How to Properly Recycle Plastic

Written by Michele Wheat

Plastic is everywhere. Water bottles, grocery bags, and student ID cards are just some of the things made from plastic. Most plastics are made from byproducts of petrochemicals. Plastics are a significant source of litter and cause a lot of pollution. By creating a never-ending wave of plastic, we waste needed resources and pollute the environment. It's important to recycle and reuse as much plastic as possible.

The Plastic Recycling Process

Plastic recycling is a months-long process with many steps. The first is collecting recyclable plastic and then sorting it. Plastics come in a wide range of thicknesses, colors, sizes, and intended uses. Machines sort plastics by type because not all plastics are recyclable. Washing the plastic and removing all labels prepares it for shredding. Shredding makes plastic repurposing possible. After testing the shreds to ensure their chemical composition, they get sorted according to the results. Next, the shreds get compounded into pellets. Extrusion is another name for this process. Reconfiguring these pellets creates new plastic products.

Types of Plastic

Plastics comprise a wide variety of consumer and industrial goods. However, the plastic used to make a television differs from the plastic used to make a grocery bag. Plastic manufacturing companies use a wide range of processes and chemical compounds to create different types of plastic. The seven most commonly used plastics include acrylic or polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), Polycarbonate (PC), Polyethylene (PE), Polypropylene (PP), Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET), Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and Acrylonitrile-Butadiene-Styrene (ABS).

Sorting Your Plastic for Recycling

Very few types of plastic are biodegradable. Keeping plastic from sitting in landfills forever requires recycling or reuse. Not all kinds of plastic can be recycled, however. Look for items that have a recycling symbol embedded in the plastic. There are seven different types of commonly used plastics. Inside the recycling symbol, you can find a number that tells the consumer what plastic they have. Plastic #1 is Polyethylene terephthalate (PETE or PET). It's colorless and often used for juice or water bottles. Almost all recycling centers accept this type. Plastic #2 is High-density polyethylene (HDPE). It's an opaque plastic often used to make milk jugs. It's also widely accepted at recycling centers. Plastic #3 is Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), commonly used to make plumbing pipes, air mattresses, and food storage containers. Recycling centers do not accept PVC. Plastic #4 is low-density polyethylene (LDPE), the plastic used to make bread wrappers and shopping bags. Some grocery stores now collect these for recycling. Plastic #5 is Polypropylene (PP), used to make yogurt packaging and microwave-safe food storage containers. Most recycling programs accept it. Plastic #6 is polystyrene, better known as styrofoam. Consumers must take styrofoam to dedicated recycling centers. Plastic #7 represents plastic mixtures used to make electronics. It's not recyclable and is toxic when heat is applied.

Where to Recycle Different Plastics

You may place generally accepted plastics in curbside pickup containers. Plastic bags and plastic film have to get collected at specific drop-off points. Many grocery stores now offer this option. Styrofoam also is only accepted at certain recycling centers.

Finding Ways to Reuse Non-Recyclable Plastic

Upcycling offers a chance to reuse non-recyclable plastic. Plastic bags can be tough to recycle but easily upcycled. For example, plastic bags can be cut into strips and braided together to make a jump rope or a wristband. Plastic bags can be weaved into change purses and even sleeping mats for the homeless.