Knowledge is power, so while wrapping your head around a long list of different plastics might not be the most exciting thing you'll do today, it's worthy of your time. Part of winning the war on waste means knowing what each of the little numbers inside the recycling symbol represent, because then you know what can be recycled and where. Have fun!
1- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or some call it PETE)
The chemical name for polyester. It’s a strong, lightweight plastic. Like glass, it doesn’t easily react with the material it contains and won’t biologically degrade. Unlike glass, it won’t shatter and is easy to transport.
Widely used for: Water bottles, liquid soap bottles, food packaging containers, clothing, and the list goes on and on!
2- High-density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Part of the polyethylene family. Super strong and resistant to impact as well as moisture and chemicals, so it’s like a plastic superhero.
Widely used for: Food applications, mainly as milk containers, shampoo bottles and cosmetics packaging. In building materials, such as pipes. And even snowboards!
3- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC or Vinyl)
Hard and rigid plastic, while also lightweight. Super resistant to chemicals. It keeps sterile and is easily disinfected. Naturally white and very brittle, so manufacturers normally add plasticizers to improve its strength.
Widely used for: Kid’s toys, bottles containing strong cleaning chemicals, building features, medical devices and shower curtains!
4- Low-density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Same family as HDPE but this one’s low density. It’s softer, clearer and more flexible. This is where the humble ‘plastic bag’ comes into frame! Also used for making cling wrap, bread bags and bubble wrap.
Definitely one of the hardest types of plastic to recycle. For decades we’ve been using this super strong, resistant, non-biodegradable material for a plastic bag – for which average usage time is 12 minutes. Mind blowing.
5- Polypropylene (PP)
Considered one of the most durable resins. Resistant to heat, so it’s used for hot food containers. It retains its shape and strength for a long time. Ideal for forever use, not single-use!
Seems super ridiculous that such an optimal forever use material is widely used to produce short lived items like bottle caps and plastic straws.
The PP list also includes disposable nappies, which are typically only used for 2.5 hours and last more than two lifetimes in landfill.
6- Polystyrene (PS or Styrofoam)
This type of plastic is better known as Styrofoam. Basically, expanded polystyrene, and it’s typically 95% air! Super light and very expensive to transport, so it has incredibly low recyclability. No one’s interested!
You’ll commonly find it in takeout containers, meat trays and product packaging.
7- Other (PLA, PC, other plastics)
Yup, there’s actually an ‘other’ category of plastics. This group includes plastics that don’t fit any of the six categories above and are not typically recyclable, due to them being a combination of different plastic types that melt at different temperature rates. However, it’s always good to confirm with your local recycling programs, just in case.
Widely used for: Clear plastic cutlery, Bio Plastics (PolyLactic Acid famous PLA), lighters, eyeglasses, baby bottles.
Can't get enough info about plastic?
We got what you need. Check out this blog by our resident biochemist to find out the difference between recycling, upcycling, downcycling and closed loop.