Your Complete Guide to Plastic Recycling

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Plastic recycling has been the major focus in recent years as we learn the harmful nature of plastic. Here's your guide on plastic recycling.

Did you know that it takes one plastic bottle 450 years to decompose in the environment? There are also several types of plastic. Whether they're biodegradable, recyclable, or compostable is all a guessing game.

Curious about what exactly goes into plastic recycling? Keep reading to learn more.

What You Need to Know

Not all plastic is recyclable.

Plastic bags are often not picked up through your curbside recycling program. Grocery stores often have bins for plastic bags and styrofoam. Check outside or near the entrance of the store the next time you go grocery shopping.

  • Coffee cups aren't recyclable without a special machine.
  • Plastic (and any other recyclable) can't be recycled dirty.
  • It's a supply and demand market.

Your local government will often take or pick up your post-consumer products. What gets picked up depends on market demand, and whether it's clean. When plastic is recycled, it's shredded into pellets that get made into other products. That plastic has to be rid of impurities and other materials first. If the plastic you attempted to recycle was dirty, it was probably sent to landfill.

The other thing is, plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times before its quality starts to degrade. To combat this, companies add "virgin plastic," or new material, to already-used materials to keep the quality high.

When packaging says "Made from 80% recycled plastic," that means the other 20% is new material.

There are Types of Plastic

Each type of plastic has 1-7 on it to let consumers know what kind their product is packaged in. Here are the kinds of plastics.

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET containers)

These are plastic bottles. More than likely the kind your soda or water is packaged in.

It does a great job of keeping oxygen out of food and drink containers but releases a cancer-causing chemical over time. (Don't leave them outside. Don't leave the product inside for an extended period.)

2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) and 3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

These two materials are thicker than PET containers. HDPE containers are usually used for laundry detergent. PVC is most known for PVC piping.

HDPE containers have proven to leach an estrogen-mimicking chemical when exposed to ultraviolet light. PVC is the most toxic plastic, containing carcinogens and allergy-inducing chemicals.

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

LDPE is the most common plastic in the world. It's used to create grocery bags, plastic sandwich bags, outer coating for to-go containers or other food packages, food storage containers, and even their lids.

This plastic is difficult to recycle, and is often sent to a special facility or spends a few hundred years in a landfill.

5. Polypropolene (PP)

Think Nalgene or other reusable plastic water bottles. It's thicker and more resistant to heat. PP is also often used for hot to-go containers. It's also not easy to recycle.

6. Polystyrene (PS)

This mixture of plastic and styrofoam is also used for hot food containers, egg cartons, and also bicycle helmets. When exposed to high heat and oils, it can release dangerous chemicals. It's also not easy to recycle.

7. The "Other" Type of Plastic

If you've ever seen a piece of plastic with the number "7" on it, recycling companies may not even be sure that it's recyclable.

There's a type of "plant-based" plastic that is advertised as biodegradable but only under perfect conditions. Another example of this is melamine, a common type of plastic used for bowls and plates. Melamine cannot be recycled—it must be incinerated.

What You Can Do

The simple answer is to cut out plastic all together—but not everyone can do that. Living zero-waste is a privilege of sorts, and some things are hard to find in different forms.

Laptops, keyboards, cell phones, electronics of any kind fall into this category. They leach chemicals into the environment and are dangerous to send to landfill. This E-Waste recycling solution helps with that.

Buying food packaged in glass or metal is a great way to reduce your plastic intake. Aluminum cans are commonly seen in marketplaces and take less energy to recycle than to create.

Glass containers are reusable around your home.

If these aren't options for you, take steps to be cautious of the number on the bottle you're buying. Do some research into what your local recycling program picks up curbside.

If you live in an apartment, try to ask a friend if they'll take your plastic recycling, or take it to your local grocery store. In small amounts, bins outside may take any kind of plastic recyclables—not just plastic bags.

Other things—like metal recycling and battery recycling—must also be sent to special facilities. Some local governments offer pickup days for certain kinds of recycling, but that's dependent on where you live.

Aerosol cans are another form of waste that shouldn't go to landfill. Check your local guidelines to see if they're allowed in your curbside recycling.

The Importance of Plastic Recycling

Greenhouse emissions—caused by factories, cars, and general pollution—contribute to the warming of the earth's atmosphere.

As a result, glaciers are melting, sea levels are rising, and natural disasters are becoming more extreme. This affects our agriculture, air quality, infrastructure, and quality of life.

Extreme natural disasters destroy our homes, roadways, and cityscapes. Higher sea levels lead to more flooding and higher pollution levels create smog.

Plastic recycling is one part of a bigger whole.

One small act of throwing your soda bottle in a recycling bin, or making sure an old laptop is properly disposed of makes all the difference. Buying something in a glass jar instead of plastic creates a lasting effect. Visit our website to learn more.

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