AskPablo: About Plastic Recycling

50px-U%2B2673_DejaVu_Sans.svg.pngThis week I got the following question from Barb:

My community as well as all other surrounding cities here in Ohio only accept plastic with a #1 or #2 to recycle. Why can’t the other numbers be recycled? Is there any effort among businesses to use the most oft recycled plastics (i.e. only use #1-4) or an effort in the “green” community to encourage the use of a select type of plastic so that eventually it’s economically feasible for recycling centers to recycle all plastic containers?


The sad truth is that the vast majority of plastics are not recycled, they are “down-cycled” at best. Rather than using returned soda bottles to make new soda bottles, “down-cycling” refers to their use in making lower-grade plastic products such as park benches, milk crates, and plastic speed bumps. The reason for this is that there are thousands of types of plastic and a huge selection of additives that contaminate the quality of the recycled plastic. Additionally, contaminants such as food residue and non-plastic materials further degrade the quality.
Among the most common and most recyclable plastics are PET (#1) and HDPE (#2), which is probably why Barb’s community accepts them. The remaining recycling numbers (Resin Identification Codes) are either less common, more difficult to recycle, or not really recyclable. Let’s have a look at the different types of plastic:

#1 – Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Made into soda bottles and polyester fibers.

#2 – High density polyethylene (HDPE)

Made into milk bottles, grocery bags, and bins.

#3 – Polyvinyl chloride (PVC)

Made into pipes, carpet backing, vinyl siding, and those annoying blister packs that everything comes packaged in these days. Target and others have announced that they are fazing out the use of PVC because of its toxicity in production, use, and disposal. Making PVC releases dioxins, furans, and other persistent organic pollutants. In house fires the toxic smoke from PVC and other plastics is more likely to kill than the fire itself.

#4 – Low density polyethylene (LDPE)

Made into dispensing containers like shampoo bottles and shopping bags.

#5 – Polypropylene (PP)

Made into fibers and molded plastic parts. Patagonia currently accepts their old Capelene undergarments for recycling into new garments but recycling of synthetic clothing is not yet widespread.

#6 – Polystyrene (PS)

Used in clear cups, insulating materials, and in expanded polystyrene, also known as Styrofoam. Due to the low weight to volume ratio it is more economical to make Styrofoam from virgin petroleum than to transport it to a recycling facility.
#7 – Other
Includes acrylic, PLA, polycarbonate, nylon, fiberglass, and others. This category is a catch-all for anything that doesn’t meet the first six categories. While most recyclable plastics are known as thermoplastics, meaning that they can be melted down, this category contains many thermosets which cannot be melted down once they have been cured.
It is important to remember that “recycle” is the third of the 3 R’s for a reason. Your biggest impact comes from first “Reducing” by avoiding excessive packaging and consumption of disposable products, by “Reusing” by using packaging (such as water bottles and food containers) more than once, and lastly by “Recycling” what you haven’t been able to reduce and reuse. Also keep in mind that a working recycling system depends not only on a supply of plastic waste but also on a demand for recycled plastics. So make sure that you look for products and packaging for recycled plastic content.
Thanks for your question, Barb! Keep them coming!

Pablo Päster

Sustainability Engineer
www.AskPablo.org
Additional Resources:
http://www.coopamerica.org/pubs/caq/articles/Fall2007/recyclingFAQ.cfm#biodegradable
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resin_identification_code
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plastic_recycling
http://www.valcorerecycling.org/affair/archives/2002-08-04.htm
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/2008-01/high-tech-trash/recycling-text.html

47 responses

  1. Pablo,
    Thanks for the useful info about plastics recycling. I would add something that you missed. That is that transportation costs are very high and work against plastics recycling.
    By nature, plastics do not weigh very much yet they take up a lot of space. They also tend to have a low to negative per ton vslue. The low weight to volume ratio, along with the cost of transport has a lot to do with why recycling is uneconomic in many locales.
    The best option for homeowners and businesses is to limit their use of single-use disposable plastics, and if they do use them, to choose ones that can be recycled in the local community.
    Just one more reason that reducing and reusing are higher waste management priorities than recycling. Too bad both involve individual effort, or they would be more popular and we would be more sustainable.

  2. Hi Pablo- May I ask a quick question when you say that the “vast amounts of plastics aren’t recycled.”
    Do you mean given the overall amount of plastic made for all uses #1 to #7 (comm’l, food, other) only a small percentage of that is made-for-recycling in mostly #1 and #2 small-mouthed bottles collected at curbside. Or, are you saying that the plastic that is collected for recycling isn’t recycled? I’m just curious, it changes my take on the article a lot.
    I support your notion 100% that just plain reducing your plastic is best, and with some small changes I have. Though, I do recyled quite a botu still. Thanks, LAurel

  3. Laurel,
    What I mean is that many plastics are not suited for recycling because of the additives that alter their properties and degrade their quality for use in new products. Rather than implying that these other plastics are simply discarded in a landfill I am seeking to alter the language used from “recycling” to “downcycling.” This is because each cycle through the recycling system requires the addition of virgin materials to maintain the quality of the material or it simply gets used in low-grade applications, like plastic lumber and speed bumps. I hope this answers your question.
    Pablo

  4. Hi!,
    Need to understand if the product contains high percentage og HDPE(>80% ) ,can the product be considered as recyclabe as code 2 ?

