Recycle By Numbers - What Do the Numbers in the Triangles Mean?
It seems that most things are made of plastic or has plastic parts – cars, toys, packaging, flooring, clothing or those pesky water bottles. The recycling symbol on the back of plastic packaging is something we have all seen, the triangle shape made out of three arrows chasing each other with a number called the resin ID code (RIC). This code gives us information about the plastic such as chemicals used to produce it, safety of the plastic and how biodegradable it is – but don't let this recycle logo fool you! Just because a plastic item has the recycle symbol does not mean it is, or it even can be, recycled due to the inefficiency and resources it takes re-purpose. Even plastics that are easily recyclable, like RIC 1, 2 and 5, roughly only 30% are indeed recycled due to the cost and effort it would take to recycle them. About 1 in 5 water bottles are recycled each year. Some of the plastics that are not recycled are causing global environmental pollution damage such as littering the land, clogging the waterways, choking marine life and ending up on beaches all over the world. This is why here at COXISTENCE SOAPS, we package our soaps in 100% post consumer recycled and biodegradable cardboard to minimize the carbon footprint that we leave on the planet.
RIC's 1 through 6 are plastics of known common chemicals. RIC 7 is a catch-all to include plastics that do not fit into RIC 1 to 6, like nylon, fiberglass, acrylic or polycarbonate. This classification system was devised to be used to our advantage, to increase recycling and to reduce health hazards and it is used globally for identification purposes. There are other RIC's but this blog applies to plastics. Let's talk about each one...
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
PET is used in the consumer industry for many daily household essentials. They are the easiest to recycle, lightweight, single-use and the most inexpensive to re-purpose.
This is one of the most commonly used plastics in consumer goods industry and they are intended for single-use only. They sometimes absorb flavors and odors from foods or drinks that were contained in them. Repeated use of these plastics can cause leaching (contamination) or bacterial growth. PET is a difficult plastic to decontaminate. Contamination occurs when a recycled item was not rinsed clean or was tossed in the recycle bin dirty. A greasy pizza cardboard box cannot be recycled. Contamination! If only the bottom is greasy, the box can be ripped in half and the top half can be recycled and the bottom with the greasy bottom goes into the trash. Same thing goes for disposable coffee cups, the cup is trash, the cardboard sleeve is recyclable and the plastic top can be recycled. If the entire cup (all parts) goes into the recycling container, it has contaminated the rest in that batch of waste.
Each community in every city and town may have different recycle programs which they operate may change from time to time. Now that China is not accepting our recycled waste any longer, we must find new ways to recycle. China was the world’s main importer of recycled waste but has changed contamination rate standards to 0.5% or less. The U.S. levels, with current contamination rates, could sometimes run the 25% or more causing many things to end up in landfills or even possibly the ocean! Only about 25% of PET plastics are recycled each year and that's up from about 20% last year. This type of plastic can be repurposed into new water bottles, making furniture or polar fleece and recently companies are beginning to incorporate recycled plastic into their products like sneakers!
High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE is considered to be one of the three safest plastic types because they are not known to leach any chemicals into the items container. It can withstand extreme temperatures and is very hard wearing. Items made from HDPE include waste bins, laundry detergent and shampoo bottles. These containers are not meant to be reused again. They are readily recyclable and can be repurposed back into themselves again. About 30 to 35% is plastic type is recycled yearly.
Polyvinyl Chloride (V or PVC)
This plastic type is mostly used for Construction and Industrial uses like plumbing or vinyl siding. This is a very hazardous type of plastic - there are reports health issues due to the phthalates that it contains. PVC should never be melted or used as utensils to cook with. PVC can be repurposed into plastic speed bumps, flooring, mud flaps or outdoor furniture. Only a small percentage actually are recycled due to the time, effort and cost so therefore not many facilities accept it.
Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
LDPE is flexible and durable but it's not often accepted at curbside. Some local communities or stores will have a program for items such a shopping bags, dry cleaning or bread bags. LDPE does not leach into food containers. Not much is recycled but it can be repurposed into flooring tiles, shipping envelopes, brushes, rooms or rakes.
Almost as widely accepted as PET or HDPE, PP is very strong and can withstand extreme temperatures. TV dinner containers are made with PP so you don't have to worry about it melting in the microwave. It's one of the safer types of plastic. Some examples are bottle caps, yogurt or takeout containers. Unfortunately, not much of this plastic is recycled but communities are starting to recognize PP as a recyclable plastic also. Check with your local waste management provider.
Polystyrene (PS) aka Styrofoam
PS can be recycled but not efficiently, so very few places accept it. Packing peanuts, foam cups and some food trays are made of Styrofoam as it's very lightweight. However it's very bulky so there would need to be enormous amounts to accumulate before recycling can even occur. Not much can be made from it except for insulation however it can be reused though.
Anything that doesn't fall each into each of the previous 6 RIC's descriptions fall into this other/ miscellaneous category. Items that fall into this category we don't really think of plastic, but indeed they are. Nylon, polycarbonate, acrylic and fiberglass fall into this category. Due to the vast differences of plastics items in this classification, recycling may or may not exist. Some may even include the toxin BPA (bisphenol A) which has serious health risks. Some of these items maybe even repurposed into outdoor decks or park benches.
There are other products that have a number in a triangle, like an 8 in the recycle symbol for floor wet pads. That is not the plastic category, in which the article was written for. Check out the other recycle symbols for other materials here! So much can be recycled! ♻
Now that we know what the numbers are for in the symbol, it’s time to educate others on recycling! Knowing what the numbers and plastic types mean is great but it’s knowing what contamination does to the other plastics is more important. If someone throws a used coffee cup, a greasy pizza box, oily salad container or dirty yogurt cups in the recycle bin, you now know that they should go in the trash instead.
Do you have any recycling tips that we can share? Let us know!