How to Recycle

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Image courtesy of Indiana University Office of Sustainability

To recycle or not to recycle, that is the question. Actually, that shouldn’t be the question, the question should be how do I recycle this, because in all actuality, there’s not much stuff that really needs to go to a landfill, it can be reclaimed in one way or another.

But when it comes to plastics, it can get a little tricky, actually it can be really complicated, but if you educate yourself and take the right steps, it shouldn’t be too difficult. Generally, most plastics have a tri-arrow triangle with a number one through seven within it, this is the resin number, this delineates the type of plastic that it’s made of, and when you know the plastic, you’ll know how to dispose of it.

Plastic #1 is polyethylene terephthalate (PETE), which is a plastic resin and a form of polyester and is commonly used to package cosmetics, household cleaners, water, juice, soft drinks, salad dressings, oil, and peanut butter. So a lot of common stuff that’s intended for only one time use, which is why it should be used with caution but is readily accepted by curbside recycling programs.

Plastic #2 is high density polyethylene (HDPE) which is made of petroleum. This plastic is hard, opaque and can withstand moderately high temperatures. Commonly used in the manufacture of toys and the packaging of laundry detergent, milk jugs, and folding chairs and tables and can be picked up by curbside recycling.

Plastic #3 is Polyvinyl Chloride, which is more commonly known as PVC. It can be a rigid plastic or a softer more flexible plastic. PVC is found in shower curtains, cling wrap, waterbeds, pool toys, inflatable structures, and clothing. But it is a very toxic plastic that should be avoided when possible. This plastic is rarely recycled, but sometimes accepted by plastic lumber makers.

Plastic #4 is low density polyethylene (LDPE) made from petroleum. It’s translucent or opaque and flexible and tough, but breakable. Used to make juice and milk cartons (the water-proof inner and outer layer), plastic grocery bags, and packaging material. There are no currently known health concerns. It’s important to note that plastic bags and similar items should not be put in curb side recycling because they can clog up and shut down a recycling line. Other items are rarely recycled.

Plastic #5 is polypropylene (PP), it’s a thermoplastic polymer and is strong, tough, has a high head resistance, and acts as a barrier to moisture. It’s used to make yogurt and margarine tubs, plastic cups, kitchenware and microwavable plastic containers. While these are microwavable and dishwasher safe materials, that simply means they won’t warp from heat, chemicals could still potentially leach out of the plastics into whatever they are in contact with. This plastic is becoming more and more accepted by curbside recycling programs.

Plastic #6 is polystyrene (PS), another petroleum based plastic, it’s either hard or used in the form of Styrofoam. It’s widely used with packaging materials and insulations, common items include disposable cutlery, CD and DVD cases, egg cartons, foam cups and foam to-go boxes. Curbside recycling programs do not accept it, but it is possible to recycle through other means.

Plastic #7 represents “other” plastics, but the most common #7 plastic is polycarbonate (PC) which can be found in electrical wiring, CD/DVD cases, baby bottles and multi-gallon reusable jugs. Often times these plastics contain BPA which is an endocrine disruptor that can cause tumors, birth defects of other developmental disorders. Traditionally it hasn’t been recycled.

A good rule of thumb is “When is doubt, keep it out” due to the fact that putting the wrong items in recycling can contaminate the recycling stream and lead to a recycling batch being ruined. Another good guideline for curbside recycling is bottle, glasses, and jugs are safe and accepted, but you should always double check and determine what is accepted. The key is educating yourself so you’re able to make informed decisions when it comes to recycling, yet another step in doing your part to help the environment.

Written by Max Pivonka, ESLLC 2015-2016


Barrett, Mike. “The Numbers on Plastic Bottles: What Do Plastic Recycling Symbols Mean?”     NationofChange. 6 Feb. 2013. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.<http://www.nationofchange.org/numbers-plastic-bottles-what-do-plastic-recycling-symbols-mean-1360168347&gt;.

“Safe Plastic Numbers (Guide).” Safe Plastic Numbers Guide. 6 June 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.   <http://www.babygreenthumb.com/p-122-safe-plastic-numbers-guide.aspx&gt;.

“Select an Area.” What Can I Recycle. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.<http://www.wm.com/thinkgreen/what-can-i-recycle.jsp&gt;.

“What Plastic Recycling Codes Mean.” Good Housekeeping. 25 Nov. 2008. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.                   <http://www.goodhousekeeping.com/home/g804/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321/?slide=7&gt;.

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