  5. I have a question about the fire retardents that are incorporated in to plastic casings for TV’s and Monitors. I am a recycler in California and am curious as to what happens after these plastics are seperated from the TV and or monitor, baled and sent to a recycler. I seperate them according to color, “grey” ABS black (which is a lower grade that makes up the old TVs of the 60’s and acrylic ( apple computer plastics)
    How does the fire retardent hamper the recycling process and or limit its reuses.

  6. Can you explain what recyclers look for when they burn a small (inch piece) of plastic to find out what its value is?
    I have seen asian recyclers come in burn a small piece, look at t he smoke and literally smell the smoke as if wafting a fine wine. What are they doing?
    What is a good book that can educate me more on the recycling of plastic from TV’s (CRT) and monitor casings?
    Thank you for your help

  7. I have several questions regarding the Recyclability of LDPE vs. Poly Woven and the rates that a Company may be willing to pay for these materials.
    Can you tell me the average price that a Recyling Company would pay for used LDPE plastic bags per ton? Would a Recycling Company avoid taking in Poly Woven? If not, what would they pay for that and does it take more energy to manufacture Poly Woven bags?

  8. Hi Pablo
    I am planning to start a recycling plant in South Africa, could you refer me or point me to companies that have the necessary skills and technology for this kind of operation. My interest is mostly all types of plastic

  9. Hi Pablo.
    What is the current market value per pound or kilo, for recycled PET
    I’m looking into starting a plastic recycling company (mainly or strictly PET) in the Dominican Republic.
    Thank you for your time

  10. To the Dominican Republic poster, I’d like to talk to you about your plans, as we are in this business as well. How do we contact each other?

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  12. Pablo,
    Our company is expanding its recycling program to include plastic soda bottles. What price should we expect to recieve as a rebate from the recycling company? We are separately paying for transportation and containers.

  13. Pablo,
    Our company is expanding its recycling program to include plastic soda bottles. What price should we expect to recieve as a rebate from the recycling company? We are separately paying for transportation and containers.

  14. Hi Pablo,
    Could you explain to me why PET requires a special crusher (PET bottle crusher),why can’t we use any type of crusher. Best Regards

  15. I recycle i recently checked out prices per pound on the bourd no one knows what kind of hard plastic is 2.32 a pound in california

  16. Dear Sir,
    we are Oriental Trade International Company in pakistan, we sale plastic scrap material. like PC,Pet Flakes, Pet Lumps.
    please contact us for more detail.
    Thanks.

  17. Hi Pablo, i intend to start a plastic recycling plant in Nigeria can you please give me information on where to obtain the necessary skills, technology and machinary and how to go about setting one up.
    Thanks

  18. I want to go into collection of used plastics ,bottles and cans ,is there any plastic recycling companies in Nigeria to sell to them ? let me have their contacts pls.
    Emmanuel ,from Nigeria

      1. @bassey can we talk as in to pet here in nigeria…..my numba is 081202-5900..my name is AB.thanks and expecting ur call soon.

  19. I am looking at starting a bottle recycling project in the Dominincan Republic. Does anyone have any info to share inregards to regulations or any recycling going on there at the present time. please reply to dlpaluck@hotmail.com

  20. Am a graduate of microbiology with intrest in recycling. pls i need information about plastic recycling in nigeria or any company uder going that at the moment. Thanks
    Mercy(Nigeria)

    1. hi mercy I am a graduate of chemical engineering(in Nigeria) and also very much interested in plastics and plastic recycling… if your are still interested here is my email : ukahone@yahoo.com.
      i would love too discuss with you!
      brian ukah (calabar)

  21. if you are using a HDPE bottle to contain a product that is somewhat agressive can do you still use the recycle emblem on your package?

  22. hi
    how r u i am from asia and want to know about the recycling and want to contribute fo the green evolution and how can i gather scrap i want to start it in pakistan.thanks

  23. are there any companies in dominican republic that do reprocessing of plastic food and non food containers? if so, how many?
    what is the rate of consumption of food and non food items in plastic?

    1. Nigeria Alpha Recycling Ltd. is abording business solution company in Lagos State Nigeria.
      Contact:07086839612. Your Enquiry is not very clear.

  24. Thanks for your informative piece. Please I want to start up a recycling industry in Nigeria and want to know where I can purchase the best machines. Also, if anyone knows the recycling companies in Nigeria, I will be glad to be introduced to any

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