Recycling Symbols on Plastics: Why is it important and how to decipher them
What Every Plastic Recycling Symbol Means
Among the countless plastic products you have likely encountered in your life, you have probably seen the small triangular recycling symbols of arrows with a number between them. These recycle numbers were developed by the recycling industry to help identify and separate which plastics can be recycled. There are a total of 7 SPI codes used around the world. You may think it means the item is recyclable, but this is not always the case. Each product will have the recycle symbol, which is the resin identification code to inform us on how plastic is made, whether it be HDPE, LDPE, PET, PVC, etc. It provides information about the safety and degradability of each plastic. Each polymer type has its own corresponding number, (#1 for PET, #2 for HDPE, and so on). However, while #1 and #2 plastics are commonly recyclable, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7 are generally those that are most difficult to recycle and are not universally collected at recycling centers. Where does plastic come from? It varies with the type of plastic and application, but it may be imported or manufactured locally. Can plastic be recycled and what plastics can be recycled? Most plastic can be recycled, but there are many barriers that undermine this process. Some polymers are more difficult to break down and some may lose properties as they are broken down to be recycled. Thus, it does not always make environmental, economic, or technical sense to do so. However, it varies by place, and it ultimately depends on the infrastructure that is available and the investments that are willing to be made. However, the more complex the plastic is and the more polymers it uses, the more difficult it is to recycle. Oftentimes, items include multiple types of plastic and different layers that are not easy to separate, making recyclability difficult and more costly. Recycling plastic requires specific machinery for each type of resin and product type, thus proper infrastructure is needed to really scale plastic recycling and be able to collect more types of plastic waste to recycle. So, if you are ever wondering about recyclable plastic and searching “plastic bottle recycling near me”, you should check with the recycling collection center to confirm what plastics they work with and collect. For this reason, it is important that business start manufacturing products and packaging from universally recyclable plastic to ensure it gets recycled at the end of its lifecycle, otherwise it will likely spend decades sitting in a landfill or the natural environment.
Types of recyclable plastic: What plastics can be recycled
We have created a small guide for you to understand the meaning behind the most common recycling codes and what products they typically pertain to. Most recycled products come from post-consumer sources, such as milk jugs, bottles, and packaging films. So, can number 1 plastic be recycled? Yes, PET #1 (Polyethylene Terephthalate) is the most recycled plastic as it is utilized for water bottles, soda bottles, cleaning products, clothing, and carpets. Recycling PET has been possible for a relatively long time as it is so common for bottle manufacturing in the beverage industry, so PET recycling is largely universal. Some countries, like India, Europe, and South Korea have rates higher than 50%, but others like the US and China have not reached these targets yet. In some countries, innovation has led to PET being applied as construction materials or PET bottles are filled with sand and cemented as a sort of brick to forma wall. Most rPET has been turned into more bottles but also into textile garments such as fleece clothing, backpacks, and athletic wear by converting a PET bottle into flakes, which are then spun into a yarn.
Is HDPE 2 recyclable? Yes, HDPE #2 (High Density Polyethylene) is found in larger containers like milk jugs, shampoo and conditioner bottles, trash bags, and toys. Is hdpe recyclable everywhere? Like PET, 2 plastic recycling is common as it has established its application for the manufacturing of these hdpe plastic bottle products globally. The main applications for postconsumer recycled natural HDPE are non-food application bottles, such as detergent, and film packaging. Pigmented HDPE is commonly recycled into pipe, lawn products, and non-food application containers as well. It is also commonly downcycled into plastic lumber, tables, roadside curbs, and benches. Recycle code 3 corresponds to PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) and is sometimes simply referred to as “V” on SPI codes, which is initially a rigid material but becomes soft and flexible plastic. It is commonly used for household products, trays, and furniture but it is not easy to recycle. Other applications include credit cards, food wrap, plumbing pipes, tiles, windows, and medical equipment. This doesn’t mean you won’t get any results if you search “pvc recycling near me” as some companies are beginning to focus on recycling PVC material, particularly for agricultural purposes and products like outdoor furniture, flooring, paneling, and roadside gutters. However, it tends to not be accepted at normal collection centers. Low Density Polyethylene or LDPE #4 has a simple structure, making it easy to produce and is mostly used for grocery bags, plastic wrapping, sandwich bags, frozen food bags, cling film, and squeeze bottles. You can find rLDPE in garbage cans, paneling, furniture, flooring, and bubble wrap. Although it is recyclable, it doesn’t tend to get recycled because products like grocery bags and cling film tend to tangle in the machinery, which then risks the entire recycling process, which isn’t typically a risk recycling companies are willing to take.
Is PP plastic recyclable? Polypropylene is among the most popular plastic packaging materials but only around 1-3% is recycled in the US. PP #5 is common for take-out containers, bottle and jar caps, Tupperware, and plastic cutlery. PP plastic recycling is becoming more prevalent in the food-related and take-out packaging sector, but it is difficult and expensive to recycle it into virgin-like quality. PP 5 recycling is increasing in the packaging industry because it has a high melting point and can be used to hold hot liquids but rPP is usually grey or black, which isn’t very appealing for packaging use. However, it is usually applied for plastic lumber, pallets, battery cables, rakes, ice scrapers, auto parts, speed bumps, and other industrial applications. Polystyrene or PS #6 is known as Styrofoam and used in beverage cups, insulation, packing materials, and egg cartons. It is inexpensive and easy to create but it also leaches harmful chemicals when heated and is not typically recycled. If so, it can be recycled into items for insulation, school supplies, and license plate framing. Finally, #7 platics refers to all other miscellaneous plastics. Despite being used items like sunglasses, computer casing, nylon, baby bottles, etc. they contain bisphenol A (BPA), which is a toxic chemical. They do not break down easily and are very rarely recycled into items like plastic lumber and specialized products. Depending on the type of plastic there are types of plastic recycling that may be more applicable, such as mechanical or chemical processes. Chemical tends to be more efficient at restoring the value in the plastic material and recycling it into virgin-like quality. However, it is more costly and can have a larger environmental impact due to the water and energy required. Yet, plastic recycling is still one of the most environmentally friendly options for packaging.
With the growing evidence of the negative impacts of plastic ending up in the environment and increasing policies that require the incorporation of recyclable plastic in the manufacturing of products as seen with the incoming plastic tax in the UK for example, plastic recycling needs to be taken seriously. Recycled plastics will have to be used to meet sustainability requirements and customer demand. Waste plastics have no place in nature and through innovation, the different ways to recycle are growing and becoming easier to adopt. If you are ever wondering “where can I recycle plastics?”, we urge you to look into your local recycling collection center to better understand the infrastructure in place and what materials they accept. If there is not collection service offered, there may be an option for you to drop off your recyclable plastic and still make a difference. Find out where to recycle plastic from your household or business and be part of the change. The ecology and health of our planet depends on it. If you are looking for recycled plastic or want to promote your plastic recycling services, visit mikacycle.com, a digital marketplace where you can become both a client and a vendor in the modern recycling industry! Join us in working towards a circular plastic economy and finding solutions to all the plastic that is inevitably created!