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Plastic Recycling Numbers Decoded

The act of recycling has been practiced for as long as the Earth has existed. Nature has its own methods of recycling whether it involves trees, plants, animals or insects. Animals and plants that died or became extinct became compressed between several layers of rock. The application of heat and pressure converted these bodies into gas and oil which humans mined to create plastics, petroleum and other products. Even the first human civilizations understood the importance of recycling. As early as 1600 BC, Jews devised laws compelling people to be responsible for their own waste. A millennium later, the Athenians conceived the first dumps, throwing their waste in an established area located at least a mile from the walls of the city. In Asia, the Japanese recycled paper which they sold in various shops.

Before the Industrial Revolution, items were produced in small amounts. With the emergence of various machines, mass production of items became easier. Consumerism and a throw-away society has led to more items that last for a short period of time, most of which end up in landfills. One of the benefits of recycling is the reduction of trash that ends up in landfills. This in turn reduces the amount of pollution produced. With less items produced, less energy and resources are consumed.

Recycling involves reprocessing existing materials to make something new. Several countries have started implementing recycling practices with varying results. England and Taiwan have produced better rates in recycling when compared to the United States. There are different types of materials that can be recycled including paper, glass, metal, textiles, plastics and electronics. Plastics alone constitute several types, distinguished by a number commonly located at the base. The different numbers indicate whether the plastic can be recycled or not. Here is an in-depth look into what these numbers mean:

#1 – Polyethylene terephthalate “PET” or “PETE”

PET or PETE plastics are used to make drink bottles. Items made from PET and Polybutylene terephthalate or PBT have great thermal and electrical properties and a good level of resistance against chemicals. These types of plastics should not be reused as bacteria can accumulate. The level of di-2-ehtylhexyl phthalate can also increase with liquids that are stored for several months.

#2 – High-density polyethylene or “HDPE”

Compared to PET bottles, HDPE plastics are made for heavy duty purposes. This type of plastic is flexible, weatherproof, easy and cheap to manufacture and is resistant to chemicals. HDPE is used in toys, kitchen and picnic wares, chemical drums, food wraps and to insulate cable. Items can be recycled to create toys, trash cans and gardening items such as flower pots.

#3 – Vinyl or polyvinyl chloride or PVC 

PVC is used in a wide variety of fields including construction, packaging, electrical and healthcare. It is durable and lasts for a long period of time. PVC is found in items such as credit cards, piping, wire insulation and packaging among others. The material is also used in making artificial skin used in surgeries. Over the years, a number of companies have promoted recycling PVC or collect PVC items for recycling.

#4 –Low-density polyethylene or LDPE

This type of plastic is semi-rigid yet durable with a good level of resistance to chemicals. It is weatherproof, cheap and easy to manufacture. LDPE is used to make toys, squeeze bottles, packaging and pipes. It is not commonly accepted for recycling although interest is growing in the United States and UK.

#5 – Polypropylene or PP 

The food packaging industry benefits the most from the use of polypropylene. Examples of products made using this type of plastic include condiment bottles, yogurt pots and plastic containers. It is also used to create caps, crates and disc cases among others. A number of countries such as the US, UK, and Australia are making efforts in recycling this type of plastic.

#6 – Polystyrene or PS

Polystyrene is often used to make cups or as a packaging material to keep items safe while in transit. It is commonly known as Styrofoam, a brand originally used as an insulating material for houses. Recycling polystyrene is not a “closed loop” or remade into the same items. Instead, the material collected is made into other items such as packing filler or food trays.

#7 – Other types of plastics 

A variety of other plastics constitute this last category. Properties and products vary for each example. Nylons are used to create clothing while polycarbonate material is used to make compact discs, baby bottles, car parts and mobile phones among others. Other types of plastics included in this category are further grouped as thermoplastics or thermosets. In the United States, depending on the area, other methods of recycling the material may also be available.

Further information

Companies like to use plastics because they are cheap, easy to manufacture, durable and last forever. As a non-biodegradable material, knowing how to recycle plastics can help in reducing the amount of resources used as well as lessening the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills. To learn more about plastics and how to recycle these types of materials, check out the following links: