I assume if you are even reading this blog that you are not a scumbag who throws garbage out the window of your car on the highway or leaves your empty beer cans at the beach after a Sunday Funday. One thing I have found is that there is so much to learn about recycling and that even some of us with the best intentions are unaware of how recycling works and what items can actually be recycled.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the definition of recycling is to pass through a series of changes or treatments, to adapt to a new use, to bring back, or to make ready for reuse. You see the recycling bins and probably have a separate day that your recycling is picked up by your local garbage person. Of course, we have all seen that recognizable recycling symbol on the bottom of plastic items.
What in the hell do these numbers mean?
Does having the symbol mean the item can go into the recycling bin? If an object does not have the symbol does that mean it cannot be recycled? What exactly can be made out of recycled plastic? I am here to answer these questions so that you can ensure that the steps you are taking in an attempt to do well for our beautiful planet are actually the right steps to take and not a waste of your damn time.
Let's get these questions from above answered starting with these cryptic numbers. These numbers range from 1 to 7 and each plastic is assigned a number based off of certain criteria such as:
Toxicity of chemicals used in the plastic
Likeliness to leach
The safety of the plastic
How biodegradable the plastic is
#1 - PETE or PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate)
In layman's terms this is the plastic that single use water bottles, soda bottles, peanut butter jars, some salad dressing containers, and mouthwash bottles are typically made with. These plastics are very often included in curbside pick up and once recycled are made into tote bags, furniture, polar fleece and carpet.
#2 - HDPE (High Density Polyethylene)
This is another plastic that is commonly picked up by your regular curbside garbage collector and is the first of three types that are considered to be a safe plastic. It's the opaque plastics such as milk jugs, some shampoo bottles, cereal box liners, some detergent bottles, motor oil containers, yogurt/butter tubs and other household cleaners. Once recycled, this form of plastic can be recycled into picnic tables, lumber, benches and fences.
#3 - V or PVC (Vinyl)
This plastic is one that you will find in plumbing pipes, cooking oil bottles, windows, medical equipment and some detergent and shampoo bottles. This is a number that is not a typical curbside pick up and when recycled can be made into items such as paneling, flooring, speed bumps and decks. It also gets a bad rep due to containing DEHA which can lead to loss of bone mass and liver problems after long term exposure and has been linked to many health problems such as developmental challenges.
#4 - LDPE (Low Density Polyethylene)
This number corresponds with the "squeezy" plastics. You know like ketchup, salad dressing and BBQ sauce bottles. You can also find this form of plastic in shopping bags, clothing, carpet, frozen food containers, food wraps and bread bags. Sometimes your city waste collector may accept this number, but not always. It is considered to be a safe plastic though and when recycled is made into compost bins, paneling, trash can liners, trash cans, floor tiles and shipping envelopes.
#5 - PP (Polypropylene)
Polypropylene is found in bottle caps, straws, some yogurt containers, ketchup bottles, syrup and medicine bottles and may be a plastic that can be picked up curbside. This is the second plastic that is considered to be safe and when recycled is made into brooms, auto battery cases, bins, pallets, signal lights, ice scrapers, and bicycle racks.
*Please note that bottle caps from your #1, #2 and other plastics that we mentioned above are not necessarily recyclable being that they are made with polypropylene which has a much higher melting point. Therefore, you should remove the bottle caps if your curbside pick up does not include #5 plastics.
#6 - PS (Polystyrene)
This is the evil Styrofoam. It is not recyclable at curbside pick up and as a matter of fact is very hard to recycle in general. It is found in CD cases, egg cartons, meat trays and disposable plates/cups. This form of plastic can also be a health risk due to the chemicals that leach off of it, especially when heated. When it is able to be recycled, it can be made into other egg cartons, vents, foam packaging and insulation.
#7 - Other Misc Plastics
This is every other kind of plastic including ones that contain polycarbonate aka BPA (bisphenol-A.) You can find these plastics in item including but not limited to sunglasses, cellphone cases, computer cases, nylon, bullet proof items and 3&5 gallon water jugs. When it is able to be recycled, it can be made into plastic lumber and other misc. construction materials.
Okay, so you know what these numbers
mean. Now what? You need to know what items your curbside pick up allows. The best resource that I found was Earth911.com. You can simply enter your zipcode and get a rundown of the types of plastics that your local city's waste collection services will accept.
Sometimes we are just damn lazy, so here are some tips to make recycling easier:
Post a tiny cheat sheet of what numbers you can throw in your regular recycling near or on your garbage can
Create a hard to recycle area in your home to put batteries, aerosols, paints, etc.
Get your workplace involved. Maybe you can create a hard to recycle area at work and have a different co-worker volunteer each month to bring these items to the recycling center. 12 volunteers would mean that each contributor would only have to make one run a year.
Place a recycling bin in areas of your home other than the kitchen. (Many cleaning products and cosmetic products do not get recycled purely because they are not located near a recycling bin.)
Check into Terracycle and other companies like it that will send you free labels to mail specific items that
are extremely hard to recycle to them. All you have to do is pack the item up, slap on a self address paid label and drop it at a post office. Click on the Terracycle logo to go to their website for all the different types of brigades you can join to help save the planet.
thebalance.com. (2016) An Overview of Plastic Recycling. Rick Leblanc. https://www.thebalance.com/an-overview-of-plastic-recycling-4018761
naturalsociety.com. (2013) The Numbers on Plastic Bottles. What do Plastic Recycling Symbols Mean? Mike Barrett. http://naturalsociety.com/recycling-symbols-numbers-plastic-bottles-meaning/