This post was written by REDO volunteer Rhiannon Gardner as a social media post series for Earth Week, and has been adapted to a blog post.
Happy Earth Week!
In observance of Earth Week, we’re diving in to look at plastics 1 – 7!
Many of us are often confused by what kind of plastic is okay to recycle and what is not, and the numbers on the bottom just throw us off even more! There used to be a time when we could just throw most plastic in a blue bin and be done with it. Not anymore. Certain types of plastic are no longer allowed in Utah’s curbside recycle bins, and accepted items usually vary by region.
Plastic is an important resource! But, due to the sheer amount that is produced, it isn’t being disposed of responsibly and it’s creating big problems for animals.
That’s why we’ve posted a breakdown for each number so that you can feel more confident when recycling plastic. We hope this series elevates your consciousness towards everyday items that surround you and how important it is to become a part of a circular economy where we can reduce, reuse and recycle materials that we already have!
First, let’s talk about plastic number 1.
Polyethylene terephthalate, PETE, or PET is the most common type of plastic. It is easy to recycle and it is what most water bottles, soda bottles, and plastic to-go containers are made of. Utah accepts bottles made from plastic number 1! It is recycled into more plastic bottles and polyester fibers that make up a lot of clothing (Bloch 2009).
Health tip: This plastic is relatively harmless. However, when prolonged exposure to heat occurs, it can release some types of carcinogens into whatever liquids are in the bottle. Keep your plastic beverage bottles out of sunlight, especially on a hot day!
So what’s the deal with plastic number 2?
HDPE or high-density polyethylene is the second most common type of plastic. This makes up milk jugs, detergents, hair care products, and motor oil. HDPE is denser than PETE which makes it more durable, but it is still just as recyclable. Utah accepts jugs made from number 2 plastic!
HDPE is recycled into more non-food bottles, plastic lumber, recycling bins, flower edging, and flowerpots (Centre n.d.)
How about plastic number 3?
PVC or polyvinyl chloride is what we use for plumbing pipe. It is also used for fencing, paneling, inflatable mattresses, and toys for kids (Flory 2017). PVC must undergo a very different process than PETE or HDPE to be recycled. It is hard to recycle because it requires chemical enhancement (mainly chlorine which makes up 50% of its weight) (Centre n.d.). Utah does not accept this type of plastic in curb-side recycling bins. Check with your county to see where it can be taken.
In places that do recycled number 3 plastic, it is turned into traffic cones, mud flaps, mobile home skirting, packaging film and sheets, garden hoses, gutters, fencing, backing for carpets, and much more (Centre n.d.).
Health Tip: In addition to chlorine, PVC also contains other chemicals that may interfere with hormones (Flory 2017). Check the labels on toys and be conscious of how much you use this plastic.
Plastic number 4, LDPE or low-density polyethylene is mostly used for flimsy plastic packaging and plastic grocery bags. It is used for any plastic baggage like sandwich bags, films around boxes, saran wrap, bread bags, frozen food bags, etc (Centre n.d.). LDPE is hard to recycle because it may be attached to other kinds of plastic as a wrapper or exterior label. This makes it difficult to separate completely to be recycled. Utah does not accept number 4 plastic in regular, curb-side recycling bins. Check with your local grocery store to see if they have drop-off bins to recycle plastic bags and plastic wrap!
LDPE is recycled into more plastic film, shipping envelopes, garbage can liners, compost bins and trash cans, outdoor lumber, floor tiles, and paneling (Centre n.d.).
What is the deal with plastic number 5?
PP or polypropylene is a hard plastic that is used for luggage, medicine bottles, water bottle caps, yogurt cups, and microwave-safe food containers (Flory 2017)(Centre n.d.). It is hard to recycle because of the process it takes to sort, break down, and turn into other products. Utah does not accept number 5 plastic in regular, curb-side recycling bins. Check with your county to see where it can be taken.
PP is recycled into fibers, bicycle racks, oil funnels, battery cases, light cases on vehicles, brooms, garden rakes, and many other items (Centre n.d.).
Health Tip: While these types of plastics say they are microwavable, it is still better to microwave your food in microwave-safe ceramics or glass.
What about plastic number 6?
PS or polystyrene is most commonly known as Styrofoam. It is used as cups, take-out boxes, packing peanuts, foam food trays (used to hold meat at grocery stores), medical insulated boxes, and in life vests (Centre n.d.). Polystyrene is expanded with vapors to create a lightweight material that has great insulation. PS is hard to recycle because it is so lightweight that it takes a lot of material to be able to create anything out of it. While it is convenient, it also does not break down. Utah does not accept number 6 plastic in regular, curb-side recycling bins. Marko Foam provides recycling for foam packaging in Utah, but will not accept items that have been in contact with food.
While it is very inconvenient to recycle, there are some places that still do it. PS can be recycled into eggshell cartons, plastic moldings, protective packaging, light switch plates, thermal insulation, desk trays, and license plate frames (Centre n.d.).
Health Tip: In general, it is not safe to burn plastic. This type of plastic is particularly harmful because it releases many toxic chemicals into the air (Flory 2017).
To conclude our plastics series, let’s discuss plastic number 7.
Plastic number 7 is labeled as “Other” because it is a mix of hard plastics and leftover plastic. Some common examples of this are Culligan 5-gallon water jugs that are used in offices, baby bottles, CDs and DVDs (the cases as well as the item itself), computer parts, workout equipment, and is also found in fiberglass. It is best to avoid number 7 when you can because most recycling companies do not accept it.
Utah does not accept this type of plastic in regular, curb-side recycling bins. Check with your county’s website to see if there are any special drop-off locations.
It can be recycled into bottles and some plastic lumber (Centre n.d.).
Bloch, Michael. 2009. Recycling plastics – what the numbers mean + cheat sheet. August 1. Accessed April 2020. https://www.greenlivingtips.com/articles/recycling-by-the-numbers.html.
Centre, Plastic Action. n.d. Plastic By the Numbers. Accessed April 20202. https://plasticactioncentre.ca/directory/plastic-by-the-numbers/.
Flory, Bree. 2017. The 7 Types of Plastic and What it Means to Your Health. May 30. Accessed April 2020. https://www.nontoxicrevolution.org/blog/7-types-of-plastic.
Secrest, Rose. n.d. Expanded Polystyrene Foam (EPF). Accessed April 2020. http://www.madehow.com/Volume-1/Expanded-Polystyrene-Foam-EPF.html.