Plastics are arguably the most significant alchemical triumph of the twentieth century: the transformation of raw petroleum into innumerable consumer and commercial products and applications. The centrality of plastics to our lives is remarkable in light of the fact that they simply did not exist a few generations ago. Yet as plastics have proliferated, so have the environmental problems associated with them. The many connotations of the term “plastic” mirror our ambivalence about this now omnipresent material. The term originally denoted mutability, and true to its name, plastics take on a dazzling array of forms. But the term “plastic” has also come to connote cheapness, superficiality, fakeness, and disposability.
Almost all plastics are made of carbon-laden, non-renewable fossil fuels. These fuels are transformed into materials that take hundreds and even thousands of years to decompose. Plastics choke landfills and comprise a large component of the continents of debris now floating in our oceans. Millions of marine animals and birds consume plastic debris and die as a result. Moreover, plastics release toxins into our air and water that are harmful to people, wildlife, and plant life.
Given the significant environmental toll of plastics, can we work some alchemy and transform the stuff once again? Or can we at least change the way we think about and use plastics? Co-founder of Method, Adam Lowry, thinks so. Discussing a line of Method cleaning products that featured bottles made of recycled ocean plastic, Lowry explained that Method’s goal was to “change people’s minds about their relationship with plastic,” changing their perception of plastic “from something they just chuck away to something that is a valuable resource that can be used again and again.”
Conquering our plastic problem
Several innovative companies have developed creative solutions the problem of plastic. Method has not only demonstrated that plastics recovered from the ocean can be recycled, but makes all of its packaging out of 100% post-consumer materials. Post-consumer plastics have a 75 to 80% smaller carbon footprint than virgin plastics. Another company, Sugru, sells a self-setting rubber that can be used to fix rigid plastics that have cracked or broken, extending their usefulness. Yet another company, Ecovative, has developed a product that replaces the notoriously harmful and hard recycle plastic, polystyrene (otherwise known as Styrofoam), with a compostable product made of fungi.
In addition to taking advantage of the products these companies offer, we can all heed Lowry’s advice and reorient our view of plastics. Like any other valuable resource, we can reduce our use of plastics, replace them with environmentally friendly alternatives, and simply reuse them. Recycling is a necessary part of that cycle of reuse, yet not all plastic products are created equally. Some are more or less recyclable, and some are more or less hazardous to the environment and your health.
Your best guide to what can and can’t be recycled will be your municipal government’s waste collection program, as well as other local recycling operations. Read their guidelines closely, and encourage them to set up new recycling streams if you find that they don’t handle commonly disposed of items.
There are two things to look for on a plastic item to help you understand how to use it and how to recycle it. The first is a recycling number. This is a number 1 through 7 stamped somewhere on the item. The number is usually surrounded by the triangular recycling symbol. Each number corresponds to a different type of plastic. We’ll explain below what these types are and what qualities they have.
The second thing to consider is the shape of the plastic object. Bottles are usually accepted for recycling regardless of the recycling number, but other shapes are less frequently accepted by recycling programs. A “bottle” is any object that has a mouth smaller than its base. Sometimes non-bottle shaped plastics will be accepted at your local recycling center (think yogurt tubs or your children’s outdoor play slide), but will need to be separated from bottle shaped plastics or will not be accepted in curbside bins.
Plastic by the numbers
PET or PETE: polyethylene terephthalate
PET plastics are some of the most commonly encountered plastics, used in everything from soft drink bottles to food storage containers to medical devices. This plastic is often clear. Along with 2s and 5s, PET are food grade plastics, meaning that they are safe for food storage because of they have a low risk of leaching. PET containers are typically accepted by most recycling centers, especially if they are bottle shaped. They are easily recycled and in high demand from remanufacturers.
Plastic bags and plastic film that has stretch to it (as opposed to plastic film that tears easily) are often stamped with a 1, 2 or 4 recycling number. Plastic bags and other plastic films are not usually accepted by municipal recycling programs. However, most grocery stores have plastic bag recycling programs.
Though PET plastics are generally safe, they are more porous than many plastics and so should not be reused for food storage. Since they are more porous, there is an increased risk that they will grow bacteria when reused.
Commonly found in: soft drink bottles, water bottles, plastic bags, salad dressing bottles, peanut butter jars, ovenable trays
HDPE: high-density polyethylene
HDPE is a thicker and tougher counterpart to PET plastics, and is usually opaque. Most recycling rules that apply to PET plastics also apply to HDPE, and they have many of the same uses and applications. They are readily recyclable and have a low risk of leaching. Since it is less porous than PET and has a low risk of leaching, HDPE containers can safely be reused for food and beverages.
Commonly found in: laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, bleach and other household cleaner bottles, trash bags, cereal bag liners, motor oil bottles
V or PVC: polyvinyl chloride
This is a tough plastic often used for outdoor products, such as fencing, piping, and siding. It’s also commonly found in bottles that hold cooking oils, in food plastic wraps, and household products such as shower curtains. These plastics are also tough on the environment. The manufacturing process can release highly toxic dioxins and these plastics often off-gas phthalates and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Phthalates can disrupt the endocrine systems of humans and animals, while VOCs can have a range of negative health impacts. Whenever possible, these plastics should be avoided, and never be heated or used to cook food. Vinyl and PVC aren’t readily recyclable, and are not accepted by most recycling programs.
