April 29, 2009–Today’s Way: Let’s talk plastics.  With the growing prevalence of curbside recycling, I have heard a lot of folks expressing confusion about what is and what is not recyclable, especially among plastics.  And that’s Chasing Arrowspretty understandable due to the common misconceptions formed from the “chasing arrows” symbols stamped on the bottoms of bottles, jars and tubs.  Most people have come to identify or associate the chasing arrows with recycling, but not all plastics are recyclable, despite the chasing arrows stamp.  It is actually the number surrounded by the arrows which tells us the relevant information, and which we need to consider when making purchasing and recycling decisions:

  • (1)  Number One identifies Polyethylene Terephthalate plastic (PET or PETE), generally a hard, clear plastic used for water bottles and ketchup and salad dressings.  This is a highly recyclable plastic, but it should not be reused and foods should not be reheated in containers made from PET plastic, as it is suspected to leach chemicals such as Bisphenol A (BPA).
  • (2)  Number Two signifies plastics made from High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE), and is most commonly used for milk jugs but is also used for making grocery or garbage bags.  HDPE is among only a few plastics which do not leach chemicals into foods or beverages.  Another highly recyclable plastic.
  • (3)  Number Three designates PVC plastic, which is of course what PVC piping is made from, as well as shampoo and detergent bottles, due to its ability to stand up to chemicals.  PVC is rarely recycled, and most municipal recycling programs do not accept PVC.  PVC should be avoided wherever possible, due to its non-recyclability, as well as containing chemicals, such as lead, which can be leached out of the plastic as it degrades over time.
  • (4)  Number Four plastic is Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE), and is generally used for squeezable bottles and very commonly used to make sandwich and food bags, as well as grocery bags.  LDPE is recyclable and is generally accepted wherever HDPE and PET plastics are taken.
  • (5)  Number Five represents Polypropylene (PP), and is typically used for plastic caps, cosmetic jars and medicine bottles, as well as straws.  PP plastic is recyclable but not all recycling facilities accept it—though, it is becoming more widely accepted.
  • (6)  Number Six is Polystyrene (PS), also commonly known as Styrofoam, though this is actually a brand name for the expanded insulated product.  PS plastic can also be clear and brittle, and is most commonly used in the ubiquitous take-home food containers used by restaurants and food joints.  Only some municipalities accept PS plastic, so you’ll need to check with your local recycling authority.
  • (7)  Number Seven is the sort of miscellaneous and mysterious category of “Other”, often used for water cooler bottles, cd and dvd packaging, and for blister packaging of various products.  Number 7 plastics are NOT recyclable, and should be avoided if possible.

It’s also important to note that, despite their high recyclability, most plastics that we are recycling at our curbs is NOT being reused to make more containers; instead, most of these plastics are made into non-recyclable products such as woodless lumber, children’s playsets, fabrics and textiles, which are a good idea but they’re not contributing to the closing of the recycling loop.  Nearly all plastic containers are made from virgin materials.  It is up to us citizens to encourage plastics manufacturers to recycle plastics into containers and packaging that can used and recycled again and again before being made into end products which can no longer be recycled.  You can learn more from the Ecology Center website.