Plastic Recycling Guide

When it comes to recycling plastic, we all know that it’s a generally good idea, right? No one wants water bottles and extravagent packaging filling up our landfills for thousands of years… but how much about plastics and recycling do you really know?

Our guide contains the following sections…

Accessibility of Plastic Recycling

How are Plastics Recycled?
    –   -Separating Plastics by Type
    –   -Cleaning & Disinfecting Plastic Containers
    –   -Grinding up Plastic Flakes
    –   -Melting Plastics Down & Reducing Them to Elements
    –   -The Born Again Plastics

Why Are Plastics Numbered for Recycling?
    –   -#1 – PETE, or “Polyethylene Terephthalate” Plastics
    –   -#2 – HDPE, or “High Density Polyethylene” Plastics
    –   -#3 – PVC, V – or “Vinyl” Plastics
    –   -#4 – LDPE, or “Low Density Polyethylene” Plastics
    –   -#5 – PP, or “Polypropylene” Plastics
    –   -#6 – PS, or “Polystyrene” Plastics
    –   -#7 – Other Plastics

Plastic Recycling Facts

Need More Information?

Plastic Recycling Guide

Accessibility of Plastic Recycling

Little more than a decade ago, curbside recycling was not widely available to Americans. While urban areas and watershed communities were more likely to have organized programs, plastic recycling was still very new to the public.

Today, more than 80% of Americans have access to plastic recycling programs. Do not think that curbside bin pickup is your only option, either. Many markets have bottle recycling machines, and in some states, you can get paid to recycle bottlesin the form of refunding your deposit.

According to recent reports, there are more than 1,500 businesses in the Unites States that are operating in the plastic recycling industry. That number continues to rise and has nearly tripled in recent years. Since these companies are so prevalent, many are willing to pick up your recyclable plastics to help defray their costs further down the line.

If you lack curbside recycling programs, search online (the EPA’s web site is a great resource) and write community leaders urging them to get their act together.

How are Plastics Recycled?

Most common household plastics we use on a regular basis are whisked off to recycling centers where they undergo a fairly straightforward process. While the ways in which various types of plastics may differ from one center to another, most follow this format:

  • Separating Plastics by Type
  • Cleaning & Disinfecting Plastic Containers
  • Grinding up Plastic Flakes
  • Melting Plastics Down & Reducing Them to Elements
  • The Born Again Plastics

1.) Separating Plastics by Type
it all starts with separating the plastic containers according to the resins that they’re made of… We’ll have more on these resins a bit later in the article. Most of this sorting is done mechanically in today’s larger recycling plants.

2.) Cleaning & Disinfecting Plastic Containers
Once separated, plastic containers must be disinfected and thoroughly cleaned. Ever seen what happens when tomato sauce sits in a plastic container too long? The surface of the plastics actually begin to absorb the sauce, causing discoloring and a nasty film.

This is a great example of how bacteria and contaminants can stick to plastic containers – and speaks to the necessity of having them thoroughly cleaned.

3.) Grinding up Plastic Flakes
Since the plastics are now in all shapes and sizes, there needs to be some degree of consistency. This is why recycling plants now chop up and grind plastic containers into very small pieces.

These pieces can now be further cleaned if needed, and ultimately end up getting ready for a very hot transformation…

4.) Melting Plastics Down & Reducing Them to Elements
A large furnace now awaits our plastic materials, and it’s only goal is to get them so hot – that they’re melted into a liquid consistency for seperation. Immediately after they reach this near boiling point, machines begin separating the materials down to the element level and storing them for later use.

5.) The Born Again Plastics
Finally, the plastics we once relied on have become ready to re-enter our lives in the form of new packaging or products. With so many technological advancements in the recycling industries, it’s not uncommon to see your old water bottle re-emerge as a soda bottle, a plastic piece of lawn furniture or even fibers in the very clothes you wear.

Why Are Plastics Numbered for Recycling?

The vast majority of plastic products now feature a number inside of an arrowed triangle. Here is an example of what these codes look like:

Plastic Recycling Resin Codes

Familiar, right? These are called plastic resin codes.

These resin codes are critically important to the recycling process though – which is why it’s so important for recycling centers to properly sort out their materials before beginning the process.

These are the common plastic resin codes we encounter daily:

  • #1 – PETE, or “Polyethylene Terephthalate” Plastics
  • #2 – HDPE, or “High Density Polyethylene” Plastics
  • #3 – PVC, V – or “Vinyl” Plastics
  • #4 – LDPE, or “Low Density Polyethylene” Plastics
  • #5 – PP, or “Polypropylene” Plastics
  • #6 – PS, or “Polystyrene” Plastics
  • #7 – Other Plastics

#1 – PETE, or “polyethylene terephthalate”
PETE is the most common resin code you’re likely to see. It’s used in soda and water bottles and a number of common containers like microwavable cooking trays.