Commonly found in: fencing, shower curtains, vinyl flooring, piping, shampoo and other personal care product bottles, medical equipment, clear food packaging, windows, wire jacketing
LDPE: low-density polyethylene
This is a flexible plastic commonly used in squeezable bottles, plastic bags, and some food wraps. Increasing numbers of recycling programs now accept LDPE. Plastic bags are usually recyclable at local grocery stores. LDPE is generally thought to present a low risk to human health.
Commonly found in: squeezable bottles, plastic bags used for bread, dry cleaning and other applications, tote bags, clothing, furniture, carpet
PP is also a food grade plastic and is often opaque. It has a high melting point and so is often used for applications that might involve higher temperatures. Yogurt containers and medicine bottles are regularly made out of PP. PP is accepted by many municipal recycling programs. Since PP is often not bottle shaped, this may limit your ability to recycle these items. It is not porous and has a low risk of leaching, so PP containers can safely be reused to hold food.
Commonly found in: yogurt containers, medicine bottles, straws, caps, syrup bottles
Polystyrene is popularly known by the brand name Styrofoam, and is used to create a range of plastic foams. PS is both exceedingly common and exceedingly difficult to recycle. It’s also damaging to the environment and our health. Despite its widespread use in food packaging, evidence suggests that it can leach toxins into foods. When it is heated, it readily melts and releases toxins. Look for alternatives to PS whenever possible. Even other plastic products, such as sealed air packaging for shipping fragile items, may be preferable since these are usually made of LDPE. LDPE is safer and more readily recyclable. Instead of PS plates and cups, use reusable or compostable options. Consider taking your own containers to restaurants for leftovers rather than accept polystyrene take-out boxes.
Commonly found in: foam shipping materials, disposable plates and cups, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, compact disc cases
The recycling number seven is an umbrella category for a wide array of plastic resins that do not fall under the previous six categories. As such, it’s difficult to say definitively how to recycle these plastics without knowing more about the specific item. Sevens can even include compostable plastics made from plant materials. In central North Carolina, the Weaver Street Market uses bioplastics for many of its food items and accepts them back for composting. Sevens also include products like older Nalgene water bottles, which were made of polycarbonate. The once ubiquitous water bottle infamously included the compound bisphenol-A (BPA), widely believed to be responsible for hormonal abnormalities in aquatic animal populations. In the US, BPA has been banned in baby bottles but not other products. BPA is found in the plastic lining of most canned food products, such as soft drinks and canned vegetables.
Commonly found in: refillable water bottles, bioplastic containers for food, DVDs, sunglasses, computer cases, eyeglass lenses, nylon, large water jugs
To sum up: 1, 2, 4, and 5 are considered “safe” plastics, though only 2, 4, and 5 should be reused to hold food or beverages. These plastics are usually accepted by most recycling programs. 3 and 6 should be avoided when possible, because of the risk they pose to human and environmental health. 7s vary widely. Polycarbonates containing BPA should be avoided, but to confuse matters, 7s might include products not made from petroleum (such as bioplastics) or even products that are expressly made to avoid BPA contamination (such as Tattler canning lids). Avoid heating plastics of any kind.
 Most trash in the ocean is potentially recyclable items. For more information on ocean debris, visit the Ocean Conservancy website: http://www.oceanconservancy.org/our-work/marine-debris/ Jacob Silverman, “Why is the world’s biggest landfill in the Pacific Ocean?” How Stuff Works, http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/earth/oceanography/great-pacific-garbage-patch.htm, accessed 9 July 2013.
 Marc Gunther, “How Laundry Detergent Became A Catalyst for Green Innovation,” Yale Environment 360, 11 June 2013, http://e360.yale.edu/feature/adam_lowry_how_laundry_detergent_became_green_innovation_catalyst/2662/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+YaleEnvironment360+%28Yale+Environment+360%29&utm_content=Google+Reader, accessed 9 July 2013.
 Gunther, “How Laundry Detergent Became a Catalyst.”
 The typical metal lid used for home canning contains BPA in its lining. Tattler lids were created as an alternative for home canners looking for a lid that was both reusable and that did not contain BPA. For more information, see the Tattler website: http://www.reusablecanninglids.com/. For more on BPA and the potential health risks, see: Nicholas D. Kristof, “Warnings From a Flabby Mouse,” New York Times, 19 January 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/20/opinion/sunday/kristof-warnings-from-a-flabby-mouse.html?_r=0, accessed 9 July 2013.
 Information on recycling numbers from: Sea Studios Foundation, “Smart Plastics Guide,” PBS, http://www.pbs.org/strangedays/pdf/StrangeDaysSmartPlasticsGuide.pdf, accessed 9 July 2013; “Plastic by the Numbers,” eartheasy: Solutions for Sustainable Living, 2 May 2012, http://eartheasy.com/blog/2012/05/plastics-by-the-numbers/, accessed 9 July 2013; Brian Clark Howard, “What Do Recycling Symbols on Plastics Mean?” The Daily Green, http://www.thedailygreen.com/green-homes/latest/recycling-symbols-plastics-460321#slide-1, accessed 9 July 2013. For more information on bioplastics, see: “Compostable Plastics,” World Centric, http://worldcentric.org/biocompostables/bioplastics.