Recycling has been around forever it seems and it is the one planet friendly activity that most all of us complete on a regular basis. With scheduled pickups in most areas, or large drop off locations in others, even people who don’t consider themselves Green have the chance to make a positive environmental impact on the Earth by keeping petroleum based products out of landfills.
Paper, corrugated cardboard, glass and metal have become standard items to recycle in most areas but the plastics that have made their way into our homes or businesses are all stamped with that little triangle and it can become slightly confusing as to just what the numbers inside that triangle mean. Hopefully this cheat sheet guide to some of the most popular plastics numbers will help everyone determine just what is, and what isn’t, accepted by most larger recycling stations.
The numbers system was introduced in 1988 (hard to believe but it was twenty two years ago!) so consumers would be better able to sort through the plastic products they had and determine just which were acceptable to recycle in their area. The numbers signify the type of resin used, and the grade of plastic, and most towns, counties, states, countries, etc. have a list posted as to which they take.
Here in the city of Boston everything but number 6 is accepted in our big recycling cans. And we put in even the teeniest bit of plastic if it is accepted because after all, the more recycled the better!
So what does each number stand for? Well I’m glad you asked!
Number 1 – Known in most circles as PET, Polyethylene Terephthalate, is the most widely accepted plastic type. It is the plastic that is used to create soda or water bottles and when broken down it is most commonly turned into more bottles.
Number 2 – This one is also commonly recycled in most areas. HDPE (high density polyethylene) is what that bottle of fabric softener or hydrogen peroxide is made from. Again, it is primarily turned back into bottles when broken down.
Number 3 – Here’s where things start to get tricky. Do your children have toys made from hard plastic? Was your plumbing replaced in the last five years? If so then you probably have some polyvinyl chloride (or PVC) in your home. This type is very tough to recycle and potentially hazardous to the health of all living things*. Because it doesn’t ever completely break down, it is the number one type of plastic floating around in the Pacific Garbage Patch.
Number 4 – Unlike its tougher cousin, 2, LDPE (low density polyethylene) is used to create things like grocery store bags. It may not always be stamped with a symbol so check with your local recycling centers to see if, and how, this can be recycled.
Number 5 – Simply referred to as PP (polypropylene), this is the type of plastic used to create fibers that need durability to withstand tough conditions. Think sailing rope, a shower surround or outdoor furniture. Again, this is tough to recycle so ask around!
Number 6 – Ah yes, the dreaded number 6. PS, or polystyrene, in its most basic nickname as dubbed by Dow, is what we all know as Styrofoam. It is used to protect items during shipping because it can be heat molded to just about any shape. Coffee cups, electronic’s packaging, peanuts, the teeny little balls in a bean bag chair — all made from PS. The stuff is a bear to recycle and with its lightweight properties it has the propensity to float aimlessly anywhere (try chasing those peanuts if your ceiling fan is going!). It is highly flammable, made from petroleum, and known to be hazardous to humans yet it is still found everywhere (hello, under that chicken you just bought). The bad news is that most places do not take this type at all and therefore it is consistently sent to landfills. It will break down eventually but the process for this type takes centuries (and that is if it doesn’t float off into the waterways first, and we all know what happens then). So what can we do? Well this website has some fantastic tips for how to reuse it if it makes its way into your home or office but the best solution of course is to try to avoid the stuff whenever possible!
The mantra – reduce, reuse, recycle – is great but refuse could also be added to the mix, especially when discussing plastics. At this time of year especially, with gift giving and shipping of presents all over the globe, it is important to keep in mind the impact that plastics not only have on the planet but all the living things on it. By lessening our consumption or recycling all that we can we will have a positive impact. And that’s the best holiday gift of all!
*Click for more information on PVC and its environmental impact.
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