When recycled, these products are normally used for threaded plastic applications like fleece, carrying bags and backpacks, and carpeting. In some cases they may be recycled into other containers, but that’s less common.

#2 – HDPE, or “high density polyethylene”
HDPE is similar to PETE, but found in more rugged containers like those used for detergents, shampoo bottles, quarts of oil and some heavier trash bags.

Because of their rigidity, recycled HDPE can be used in new bottling applications, high density plastic pipes and more recently, synthetic lumber materials.

#3 – PVC, V – or “vinyl”
PVC can be found in the form of piping, the insulation on wires, and some rugged materials like vinyl siding, replacement windows and even medical equipment.

Sadly, PVC is one of the more difficult materials to recycle. While most curbside pickup programs will haul these plastics away for you, many still end up being discarded. Those that are recycled tend to be used in newer plastic lumber facilities.

The dangers in recycling PVC are because the plastic contains a large amount of chlorine. When recycled or remanufactured, it can lead to the release of hihgly dangerous toxins.

#4 – LDPE, or “low density polyethylene”
Durable but flexible, LDPE is used for these applications and many others like plastic shopping bags ,frozen food containers and packages and even in some clothing.

Like vinyl though, recycling LDPE may be difficult. Again, most pickup services will take these plastics away for you now – but in the past that wasn’t the case. For future applications, LDPE can be used in new trash bins, plastic lumber materials and plastic bins used for storage.

#5 – PP, or “polypropylene”
Every time you use a squeezable ketchup bottle, you’re likely using a polypropylene container. Polypropylenes are often used for yogurt containers, maple syrup bottles, condiments, bottle caps and medicine bottles. Since polypropylene has a high melting point, it is often used for containing materials that may be too hot for other forms of plastics.

Commonly recycled, these materials often transform into very durable materials like cafeteria trays, light casing, brushes, lawn maintenance equipment (like rakes and brooms) and bins.

#6 – PS, or “polystyrene”
This is where the vast majority of disposable plates, cups, trays and containers come into play. Often, they’re referred to as “foam plates” because of their light, but rigid form. Styrofoam, a trademarked term, refers to a form of polystyrene.

Often recycled, these materials can be used to later create more foam packaging products and insulation materials.

#7 – Other Plastics
Most #7 plastics aren’t recycled, although they are quite common in our lives. DVDs, ipod and phone cases, store signs, and even plexiglass and bulletproof materials can all be constructed using type 7 plastics.

When accepted for recycling, these materials are usually limited to futures as plastic lumber material or for other, specialty applications.

Plastic Recycling Facts

Available on the EPA’s web site, here are some facts about plastics you should be aware of…

  • In 2007, the United States generated almost 14 million tons of plastics in the MSW stream as containers and packaging, almost 7 million tons as non-durable goods, and about 10 million tons as durable goods.
  • The total amount of plastics in MSW—almost 31 million tons—represented 12.1 percent of total MSW generation in 2007.
  • The amount of plastics generation in MSW has increased from less than 1 percent in 1960 to 12.1 percent in 2007.
  • Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of the MSW stream. The largest category of plastics are found in containers and packaging (e.g., soft drink bottles, lids, shampoo bottles), but they also are found in durable (e.g., appliances, furniture) and non-durable goods (e.g., diapers, trash bags, cups and utensils, medical devices).
  • Plastics also are found in automobiles, but recycling of these materials is counted separately from the MSW recycling rate.

Need More Information?

If you’d like more information on plastics, please see the American Chemistry Council and the Society of the Plastics Industry web sites. You can also comment on this resource below to encourage a healthy social discussion on the various topics surrounding plastics and recycling.

7 Responses to “Plastic Recycling Guide”
  1. Jeff says:

    Excellent source of information regarding recycling, however your statement about PS foamed products releasing toxins into foods is not accurate. From everything I have read, these products are inert and transmit nothing into foods. Also, since they are inert and discarded into landfills with everything else, they release no lechate or methane. You should double check those facts.

  2. @Jeff – We’ve made changes to the guide with the help of your comment and suggestion. You’re right… There’s no purpose in providing inaccurate information if it cannot be substantiated.

    Again, thank you for writing in and making the EcoWorld community a better place.

  3. Deepti says:

    I want to start plastic recycling granulation unit. Can anybody please guide me on this.

  4. kola says:

    Hi,i want to start the manucfacture of plastic furniture like chairs and tables,i want to start a recyling program for my plastic furniture alongside this venture,what equipment do you suggest i buy for the recycling unit?

  5. Eden Clearbrook says:

    Thank you for the site. I have not found included any information regarding the environmental safety//danger of bringing plastics almost to a boil etc…what, if any, is released at that point or at any point in the process that we must be aware of?
    I aopreciate the dire need to recycle everything we can, but am somewhat dubious about such a process being non-toxic where plastics are concerned.

    Many thanks

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