How many types of plastic are there? Believe it or not, there are actually seven different kinds of plastics, each with its own attributes, benefits, downsides, and disposal methods. That’s right! Not all plastic can be recycled.
But don't worry, today we are going to go through all the different types of plastic and by the end of this article, not only will you have a better understanding of the types of plastics and their symbols, but we will also look at a more sustainable food packaging option!
What are plastics?
Plastic is a material made from polymers (a chain of hydrocarbon molecules). The chains can vary in many ways to produce different kinds of plastics during the manufacturing process.
What’s the problem with plastic?
Why does plastic suck? We need to discuss the facts about plastic to really understand the answer to this question.
Plastic is made from fossil fuels, a known contributor to climate change! Once it enters the landfill waste stream (as opposed to being recycled) it will sit in a landfill for sometimes up to 600 years, leaching out toxic chemicals in the process. Alternatively, plastic waste might end up in our oceans where it breaks down into microplastic which bioaccumulates up the marine food chain.
While some plastic can be recycled, America’s recycling infrastructure simply has not kept pace with today’s waste stream. So even though some of the plastic we will talk about today bears the familiar “recycling triangle”, it actually can’t be recycled. Those who read my blog often know how much this bothers me, this is even why I tried to go plastic free for a whole month.
To sum it up, plastic is toxic to the earth and our health. And what does non-toxic mean? According to Merriam-Webster, non-toxic is defined as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation”. Yikes. When you think about this definition it becomes really scary considering plastic is so prevalent in our everyday lives (did you know there is even plastic hiding in tea bags? It’s true!).
This is why knowing what types of plastics can be recycled is so important!
The 7 types of plastics and their symbols
So, let's dive into recyclable plastic numbers! What do these numbers all mean and what types of recyclable plastic are even out there?
1. #1 Polyethylene Terephthalate Plastic Type (PET or PETE or Polyester)
What is PET?
PET is known as a wrinkle-free fiber. One issue (of many) I have with PET is that when a liquid has been left in PET plastic for a long time, there is a risk that the plastic might leach toxic chemicals into your food or drinks! Warmer temperatures can expedite this process!
Where can I find PET?
PET is most often found in food and drink packaging because it has the ability to create an airtight seal and prevent food from spoiling. It also helps the carbon dioxide in fizzy drinks from escaping. With this in mind, some of the most common examples of where you might find PET include plastic pop bottles, salad dressing bottles, jam jars, in polyester clothing, and rope.
Can PET be recycled?
PET can be recycled through most curbside recycling programs and repurposed to make textiles, shoes, sleeping bags, and more! In fact, PET is actually the most recycled plastic out there and can be recycled hundreds of times.
2. #2 High-Density Polyethylene Plastic Type (HDPE)
What is HDPE?
HDPE has a long polymer chain making it a sturdy and strong plastic. HDPE is also much more stable than PET plastic and there is a lower risk of chemicals leaching with HDPE. However, this isn’t to say that there is no risk at all. Some studies have shown that HDPE can leach estrogen-mimicking additive chemicals that could disrupt the body's natural hormonal system.
Where can I find HDPE?
HPDE is a VERY common kind of plastic because it can be subjected to temperatures of up to 120 °C. You can find it used in grocery bags, medicine bottles, shampoo and conditioner bottles, and laundry soap bottles.
Can HDPE be recycled?
HDPE is accepted by most recycling centers. Repurposed HDPE lends itself well to the construction industry and can be used to make park benches, fencing, or crates.
3. #3 Polyvinyl Chloride Plastic Type (PVC)
What is PVC?
PVC is the second most common plastic out there! This is because it can come in a rigid form or a flexible form, making it very versatile. PVC is also unique because it's considered a thermoplastic made from 57% chlorine and 43% carbon.
In terms of toxicity, PVC doesn’t rank very well. PVC has been shown to leach a plethora of toxic chemicals at the end of its lifecycle like bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, lead, dioxins, mercury, and cadmium - some of which have been linked to cancer.
Where can I find PVC?
PVC plastic is usually found in cling wrap, detergent bottles, medical IV tubing and bags, oxygen masks, toys, and door/window pipes. The frustration I am feeling knowing that a type of plastic linked to cancer is also found in medical tubing… I digress.
Can PVC be recycled?
PVC is usually not accepted by most recycling programs.
