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Solving the Plastic Code

Have you ever looked at the bottom of your old plastic containers and wondered what the number surrounded by the circle of arrows could possibly mean? The Resin Identification Coding System was developed in 1988 to classify plastics into different recycling categories. Read on to learn not only what these numbers signify, but also what product the container you are tossing into the recycle bin could eventually become.

#1 Polyethylene terephtalate (PET or PETE)

This familiar type of plastic is created most commonly for soft drink and water bottles, beer bottles, mouthwash bottles, peanut butter and salad dressing containers, and oven-ready food trays. Cleaned and recycled PET flakes and pellets are used for spinning fiber for carpet yarns and producing fiberfill and geo-textiles. Polyester is its common name. PET bottles are intended for single use, as PET breaks down with use and cannot be properly cleaned. The concern with PET products is not toxins, but the buildup of bacteria due to infrequent or insufficient cleaning.

#2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE)

This type of plastic is more durable than PET, and used for milk, water, and juice containers, trash and retail bags, liquid detergent bottles, yogurt and margarine tubs, and also cereal box liners. In its recycled form, HDPE is used to make liquid laundry detergent containers, drainage pipe, oil bottles, recycling bins, benches, pens, doghouses, floor tile, picnic tables, lumber, mailbox posts, and fencing.

#3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Commonly known as PVC, this type of plastic can be found in shampoo bottles, medical tubing, wire and cable insulation, siding, windows, and pipes. Due to its stable physical properties, this type of plastic is often used in the construction market. PVC is rarely recycled, however, it can be used to create packaging, binders, decking, paneling, roadway gutters, mud flaps, flooring, cables, speed bumps, and mats.

#4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)

Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) or linear-low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) is the most commonly produced plastic in the world. This plastic is used predominately in film applications due to its toughness, flexibility and relative transparency, making it popular for use in applications where heat sealing is necessary. It can be found in your home in the form of bread bags, frozen food bags, squeezable bottles (e.g. honey, mustard), tote bags, bottles, clothing, furniture, and carpet. When recycled, it is transformed into shipping envelopes, garbage can liners, floor tile, furniture, compost bins, paneling, trash cans, and lumber.

#5: Polypropylene (PP)

Polypropylene has excellent chemical resistance, is strong, and has the lowest density of the plastics used in packaging. It has a high melting point, making it ideal for hot fill liquids. Commonly it is used to create ketchup bottles, yogurt containers and margarine tubs, medicine bottles, straws, and caps. By recycling these items, auto battery cases, brooms and brushes, oil funnels, landscape borders, bicycle racks, bins, pallets, sheeting, and rakes can be created.

#6: Polystyrene (PS) or Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)

Polystyrene is another very popular type of plastic that is most often called by another name, Styrofoam. This particular plastic can be rigid or foamed. Around the home, you will find Styrofoam in compact disc jackets, food service products, grocery store meat trays, egg cartons, aspirin bottles, and disposable cups & plates. Although rarely accepted for large scale recycling, it can be converted into thermal insulation, egg cartons, vents, desk trays, rulers, license plate frames, foam packaging, and carryout containers.

#7: Other/Everything Else

This catch-all category of plastics is either an uncommon type of plastic, or a combination of the plastics listed above that do not fit into another category. Due to their complex and diverse nature, these types of plastics are usually not accepted by local recycling programs. Some items that may contain them are three and five gallon reusable water bottles, some citrus juice and ketchup bottles, bullet-proof materials, DVDs, sunglasses, and iPod and computer cases. Since the range is so broad, these items could potentially be made into custom plastic products or plastic lumber.

Plastics have helped to revolutionize the way in which we live. Without them the world today would function completely differently. Plastic has made lives easier and more efficient in many ways. However, the indestructible nature of plastic has made it an environmental concern. Everyone can help by knowing their plastic recycling options, and working with their local recycling company to reduce plastic waste in landfills.