Recycling Realities: the skinny on plastics

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Everyone has seen the ubiquitous recycling symbol on the bottom of a plastic bottle or container. These chasing arrows have become synonymous with the ability to recycle the item on which they appear but this is actually not the case. The chasing arrows symbol contains a number from one to seven that denotes the resin used to make the product not the ability to recycle it. Plastics are by far the most confusing and challenging of the materials that we receive. The use of different resins in the manufacturing process makes recycling more difficult for some plastics than others. The following is a breakdown of each number that denotes the resin used to make the plastics courtesy of the American Chemistry Council.

  • Number 1 plastic is Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) this plastic is used in manufacturing water and soda bottles. PET is accepted in almost all recycling programs and has no known health issues. PET bottles when recycled are increasingly used to make water and soda bottles again something we like to see because it is closed loop recycling. PET is also are used in the manufacture of polyester fabrics, carpet and fiberfill for sleeping bags and jackets.
  • Number 2 plastic is High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) this is the plastic used in milk jugs, colored bottles and plastic grocery bags. This material is widely recycled and has no known health issues. When recycled HDPE is most often used to make new containers, lawn furniture, plastic lumber, flower pots, pipe and toys.
  • Number 3 plastic is Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or V) this plastic is used in cling wrap, vinyl pipe, squeeze bottles, shower curtains, carpet backing and door frames. PVC is not easily recycled as markets for its remanufacture are hard to come by. It is considered to be the most toxic plastic as it leaches phthalates, carcinogens and dioxins which are linked to reproductive problems, diabetes and cancer. As a result this is not a good packaging choice for food products. This plastic is best avoided due to the health risks and difficulty in recycling.
  • Number 4 Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) this plastic is used in shrink wrap, dry cleaning bags, garbage bags, toys, and some bottles. It has no known health issues but these plastics when not recycled properly degrade very slowly and present a burden to the environment for centuries. When recycled LDPE is used to make shipping envelopes, garbage can liners, floor tile, paneling and plastic lumber.
  • Number 5 Polypropylene (PP) this plastic is used to make yogurt and cottage cheese containers, lids and some bottles. PP has no known health issues. There is an increasing demand for this plastic for remanufacturing and it is being made into brooms, ice scrapers, textiles, carpet, laboratory and medical equipment.
  • Number 6 Polystyrene (PS) can be difficult to recycle. It can be rigid or foamed. Sedona Recycles is able to take PS that is used as protective packaging and for containers like ice chests and fruit boxes. We have a machine that breaks up the material and removes the majority of the air and forms the material into compacted logs. The polystyrene used in take out containers and cups is more difficult to recycle and requires a different process than the one we use on the packing material. Sytrene can leach from polystyrene and carries many health risks and has been reported to have harmful effects on red-blood cells, the liver, kidneys and stomach. Styrene can be absorbed by food and once ingested can be stored in body fat making this a material you want to avoid when used to package food or drink products. PS when recycled is used in the manufacturing of picture frames, CD cases and crown molding.
  • Number 7 Mixed (other) this is a mix of multiple resins used in one product and is very problematic. It renders a bottle or container that could otherwise be easily recycled into something that has limited markets and end use. An example and the one we are seeing most often are one-gallon juice and ice tea containers. We highly recommend that you look at the bottom of the bottle and avoid buying anything packaged in number 7. The health effects of this plastic vary depending on the resins used but they often include polycarbonates which leach bisphenol A (BPA) a known endocrine disrupter which has been linked to certain types of cancer. Number 7 plastics are used in the manufacturing of bottles and plastic lumber.

In the end we recommend eliminating or limiting the use of products that carry the resin code Number 3, 6 or 7. These materials are difficult if not impossible to recycle and carry known health risks. If we want manufacturers to use safer alternatives in their packaging we need to let them know by changing our purchasing habits. These changes will prompt the manufacturers of these plastics to use more environmentally friendly resins in their packaging that can be easily recycled into new products and we will all benefit as a result.

by Jill McCutcheon, Sedona Recycles

Sedona Red Rock News

September 20, 2017