4. #4 Low-Density Polyethylene Plastic Type (LDPE)
What is LDPE?
LDPE is the most common type of plastic out there! This is because Polyethylene is very cheap and easy to manufacture. LDPE also has a unique less dense and less crystalline structure compared to other kinds of plastic making it very flexible. Like HDPE, LDPE has also been linked to having negative effects on the body’s natural hormonal system.
Where can I find LDPE?
LDPE is everywhere: garbage bags, six-pack rings, grocery bags, plastic coating on boxes, food containers, cable covering… I could go on.
Can LDPE be recycled?
LDPE is nearly impossible to recycle. Some special collection options are available to recycle LDPE but they are far and few between.
5. #5 Polypropylene Plastic Type (PP)
What is PP?
PP plastic is also quite popular because it's very stiff and heat resistant. PP also is very bendable and doesn’t wear with time. This is why PP is often used on living hinges (the seal cap attached to your plastic bottle).
Where can I find PP?
PP is a very common type of plastic found in food containers. But it can also be found in car parts, DVD boxes, thermal vests, car parts, sanitary pads, and diapers.
Can PP be recycled?
PP is not recyclable.
6. #6 Polystyrene Plastic Type (PS)
What is PS?
PS is just another term used to describe a type of plastic we all know too well… styrofoam. PS is highly flammable and has the potential to leach styrene (a toxin that affects your nervous system) when exposed to oily food. Well, good thing we don't use styrofoam to hold oily takeout food! I hope you catch my sarcasm here.
Where can I find PS?
You can find PS as cups, bowls, egg cartons, and food containers.
Can PS be recycled?
PS has a very low recycling rate since it is not accepted in curbside collection recycling programs. This drives me bonkers because PS is not biodegradable. Plus, PS is known to float on top of the water surface so animals might mistake it for food and swallow it.
7. #7 Other kinds of plastic
What are other kinds of plastic?
There are some other kinds of plastics out there that don't fall into any of the categories above. Polycarbonate (PC) is an example of this, but Tristan plastic is actually another. I just wrote an article that you should check out where I explain, is Tritan plastic safe? The answer might surprise you. FYI, if you're also wondering, “does BPA-free mean safe?” I would also recommend reading this one!
Another example is Bioplastic! Bioplastics are “plastic” that is made from renewable sources like agricultural waste (like canola, soybean, corn, and potatoes). For an item to be considered bioplastic, it must be able to naturally degrade back to biomass. And is bioplastic better than plastic? Yup and keep reading to find out why.
Where can I find other kinds of plastic?
Thinking about bioplastic, you'll most often find it as a substitute for food packaging. Think Coca-Cola bottles or SunChip bags! But you can also find bioplastic in the medical field; doctors are now using bioplastic as eco-friendly sutures (stitches). How cool!
Can other kinds of plastic be recycled?
Most other kinds of plastic can’t be recycled. But this is why I like bioplastic so much better. It doesn’t need to be recycled! If not mixed with any additional chemicals, true bioplastics can be composted in industrial composting facilities. Real plastic could NEVER!
A final word on types of plastics!
So, is all plastic the same? Nope! The fact is, only about half of the plastic we create can be recycled. There are actually even more types of plastics out there but these seven are the ones we come across the most in North America. And each kind is slightly different from the other.
The crystalline structure of plastic polymers can have a huge effect on the strength and flexibility of different plastics. Some plastics have also been mixed with different chemicals along the way, making them low-grade and harder to recycle.
Finally, some can be recycled and some cannot. Another component that makes recycling plastic even more challenging is food contamination. When plastic is cracked or coated in food residue, it can be properly recycled at a facility and might end up in a water stream at the end of the day.
With this in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised if the amount we really recycle was even lower than 50%. For types of plastic that cannot be recycled. I would recommend checking out programs like Terracycle - they do good work!
The "safest" plastics are # 1, #2, and #4, best to avoid #3, #6, and #7 where you can! And always check with your local recycling facility to make sure the plastic you are throwing can in fact be accepted. For more tips on how to reduce plastic in the home, make sure to check out these resources:
- What to do with old plastic Tupperware
- How to freeze meat without plastic
- How to create a plastic-fridge
- How to create a plastic-free cleaning kit
- Stop food waste with these plastic-free storage containers
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