Plastic - What the Numbers Mean, How many times they are recycled, And what they are recycled into.


When we throw plastics into our recycling bin we are under the impression that it is going to be recycled and recreated into new items over and over again. This is a false belief that has been ingrained in us to believe that recycling will keep our waste out of landfills or from being dumped into our Oceans. 

Plastic recycling in Edmonton

Photo from CBC Edmonton

Plastics can only be recycled between one and 10 times depending on the plastic. In most cases the plastic can only be recycled once due to the quality of the plastic decreasing every time it is recycled. 

So let's talk about the numbers on our plastics; What they mean;  How many times they can be recycled, how many times they actually get recycled, and What they are recycled into.

 

Plastic recycling numbers and what they mean

#1.  Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

#1 Plastic Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) what it is recycled into

Polyethylene Terephthalate also known as PET or PETE, is used for single use hard food containers, food containers for peanut butter, or some cooking oils, and drink containers for water and pops. These plastics are considered safe for single use, though can absorb odors and grow bacteria if exposed to high heat and/or used over and over again. PET is considered highly recyclable, being the most common plastic to be picked up in curbside pickup programs or bottle depots around the world. It's purpose is to be used for more single use items.

Once recycled and sorted, the plastic is shred into smaller pieces, and then cleaned to remove any excess debris such as labels, dust and any other contaminants. It is then either turned into small pellets/ to be used for future products or spun into polyester fiber. When deciding where the PET will be recycled is determined by color and containments in the recycled batch. If it remains clear a small percentage is used with new PET to make new bottles and food containers. If it still has labels, colors, or any other contaminants it is recycled into the other items as those factors do not matter as much, 

 Recycled PET is most commonly turned into;

  • Polyester fabrics. This is becoming more and more common in fashion, tote bags, and home décor.

  • Fiber for carpets

  • Bottles and other food containers. These are also single use containers. 

  • Plastic Film and sheeting

  • Strapping

When recycled into food containers there is a chance for this plastic to head back to the recycling process. When made into textiles it is very unlikely it will become recycled as there is no Global main stream textile recycling for fabric at this point. There are some small groups working on this, though it may take years for textile recycling to become main stream. Most textiles end up in a landfill at the end of their lives, thus also ending the life of that plastic from the recycling system. It is very much the same for plastic film and sheeting, carpets and strapping. There is no main stream recycling for these items either so it ends up in a landfill. 

To avoid using PET plastic, consider bringing your own reusable water bottles, containers to buy food in bulk, or stay in to eat instead of take out and bring your own container for leftovers.

#2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

#2 Plastic, High-density polyethylene (HDPE). what it is recycled into and how many times it can be recycled

High Density Polyethylene abbreviated to HDPE is a harder plastic and not as transparent as PET. HDPE is most commonly made into containers and bottles for laundry detergents, cleaning products, beauty products, motor oils, yogurt containers, Tupperware, some plastic grocery bags and milk jugs. It is one of the safest plastics and can be safely exposed to freezing and heat (up to 120 degrees before leaching). 

HDPE is highly recyclable as it can be recycled 10 times according to the tests put on by ESE World B.V. Just like PET once recycled it is sorted, shredded and melted into pellets for further manufacturing. Considered non bio degradable, it is important that we continue to recycle this plastic to its maximum. With this being a harder plastic it has a longer lifespan for products which will help keep them out of landfills for a longer period of time if made into items that are not single use. 

Recycled HDPE is most commonly turned into

  • Picnic tables and Park benches

  • Toys

  • Bottles and containers

  • Plastic lumber and Fencing

  • Rope

  • Waste Bins

  • Pens

  • Flower pots and garden edging

  • Flooring Tiles

  • Plumbing pipes

When recycled into bottles and containers it will be mixed in with new HDPE and continue in the mainstream recycling programs. If the toy, or garden pots had a recycle sign on it and is fully plastic it can also be recycled in with mainstream recycling. If there is no recycling sign it should not be put in the recycling bin. For any of the building materials they will be used for many, many years. When it is time to reno or for a demolition the plastics commonly end up in Landfills, though if the number is clearly marked the contractor or home owner can bring the materials to a facility in their area that accepts it. 

