The Seven Types of Plastic (And What to Do With Them)

The first line of defense in fighting plastic pollution is of course producing and using less plastic.

 

However, there are already millions of tons of plastic in circulation, taking on nearly limitless forms. Since plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, we’re stuck with all this plastic piling up in our rivers and oceans and clogging our landfills unless we can find a way to recycle and re-use it.

 

But recycling plastic is trickier than most people think. There are 7 types of plastic, which each have different recycling requirements and applications.

 

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)

 

What is it?

This is one of the most commonly recycled plastics, often used to make clear bottles.

 

How can it be recycled?

PET plastic is one of the most commonly recycled plastics. It can be ground up into small flakes which can then be used to make new bottles or spun into a fiber that can be used to make a variety of textiles such as pillow fillings and synthetic fleece.

 

2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

 

What is it?

HDPE is a thicker, tougher plastic that is more durable and stable than PET. It is often used to make milk jugs, detergent bottles and medicine bottles.

 

How can it be recycled?

Similar to PET, HDPE can be ground up and it’s tougher structure makes it perfect to be used for heavy-duty applications such as making picnic tables, park benches, and other items that require durability and strength.

 

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

 

What is it?

It is a soft, flexible plastic that can be hardened as needed and is used in a variety of applications from plastic food wrap to plumbing pipes.

 

How can it be recycled?

It virtually can’t! PVC can leach a variety of toxic chemicals and requires extreme care if it’s reused at all. Because of this, only about 1% of PVC is recycled. This makes PVC a key plastic to replace with more sustainable materials.

 

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

 

What is it?

Most commonly found in plastic grocery bags and dry-cleaning bags, this thin, simple plastic is cheap to manufacture, making it one of the most common plastics in the world.

 

How can it be recycled?

Because of its thin, simple structure, LDPE is difficult to recycle using common recycling methods. It can clog processing machines and doesn’t have the durability that thicker plastics have that allow them to be reshaped for new applications. Thankfully, this is an easy plastic to replace in our everyday lives, such as swapping out those flimsy plastic grocery bags for reusable totes.

 

5. Polypropylene (PP)

 

What is it?

A tough, heat-resistant plastic that is often found in things such as hot soup containers and margarine tubs. It is strong but lightweight.

How can it be recycled?

Some curbside recycling programs can recycle PP, but it’s not common. Only about 3% of PP products are recycled in the United States. However, its durability does make it easy to reuse. So if you encounter PP products, instead of chucking them in the bin, think of creative ways to reuse them around your home (margarine tub? Hello, free Tupperware!)

 

6. Polystyrene (Styrofoam)

 

What is it?

A cheap, lightweight, moldable plastic that can be found in everything from takeout containers to hot drink cups.

 

How can it be recycled?

Polystyrene is rarely recycled. It is brittle and breaks apart easily and the cost to recycle it outweighs the cost to produce more. Polystyrene is one of the most disastrous plastics clogging our oceans as the tiny flakes of it continue to pile up. The best way to deal with polystyrene is to avoid using it altogether, opting for things such as reusable coffee cups instead of Styrofoam.

 

7. Other

 

What is it?

This is the catch-all plastic category, designating a plastic that doesn’t fit into any of the other 6 categories. A common plastic in this group is BPA.

 

How can it be recycled?

Since this group isn’t just one plastic, there isn’t one answer to its recycling and reuse capabilities. However, a common #7 plastic is BPA, which is a known endocrine disruptor that can leach into foods and liquids stored in BPA plastic containers. This group is also not safe for reuse, since these plastics only leach more chemicals as they age. It is best to avoid these altogether and choose more sustainable materials.

 

Understanding plastic is the first step to keeping it out of our oceans. The more we’re aware of what plastics we’re using and producing and their effect on our health and the planet, the faster we can start changing our habits and recycling efforts to help stop plastic waste and keep it out of our oceans for good.