Monday, April 30, 2012

Plastic: A life cycle in numbers

In light of earth day, I'd like to offer some information on the life cycle of plastic. What it is and what recycle symbol is stamped on the bottom.  What it is usually found in on it's first cycle as virgin material and what it can be later on after it's been recycled.  I realize I'm a little late in the game but it's something you can take with you throughout the year!

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE)

Commonly used in soft drink, juice and water containers.

Picked up through most curbside recycling programs.

Recycled into: Polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, straps, (occasionally) new containers

PET plastic is the most common for single-use bottled beverages, because it is inexpensive, lightweight and easy to recycle. It poses low risk of leaching breakdown products. 

Recycling rates remain relatively low (around 20%), though the material is in high demand by remanufacturers.

High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

Commonly used in opaque plastic milk and water jugs.

Recycling: Picked up through most curbside recycling programs, although some allow only those containers with necks.

Recycled into: Laundry detergent bottles, oil bottles, pens, recycling containers, floor tile, drainage pipe, lumber, benches, doghouses, picnic tables, fencing

HDPE is a versatile plastic with many uses, especially for packaging. It carries low risk of leaching and is readily recyclable into many goods.

Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or V)

Commonly used for cling wrap.

Recycling: Rarely recycled; accepted by some plastic lumber makers.

Recycled into: Decks, paneling, mudflaps, roadway gutters, flooring, cables, speed bumps, mats

PVC is tough and weathers well, so it is commonly used for piping, siding and similar applications. PVC contains chlorine, so its manufacture can release highly dangerous dioxins. If you must cook with PVC, don't let the plastic touch food. Also never burn PVC, because it releases toxins.

Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Commonly used in grocery store bags and plastic wraps.

Recycling: LDPE is not often recycled through curbside programs, but some communities will accept it. Plastic shopping bags can be returned to many stores for recycling.

Recycled into: Trash can liners and cans, compost bins, shipping envelopes, paneling, lumber, landscaping ties, floor tile

LDPE is a flexible plastic with many applications. Historically it has not been accepted through most American curbside recycling programs, but more and more communities are starting to accept it.

Polypropylene (PP)

Commonly used in “cloudy” plastic containers such as baby bottles.

Recycling: Number 5 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs.

Recycled into: Signal lights, battery cables, brooms, brushes, auto battery cases, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bicycle racks, rakes, bins, pallets, trays

Polypropylene has a high melting point, and so is often chosen for containers that must accept hot liquid. It is gradually becoming more accepted by recyclers.

Polystyrene (PS)

Commonly used in disposable cups and Styrofoam.

Recycling: Number 6 plastics can be recycled through some curbside programs.

Recycled into: Insulation, light switch plates, egg cartons, vents, rulers, foam packing, carry-out containers

Polystyrene can be made into rigid or foam products -- in the latter case it is popularly known as the trademark Styrofoam. 

Evidence suggests polystyrene can leach potential toxins into foods. The material was long on environmentalists' hit lists for dispersing widely across the landscape, and for being notoriously difficult to recycle. Most places still don't accept it, though it is gradually gaining traction.


Usually polycarbonate. Commonly used in most plastic baby bottles, clear plastic sippy cups and water bottles.

Recycling: Number 7 plastics have traditionally not been recycled, though some curbside programs now take them.

Recycled into: Plastic lumber, custom-made products

A wide variety of plastic resins that don't fit into the previous categories are lumped into number 7. A few are even made from plants (polyactide) and are compostable. Polycarbonate is number 7, and is the hard plastic that has parents worried these days, after studies have shown it can leach potential hormone disruptors.

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