Plastic Recycling – What Do Those Numbers Mean?

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You’ve probably looked at the bottom of a plastic bottle and wondered what the number inside the triangle means. I know I have, but usually I just throw most of my plastic waste, minus the pop (or soda) bottles, in the recycle bin without really thinking about it. There has to be a reason why those numbers are on plastic bottles though. If there wasn’t a purpose for them why would they be there in the first place? Just to mess with me?

Plastic items you commonly find fit into one of seven categories. These seven groups are separated by many qualities like thickness, if they are safe for human use, or what the plastic can be used for again once recycled. Now let’s go into a bit more detail about those digits and what they represent.

  1. PETE – Polyethylene Terephthalate
    Pop (or soda) bottles, water bottles, plastic food jars, and pretty much any other type of plastic food container contain PETE plastics. Think of PETE plastic as a majority of plastic containers suitable to contain something people eat. Since PETE is the most common plastic, it’s also the easiest to recycle. If you’re lucky like us here in Michigan, you even may get a slight monetary reward of a whole 10 cents for returning pop bottles.
  2. HDPE – High Density Polyethylene
    This type of plastic is a bit thicker than PETE plastic. HDPE plastics make up plastics used for oil containers, soap bottles, milk jugs, or even cereal bags. This type of plastic, like PETE, also holds foods for human consumption, but is a bit thicker and stronger.
  3. PVC or Vinyl
    Most people associate PVC with the plumbing pipes in your home. However, PVC is used for a variety of other materials: siding, windows, some shampoo bottles, furniture, toys, and a host of other items. Initially, PVC created a hassle when recycling because it emitted harmful fumes. Most recycling facilities in the past didn’t take PVC either. However, now it’s a more widely recycled material.
  4. LDPE – Low Density Polyethylene
    This type makes up most plastic shopping bags, freezer or sandwich bags, plastic wrap, dry cleaning bags, and even some clothing. You’ll have to check with your community recycle pack if they’ll take this type of plastic. Most don’t; however, if you visit your community recycle center they’ll have more information for you. A lot of grocery stores have bins to put your old plastic shopping bags, which may help you get rid of extras. I know those collect like crazy at our house.
  5. PP – Polyethylene
    If you warm your syrup in the microwave before putting it on your waffles and pancakes, chances are the bottle is made from PP plastics. The unique trait of PP plastics is that they can withstand high heats. If you plan on heating up your left overs, make sure they are in this type of plastic container. Medicine bottles, straws, bottle caps, and some ropes and tubs fall into this category.
  6. PS – Polystyrene
    You’d probably recognize PS plastic as your Styrofoam coffee cup, carry-out box, or egg container. Most of the time this type of plastic ends up in the trash. I know I tend to throw these away without a thought. Like PVC, polystyrene plastics emit toxic fumes making it difficult to melt down for recycling. However, with advances in recycling technology, it has become an easier process, and more community recycle centers now accept this type of plastic.
  7. Other
    Why doesn’t this category have a specific name like the others? Well, mainly it’s because this plastic could be made out of a combination of any of the above plastics. These plastics may contain BPA, bisphenol A, which recently created a stir in the news as a chemical potentially linked to nervous system damage. Anything from CDs or DVDs to iPods or baby bottles could use this type of plastic. Also it’s nearly impossible to recycle. If you can, try to avoid using this type of plastic.

Honestly, I thought all plastics were recyclable. I had no idea that years ago PVC or Styrofoam were not, but it certainly explains why our landfills are full of those types of plastics. You really should try to recycle all of your plastics if you can. Not only do they melt or shred old plastics to make new plastics, some car companies use these recycled materials to make seatbelts, cloth for interiors, and even the cars themselves. Some clothing companies have also started to use plastics to make shoes and shirts.

Next to your trash bin, you should put a recycle bin area for your plastics. Not only are more plastics recyclable, most community recycle programs offer curbside pickup along with trash. In our city, we can throw all of our plastics, unsorted, in one bin with no hassle. Most recycle centers don’t require you to sort out plastics; they do the work for you.

Why not recycle more?

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