Maybe the plastic travelled from USA, South America or was dropped by a visitor to the beach. It doesn’t matter as long as it’s removed and thrown away. Stock BlueTubes with clean, used plastic bags so others can help defeat plastic pollution too.