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PlaygroundEquipment Blog
Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Seven Types of Plastic and What to Do with Them

Photo by: Lisa Risager (flickr)
Pollution is bad. Recycling is good. These are statements that most people would agree with by now. But recycling isn’t always that simple, especially when it comes to plastic. It seems like plastic is in just about everything we use these days, in one form or another. But what makes the plastic in a phone different than the plastic in a shopping bag? If they seem like entirely different materials, it’s because in many ways they are. Plastics can be mixed with different additives which change their properties. This allows them to fill a range of different purposes, but also affects how they should be used and disposed of. Some plastics cannot be recycled normally, and some can even be toxic if used improperly. It is often impossible to tell what is in a piece of plastic just by looking at it.

Luckily, the ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) has devised a quick way to tell different types of plastic apart. Plastic products which can be recycled will typically have the universal recycling symbol somewhere on them. But what many people don’t notice is the small number in the middle of the three arrows. This number, ranging from 1 to 7, is called the RIC (Resin Identification Code). It tells you what group the plastic belongs to, what chemicals have been added to it, and what should be done with it. This guide should help illuminate the important differences between the seven categories of plastic.

1 – PET or PETE (Polyethylene Terephthalate)

PET is one of the most common types of plastic, and one of the easiest to recycle. It is usually thin and transparent, which makes it good for liquid containers like plastic bottles. Well-meaning individuals may also want to reuse these products, but this should be avoided with food and drink containers. PET plastic is notorious for not only releasing carcinogens as it breaks down, but also for being easily contaminated by bacteria. Fortunately, it is highly sought after by recyclers, who shred it into fibers which can be woven into all kinds of synthetic fabric products like clothing, bags, and furniture.

Common uses: water and soda bottles, food packages, polyester fibers

Recycling: Accepted in almost any recycling bin or curbside recycling

2 – HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene)

HDPE is a much heavier grade of plastic than PET. While it is also sometimes used in food and drink containers, its strength and molecular stability allow it to be used in other products as well. It is one of the few types of plastic which does not break down and release toxic chemicals when exposed to water or extreme temperatures, which is why it is used for many sturdy outdoor structures like picnic tables and playgrounds. This also means it great for food containers, since it can be safely reused and microwaved. It should be recycled whenever possible, as it can easily be remade into a variety of new things.

Common uses: playground equipment, milk jugs, tupperware, detergent and cleaning product containers, plastic lumber, trash cans

Recycling: Accepted in almost any recycling bin or curbside recycling

3 – PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)

Polyvinyl Chloride (which is sometimes simply referred to as vinyl, and abbreviated as ‘V’) is perhaps the most environmentally damaging type of plastic, and poses the biggest health risks if used improperly. It is full of harmful chemicals which are released as toxic fumes when it is burned, and can contaminate any food that they come in contact with. However, some companies do still use them in food packaging. Even its manufacturing process is known for releasing a large quantity of toxic byproducts. PVC products are not accepted by most recycling services. Those who are especially dedicated to the environment may be able to find a nearby industrial location to accept them, like a plastic lumber company. However, an easier way to help is to simply avoid them whenever possible.

Common uses: containers for many household products, electrical wire coating, siding, window frames, pipes

Recycling: Rarely accepted by any recycling services

4 – LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene)

Low-Density Polyethylene is much cheaper, lighter, and more flexible than the high-density version. It is usually made into thin plastic sheets, like in grocery bags, although it can also be made into thicker products. All four types of plastic listed so far are commonly used in the bottles of various liquid household products (which is why the RIC number is so useful in telling them apart), but LDPE is mostly used in squeezable bottles, due to its flexibility. It is relatively toxin-free, and safe to use and reuse for food storage. Until recently LDPE was not considered recyclable, but as environmental concerns become increasingly urgent, more and more recycling centers have adapted ways to process it. Consider contacting your local recycling service to see if they accept it.

Common uses: sandwich bags, grocery bags, dry cleaning bags, squeeze bottles, carpeting

Recycling: Accepted by some, but not all, recycling services.

5 – PP (Polypropylene)

Polypropylene is a durable lightweight plastic which is prized for its impermeability to moisture and liquids. Its sturdiness and high melting point mean that it won’t release dangerous chemicals, even when heated. Like LDPE, it is just beginning to be used by recycling centers, and may or may not be accepted depending on your location.

Common uses: yogurt containers, condiment bottles, drinking straws, packing tape, diapers, plastic buckets and bottle caps

Recycling: Accepted by some, but not all, recycling services.

6 – PS (Polystyrene)

Polystyrene is most recognizable as styrofoam, but can also be molded into a more rigid plastic used in things like CD cases. Styrofoam is particularly troublesome for the environment because it does not hold in toxins well, and has a very high volume for its density. Despite being a common container for leftover or takeout food, it should never be microwaved or reheated. It is possible to recycle, but most places won’t bother with it since gathering and transporting it often wastes more resources than can be reclaimed from it anyway. However, the number of centers that will take it is steadily increasing.

Common uses: disposable cups and plates, packing peanuts, to-go boxes, meat trays, egg cartons, CD cases, pill bottles

Recycling: Occasionally accepted by specialty recycling centers

7 – Other

Yes, this one is kind of a cop-out. This category includes any plastic whose composition doesn’t fall into one of the other six categories, and even includes items which are a blend of one or more of them. ‘Other’ plastics are difficult to speak generally about, since it is such a broad category. They are usually good to avoid, since they may or may not release toxins and may or may not be recyclable. However, this category does also include newer types of plastic, including some which are plant-based and biodegradable. Determining which of these products to put in your recycling bin must be done on a case by case basis.

Common uses: nylon, sunglasses, CDs, cases for electronic devices, car parts, water coolers, bullet-proof materials

Recycling: Some products may be accepted, but usually not

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Learn about the author: Parker Jones

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