Ways to reduce HDPE is buying your cleaners and detergents in bulk, buying milks in glass jugs, or making your own plant based milks at home. 

#3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

#3 Plastic, Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), what it is made into before and after recycled and how many times it can be recycled

Polyvinyl Chloride, abbreviated as PVC, is frequently used for vinyl, pipes and cling wrap. It is not as stiff as PET and HDPE. PVC is the primary base plastic in a variety of piping, paneling, decking, fencing, and textiles such as faux leathers used in shoes, upholstery, and more. This plastic will last up to 30 to 50 years. PVC is not considered a food safe plastic and should be avoided for food use. Due to the high chlorine content in raw PVC, as well as high levels of other hazardous additives added into the making process to achieve a desired material quality, the recycling process requires a separation process from the PVC. This process usually allows for PVC to only be recycled one time, and even then this plastic is very seldom recycled. 

Recycled PVC is most commonly turned into;

  • Piping

  • Garden Hoses

  • Decking

  • Fencing

  • Gutters

  • Carpet Backing

  • Traffic Cones

  • Mud Flaps

These items can be reused over and over and will last a long time. Once their lifespan is up it will head to the Landfill.

#4 Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

#4 Plastic, Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) and what it is used to make and what it is recycled into

 Low Density Polyethylene abbreviated to LDPE has a low density making it a soft plastic. Soft plastics are the easiest form of plastics to produce. This makes it very desirable for producing bread bags, grocery bags, squeeze bottles, packaging foam, cling wrap, sandwich bags, frozen food packaging. It is common to use as single use plastics, which many of these items end up in our Oceans or Landfills. 

LDPE is not accepted in all recycling facilities as the bags can create problems in the sorting machines, and can only be recycled once due to the low quality. When it is recycled it turns into;

  • Garbage Bags/Trash Can Liners

  • Shipping Envelopes

  • Carpet Treatments

  • Bubble Wrap

  • Furniture

  • Floor Tiles/ Paneling

  • Plastic Lumber

  • Similar Single use items

Ways to reduce LDPE include bringing your own reusable tote bags, and reusable bread bags when shopping, Use reusable wax wraps or bowl covers, reuse squeeze bottles and refill when necessary, Use reusable sandwich bags, or food containers. 

#5 Polypropylene (PP)

#5 Plastic, Polypropylene (PP). What this plastic makes, what it is recycled into, and how many times can it be recycled

 Polypropylene abbreviated to PP is a hard lightweight Plastic that can withstand high temperatures. It is most commonly used to make bottle caps, Cereal Box Liners, Disposable Diapers, Kitchenware, disposable cutlery, dishes, cups, straws, chip bags, juice and milk carton lining, margarine containers, pails, Tape, medicine bottles, Car parts, and Thermal Vests. 

PP is slowly becoming more common to recycle in curbside programs around the world. And if it is not available to recycle curbside in your area there are options for mail in or drop off programs. This plastic is very commonly thrown away instead of recycled. When recycled PP is mixed with 50% new PP to create recycled items.

Recycled PP is most commonly turned into;

  • Pallets

  • Ice Scrapers

  • Rakes

  • Battery Cables

  • Bike Racks

  • Oil Funnels

  • Landscaping Border Stripping

  • Storage Bins

  • Brooms and Other Brushes

PP can be recycled up to 4 times according to AZoCleantech, a trade publication for the clean technology industry. Once recycled into some of these items they will no longer be recycled and head to a landfill. Once in Landfill it takes 20-30 years to break down to microplastics. 

