Recycling is something many people are aware of and try to contribute to, but how do you know you’re actually recycling the correct items? And how can you easily identify recyclable plastic?
Traditional plastic is marked with a number from 1-7 which identifies the type of plastic and this is usually on the base of the item. When an item is recyclable they will typically have the recycling symbol on the product as well. Numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 may be recyclable based on what the product is and whether or not the recycling symbol is present. Soft items such as bags and wrappings are typically not able to go into recycling as they can contaminate the whole pile and should be recycled separately.
What Is Recyclable Plastic?
Plastic is all around us in our everyday lives, from the cutlery or coffee cup you receive at a takeaway to the bag you take your trash out in or carry groceries to the car in. Unfortunately, many types of plastic are not recyclable, compostable or biodegradable and it’s important to understand which types you are using and any available alternatives.
Recycling is essentially the process of repurposing a plastic item into something new or reusable. This often includes melting the plastic down into something new. When done correctly, this can reduce contributions to landfill, conserve resources and protect our environment from greenhouse gas emissions and other manufacturing by-products.
Essentially, plastic containers such as takeaway containers, bottles and fruit punnets can be recycled. Rigid items such as hard plastic trays also can usually be recycled. However, softer plastics that are ‘scrunchable’ such as soft polystyrene trays or plastic bags or wrappers can’t be placed in your usual recycling.
It’s best to always check with your local council what they will take in your kerbside recycling bins. Softer plastics are sometimes collected by local groups or grocery stores as a separate recycling project.
What Do The Numbers On Plastic Mean?
Many products will have a number on the back or base of the product which indicates the type of plastic used to make the product. These will assist in understanding which products to avoid and which can be recycled and how. Many of your local recycling plants will have a list of product numbers that can be recycled. Plastics are classified in numbers from 1-7:
- PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – often found in soft drink or water bottles.
- HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – used for robust items such as toiletry bottles or cleaning supplies.
- PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – often used in industrial or medical fields such as water pipes or medical devices.
- LDPE (low-density polyethylene) – can handle more heat than HDPE so perfect for hot food or drink containers.
- PP (polypropylene) – used for many takeout containers or yoghurt packaging etc.
- Polystyrene – used for insulation or to keep things hot or cold.
- Other resins.
There are seven key types of traditional plastic, with the most popular being PET (polyethylene terephthalate) used for many plastic bottles and packaging. Some of these plastics are recyclable and some are not.
Recyclable plastic will also have the recycling symbol on them with the number to assist consumers. These markings help customers understand which products to avoid, which can be recycled and how. Many of your local recycling plants will have a list of product numbers that can be recycled.
You can also contact your local Council or waste management plant to find out which products they can recycle and what you should do to maximize the impact of your recycling.
What Plastics Are Recyclable?
Traditional plastic is everywhere, used in everyday products and unfortunately not all plastics are able to be recycled. The seven main types of plastics have various uses and manufacturing processes. Perhaps the most common is PET (polyethylene terephthalate) which is widely used for many plastic bottles and packaging.
PET is recyclable, however, other plastics are either recyclable – easily or with sophisticated processes – or not at all. This means they contribute to landfill.
Hard plastics are typically the ones that are easily recyclable – these may include takeaway containers, fruit punnets, hard plastic trays or bottles. Some other plastics which are common and recyclable include:
- HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – used for robust packaging such as milk bottles or those of cleaning supplies and shampoo. It’s also used for grocery bags but releases estrogenic chemicals.
- LDPE (low-density polyethylene) – used for film applications or coatings and food packaging. This plastic can also leach toxic chemicals if left unrecycled.
- PP (polypropylene) – used for packaging and plastic parts, textiles, special devices, yoghurt containers, medications and takeout meals. PP is recyclable and can be turned into fibres for materials such as clothing. Due to its high heat tolerance, PP doesn’t seem to leach many of the chemicals other plastics do.
Soft plastics can also be recycled in some cases, yet separately from the rigid plastics. These include:
- Food wrappers
- Plastic bags
- Other scrunchable packaging
These are often collected separately to your normal recycling as they can contaminate the recycling pile of rigid plastics. Organisations or stores will often collect these for you. It’s also important to understand that although recyclable, traditional plastic is still not great for the environment as they will not break down in a composter or landfill for decades to thousands of years. They must be recycled to be reused again.
How Do I Recycle Plastic?
Unfortunately, plastic is not that simple to dispose of and so recycling or upcycling are great options. With many different types of plastic that may or may not be recyclable, plastic also may or may not release toxic chemicals when exposed to extreme temperatures or landfill.
To contribute to recycling there are several things you can do:
- Understand what can and cannot be recycled
- Dispose of either at a collection point – for those in areas that take items such as soft drink bottles or in a recycling bin
- Reuse or upcycle at home.
When placing into your recycling bin or disposing of at a collection point, you should:
- Wash or clean the item
- Remove any lids or plastic rings (such as on soft drink bottles)
- Remove packaging or labels.
How Do I Upcycle Plastic?
Of course, you can recycle products marked as recyclable in your waste by placing them in the recycling bin, but how can you recycle at home? It is important to understand that you can reuse and you can also recycle.
- Creating new products at home from your plastics
- Starting craft projects to reuse your plastics
- Reusing your plastics for storage, carrying products or their original use (if safe).
You can recycle your bottles by turning them into new items such as bowls (cut into halves and decorated), storage or even small succulent pots. You can also use them as pet treat dispensers by removing the ring and lid.
By shifting the focus to recycling where we can, upcycling and reusing plastic items to reduce our environmental footprint, we are contributing to getting plastics out of landfill.
Read more about different ways to reuse recycle plastic bag in this article.
What Plastics Are Not Recyclable?
Unfortunately, not all plastics are recyclable and it’s important not to dispose of these with the rest of your recycling or you risk contaminating the whole pile. With traditional plastic, many products aren’t recyclable and contribute to landfill.
Products that are often mistaken as recyclable include:
- Coffee cups (often they have a thin layer of plastic film inside)
- Coffee lids
- Dirty or food filled plastics
- Plastic lids and neck rings (must be separated from the bottle for recycling).
If you’re interested in recycling, it’s best to take the time to understand your plastics and where you can drop or dispose of your recyclable plastics. Each city or town will have their own recycling plant and you may even be able to pop recyclables into a separate bin for kerbside collection. You can also look for ways to upcycle at home OR find alternatives to traditional plastic such as biodegradable. Compostable or even reusable items made from metal, fabric or glass.
With traditional plastic all around us, it’s important to consider when and how you can recycle or upcycle your plastic items to reduce your environmental footprint. Plastics are marked with the number one-through-seven to identify the type of plastic. Plastic items will also have the recycling symbol present if they are recyclable.
It’s important to understand that rigid plastics such as soft drink bottles or trays can’t be recycled with soft plastics that are ‘scrunchable’ such as food wrapping. They will contaminate the pile. Rigid plastics can often go to kerbside collections or direct to a recycling plant, however, soft plastics will be collected separately by organisations or grocery stores.
Often, products marked with numbers 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 can be recycled if they are a rigid plastic and contain the recycling symbol. When recycling, you should also rinse the item, remove the label and any other additional pieces like rings or lids.
Although recyclable, the products will eventually go into landfill which will contribute to pollution and leave behind toxic chemicals after the decades-to-thousands of years it will take to decompose. You should consider where you can upcycle at home or switch to reusable, biodegradable or compostable alternatives.