We eat, drink and breathe plastic. This is the reality, whether we like it or not. Plastic is ubiquitous in our lives. Nearly all food, clothing, household products and the list can go on indefinitely, are packaged in plastic. In a single year, studies show that we use 480 plastic bottles. How many of them do you recycle? But most importantly, do you know how to recycle and what types of plastic can be recycled? There are several types of materials from which plastic is made, and each has its own symbol. If we know them, we will know which packaging can be recycled and which cannot. Here is their guide.
- The well-known PET or PETE
- HDPE, the plastic for milk or detergents
- V or PVC plastic, one of the most toxic types of plastic
- LDPE, soft and flexible plastic
- PP, the “packaged” plastic
- PS – Polystyrene, the plastic to be avoided
- Any other type of plastic
- The well-known PET or PETE
If you look around, you will surely come across a polyethylene terephthalate container, commonly known as PET. It is the most common plastic used for disposable containers because it is easy to recycle and has very low production costs.
The symbol for this type of plastic is three arrows forming a triangle, with the number 1 in the center. When you see this symbol, you can know that the container can be easily recycled.
Products packaged in PET bottles include:
- Soft drinks
- Sauce containers (ketchup, mayonnaise, etc.)
- Vegetable oil
How do we recycle PET bottles? PET bottles need to be emptied, rinsed, and taken to a collection center. Most supermarkets have packaging collection devices, and some even offer vouchers or other rewards in exchange for recycled PET bottles.
The recycling rate for PET bottles is extremely low, despite the fact that this type of plastic can be recycled up to 10 times before losing its properties. It has a recycling rate of only 20%.
Health risks – PET bottles pose a risk to our health only when exposed to heat. In such cases, they can release antimony, a toxic metalloid that can cause nausea, diarrhea, and stomach ulcers.
- HDPE, the plastic for milk or detergents.
Another type of container that is essential in any household is HDPE, which stands for high-density polyethylene. It is a durable plastic and much more resistant than PET.
The symbol for this plastic is a triangle formed by arrows with the number 2 in the middle. It has good thermal and chemical resistance, which is why we find the following products packaged in HDPE:
- Liquid soap
- Shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, etc.
- Cleaning chemicals
- Fabric softener
How do we recycle HDPE plastic? This type of plastic cannot be recycled as easily as PET, so it needs to be collected separately. The packaging should be emptied and washed, and the label does not need to be removed. It can be taken to collection and recycling centers. Recycling affects the quality and color of the material. For this reason, it can be recycled a maximum of 4-5 times before losing its properties.
Like PET, HDPE plastic is generally considered safe, but studies have shown that it releases estrogenic chemicals that can be a health hazard for children.
3.V or PVC plastic, one of the most toxic types of plastic.
V or PVC plastic is made from a material called vinyl chloride or polyvinyl. It is a type of plastic that can be both rigid and flexible. It is one of the most toxic types of plastic.
The symbol for PVC plastic is three arrows forming a triangle with the number 3 in the center. It is used in both construction and common household products such as:
- Roofing materials
- Plastic wrap for food
- Shower curtains
How do we recycle PVC plastic? Products made from this type of plastic cannot be recycled.
In addition to the fact that plastic made from PVC material pollutes the environment, it also has serious health consequences. It contains toxic metals such as lead and cadmium, which are harmful to the human body, especially for children. PVC can release extremely dangerous gases that can affect the respiratory system. Studies have shown that certain PVC products, such as shower curtains, release phthalates that can cause nausea and liver and reproductive system damage. Vinyl chloride, an essential component of PVC, is a carcinogenic gas and potentially explosive, with a slightly sweet odor. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, it can enter drinking water through contact with PVC.
- LDPE, the soft and flexible plastic.
Low-density polyethylene or LDPE is a flexible, lightweight, and soft plastic. The symbol for LDPE plastic is formed by three arrows in the shape of a triangle with the number 4 in the center. It is a very common plastic and is most often used for manufacturing:
- Garbage bags
- Garment bags
- Bread packaging
How do we recycle LDPE plastic? Generally, this plastic is not widely recycled. However, in recent years, more and more communities have started LDPE recycling programs. When recycled, LDPE plastic is used to produce plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage bags, and flooring tiles. Products made from recycled LDPE are not as durable or rigid as those made from recycled HDPE plastic.
This plastic does not pose direct health risks, but if it ends up in nature, it can break down into microplastics that will irreversibly pollute the soil and water.
The best way to reduce LDPE consumption is by using textile bags instead of plastic bags.
- PP, the “packaging” plastic.
Plastic made from polypropylene is the most durable and lightweight plastic. It has excellent heat resistance qualities and serves as a barrier against moisture and grease, which is why it is used for containers in which food ordered from restaurants is placed.
The symbol for PP plastic is formed by three arrows in the shape of a triangle with the number 5 in the center. PP plastic is used in a variety of ways:
- Containers for yogurt or margarine
- Potato chip bags
- Glass lids
How do we recycle PP plastic? It can be recycled, but it needs to be collected separately from other plastics and taken to specialized recycling centers. It is considered one of the safest plastics as it does not pose health risks.
- PS – Polystyrene, the plastic to be avoided.
Polystyrene is a cheap, lightweight, and malleable plastic that is used in a wide range of applications. Polystyrene is structurally weak and extremely lightweight, so it easily breaks apart and disperses rapidly in nature. Researchers have even discovered numerous marine organisms that have ingested polystyrene.
The symbol for PS plastic is formed by three arrows in the shape of a triangle with the number 6 in the center. Most commonly, polystyrene is used for:
- Disposable foam cups
- Plastic utensils for picnics
- Foam packaging and those foam “beads” used for cushioning packages
- Rigid foam insulation
How do we recycle polystyrene? Recycling polystyrene is rare. Very few recycling companies actually recycle polystyrene. Polystyrene has even been banned for food packaging because it contains styrene, a toxic compound considered a possible human carcinogen. The danger is particularly heightened when it is heated in a microwave. Chemicals present in polystyrene have been associated with reproductive system dysfunction.
- Any other type of plastic.
Any plastic that does not fall into the above 6 categories is classified under this category. Plastic number 7 encompasses a wide range of plastic materials with many different characteristics. It includes non-recyclable plastics, mixed plastics, and biodegradable plastics.
The symbol for these plastics is formed by a triangle composed of arrows with the number 7 in the center. The most well-known plastics that fall into this category are polycarbonate, nylon, and fiberglass. They are used for:
- Baby bottles
- Car parts
- Eyeglass frames
How do we recycle plastic 7? Packaging, products, and containers made from this type of plastic cannot be recycled and should be avoided. Any plastic designated with the number 7 has the potential to release BPA or BPS, two highly disruptive substances to the endocrine system. They are associated with mood disorders, reproductive dysfunction, and puberty disruption. There are also suspicions that these substances increase the risk of reproductive system cancer, obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.
Plastic is present in all aspects of our lives and can truly affect our long-term health. According to the World Economic Forum, 8.8 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year. UNEP studies indicate that not even 10% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled.
Now that you know the 7 types of plastic and how to identify them, you will be able to make a choice that pollutes the environment less next time you go shopping. It is important to remember to never heat food in plastic containers, avoid purchasing plastics from categories 6 and 7, and seek alternatives made of textiles, wood, or metal.