Ways to reduce PP in your everyday life includes, Bringing your own straw and  cutlery, using reusable water bottles, buying snacks and cereals in bulk, microwaving in a glass container, using reusable diapers for babies, using wooden, metal or silicone kitchenware, and using wools for thermal layers. 

#6 Polystyrene (PS)

#6 Plastic, Polystyrene (PS), Styrofoam and What it is recycled into

Polystyrene abbreviated to PS, is also known as Styrofoam. This plastic is lightweight, and inexpensive to create, allowing this plastic to be found everywhere. It is most commonly used to make Disposable beverage cups, take out food containers, Insolation, Egg Cartons, Packing peanuts, DVD and CD packaging, and other Styrofoam packaging. 

Styrofoam is not commonly recycled in all curbside recycling programs Globally, so much of it ends up directly to landfills or dispersed along our Ocean Beaches. This is one of the most challenging plastics to recycle as it is formed from a liquid hydrocarbon that can't be broken down by standard recycling methods. It is also made up from a high percentage of air causing the plastic to be very lightweight with low quality, making it easy to break apart. This plastic also release harmful chemicals into food and our environment, especially when exposed to heat. When it is recycled it is compressed to be transported to a facility where it will be recycled.

Recycled Styrofoam is most commonly turned into;

  • Egg Cartons

  • Thermal Insulation 

  • School supplies

  • License Plate Framing

  • Plastic Moldings

  • Protective Packaging

  • Underlay Sheeting

  • Light Switch Plates

  • Camera Casings

Styrofoam is commonly only recycled once before ending up in our Landfills or Oceans. 

Ways to reduce Styrofoam include, using water soluble plant based packaging peanuts, bringing your own take out food containers, using your own reusable coffee mug, buying eggs in a carboard egg carton, and streaming music or movies online. 

#7 Other Plastics 

#7 Plastic, what it makes and what it is recycled into

 Other plastics are also known as Polycarbonates, abbreviated as PC. These plastics are the most difficult to recycle. This is a category for all other plastics  formed that are not under other numbers, so there is no standardizing system for recycling these plastics. Items you will find made with PC include, Laptop screens, CD's/DVD's, shatter proof windows, baby bottles, sippy cups, reusable water bottles, Toothbrushes, Toothpaste tubes, Nylon, Sunglasses, Water Cooler Bottles, Coolers, and car parts.

PC plastics can contain toxic chemical bisphenol A or BPA(most common), so it is important to make sure if you are buying reusable plastic items that they say BPA free. When these plastics are recycled one of the methods used is chemical processing. 

Other PC Plastics such as PLA (polylactic acid) are considered Biodegradable because they use corn starches and sugar cane to create the plastics. These plastics are not biodegradable, but degradable. Meaning they have to be in a special environment to break down. It can be confusing when trying to decide how to recycle or reuse #7 plastics, so not all facilities around the world take number 7 plastics, leaving many of them to go straight to a landfill. They are lucky to be recycled once before heading straight to a landfill. 

Recycled PC plastics turn into;

  • Plastic Lumbers

  • Bottles

  • Car Parts

 Now that we know the numbers, what they are used for and what they are recycled into, it is a lot more clear that most items are only recycled once before entering our Landfills or Oceans.

All these years we have been under the impression that plastics can be recycled over and over again. But that ideology stops here, right now.  Being recycled only once for majority of plastics is not a circular recycling system. It is a very broken recycling system that is causing an abundance of plastic pollution. This is why having items that can be safely reused over and over, while also being able to break down and go back to our Earth is so important. 

 

 

 

 Resources

sources: https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/bottle-recycling-1.5416614 

https://plasticactioncentre.ca/directory/plastic-by-the-numbers/

https://calgary.com/home-component-recycling-guide.php

https://www.generalkinematics.com/blog/different-types-plastics-recycled/

https://www.azocleantech.com/article.aspx?ArticleID=240

https://www.ese.com/en/ese-world/ese-news/news-details/article/hdpe-multiple-recycling-proven-in-an-experiment/

 


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