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By now, hopefully, we recognize that recycling isn’t necessarily the solution to all our waste problems. While recycling may use less energy than making something new and certainly uses fewer resources, the process is still energy-intensive and requires tons of transportation and factories (and all the Pollution that accompanies that).

In short, we need to— first and foremost, regardless of any plant-based plastics or compostable party plates— reduce the amount of trash we create. No matter how pretty the marketing makes it seem, garbage is garbage, and the world has just about had enough of that.

Nevertheless, the move from where we are and where we might aspire to be is one fraught with transition and less-than-perfect actions. In particular, we still have a lot of plastic stuff, and most of us rely on that stuff daily. So, as we vigorously work to reduce that amount, it’s also important that we work to understand how to best deal with what is.

All of this is to say that, though recycling isn’t the solution to our global ills, it is a better option than not recycling. With that in mind, the plastic we buy often has clever numbers that can help in that effort. We just have to understand what those numbers mean and how that applies to the plastic we buy, recycle, and trash.

Source: Business Insider/Youtube

The Number System

The number system on plastics, digits 1-7 in a little recycling triangle, is something manufacturers voluntarily do so that shoppers can easily determine what kind of plastic they are buying. The numbers one through six denote the most common plastics in regular use, and the number seven is representative of all other plastics, recyclable or not.

These numbers don’t differentiate between hard and soft plastics, with virtually every number having products in both the hard and soft varieties. In essence, as consumers, we simply need to know that hard plastics of a certain sort can go in the recycling bin and soft plastics require special drop-off points, often in front of supermarkets.

Source: The Brain Feed/Youtube

What the Numbers Mean

  • #1 – PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) is the most common plastic, used for things like plastic water bottles, clothing, shampoo bottles, food bottles, jars, rope, and carpets. It is recycled to make textiles, pillow stuffing, and auto parts.
  • #2 – HDPE (High-density polyethylene) has rigid and soft flexible forms that make it good for packaging, bottles, jars, toys, outdoor furniture, grocery bags, and bread bags. Recycled HDPE makes piping, outdoor furniture, buckets, flowerpots, and trashcans.
  • #3 – PVC (Polyvinyl chloride) is cheap to make but difficult to dispose of because it is carcinogenic when burned. It is normally used for vinyl flooring, gutters, plumbing, window frames, and appliances, as well as shower curtains, raincoats, cling film, and fire-resistant textiles. Recycling it is more for industrial programs, to make vinyl flooring and PVC pipe.
  • #4 – LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) becomes packaging, from squeezable bottles and container lids to grocery bags, cling film, sandwich bags, and frozen food bags. It is recycled to make floor tiles, postal bags, outdoor furniture, and decking boards.
  • #5 – PP (Polypropylene) has a higher melting point than other plastics. Rigid forms make yogurt/butter containers, syrup bottles, straws, reusable food containers, and disposable plates/cups. Soft forms are cereal box liners, diapers, rope, banknotes, and thermal underwear. Recycled, it likely becomes a container again.
  • #6 – PS (Polystyrene), or “Styrofoam”, is found in coffee cups, takeaway containers, coolers, and building insulation. Styrofoam is infamously difficult to recycle, but when it is, it is used to make packing peanuts and office objects, like desk trays and rulers.
  • #7 – Other (as in any other form of plastic) encompasses a wide range, including recyclable, non-recyclable, biodegradable, and mixed. Within this group, we find Lego, keyboards, eyewear, CDs, and 3-D printing. These plastics are difficult to recycle and require individual research and specialists.

Source: Reactions/Youtube

Recycling by Numbers

Technically, all the plastics from one through six can be recycled, and in fact, many of those labeled seven can be as well. However, some plastics are easier to recycle (i.e. they go right in the curbside bin) than others, which require seeking out specialized facilities.

  • When it comes to curbside recycling bins, rigid plastics with #1, #2, #4, and #5 are the acceptable ones.
  • Plastics #3 and #6 can be recycled but must go to very specific places that can do so.
  • With #7 plastics, each item requires research to determine whether or not it can be recycled in a dedicated factory or is simply garbage.

In other words, given the option of choosing between different numbers, we make our lives easier to go with the numbers that slot readily in the curbside bin. The other plastics require work that the average person just doesn’t have the time or inclination to tackle. So, we have to plan accordingly, each in our own way but hopefully each with a mind to make a difference.

At least, knowing the lowdown about numbers on plastic can provide a little help.

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