Recycling isn’t always as easy as it looks, and just because you’ve finished that pizza and are ready to recycle the cardboard box, it doesn’t mean you can toss it into the recycling bin. I’m a big go-getter when it comes to recycling; what we do to the world today will affect what it’s like later on. What a lot of people don’t understand is that recycling is actually a complicated process and each piece of recyclable plastic or paper is coded for a very specific reason. These kinds of specifics often get lost and the general public doesn’t always get the right information.
Every recyclable piece of plastic or metal or paper has a specific tier. It’s marked by the number inside of the recycling triangle located somewhere on the piece itself. Until now, many of you were probably unware of what they each meant, or that there was even a difference between them in the first place.
PETE stands for Polyethylene Terephthalate. These are usually clear plastics used to make beverage bottles and most other clear food containers. These are often recycled into tote bags, furniture, carpet, paneling, fiber, and even fleece.
It stands for High Density Polyethylene and it’s typically opaque. Considered one of the three safer plastics, it has a reduced risk of leaching. This is what your milk jugs, cereal box bags, detergent bottles, motor oil bottles, butter tubs, juice bottles, and shampoo bottles are usually made out of. You’ll find these recycled into pens, picnic tables, lumber, benches, fencing, and right back into the same kinds of containers they were made into in the first place.
#3, V or PVC
Yep, PVC pipes. This means that this category is vinyl, and it’s among the rarest to be picked up by curbside recycling programs. They contain phthalates, which are linked to a number of health problems, including miscarriage. Luckily, they are turned into less personal items when recycled, such as paneling, flooring, speed bumps, decks, and roadway gutters. You can find this code on food wraps, plumbing pipes, and even some detergent bottles.
Low Density Polyethylene. Considered a safe plastic, these are found in shopping bags, carpet, clothing, frozen food bags, bread bags, some squeezable bottles, and some food wraps. These will be turned into compost bins, paneling, trash can liners, floor tiles, and shipping envelopes.
Polypropylene. It’s becoming increasingly accepted by most curbside programs. You’ll find this code on foodstuffs like yogurt, ketchup, syrup, and even on medicine bottles. It’s converted into brooms, signal lights, ice scrapers, bicycle racks, and more.
PS stands for Polystyrene—in common terms: Styrofoam. This is a tricky recyclable as it’s hard to find appropriate bins for it but it’s everywhere. Styrofoam packages are more susceptible to leaching toxic chemicals, which then pose a health risk. Most programs don’t accept it, but when they do they are typically turned into egg cartons, insulation, and foam packaging.
This is where all the loners are put. This category allows for many different types of plastics and recyclable materials, which makes it incredibly hard to process and actually recycle. Plastic #7 will often be found in sunglasses, phone and computer cases, nylon, and more. It’s recycled mainly into custom-made products.
When You CAN’T Recycle
Almost all paper can be recycled, and the list of plastics above can definitely be recycled, but only if they are in the best condition for recycling. When you’ve finished a pizza, it’s logical to assume it can be recycled; however, the grease that soaks into the cardboard renders the entire box useless and therefore should just go straight into the trash. Don’t feel bad about it, you’re actually making it easier for the recycling company. This is pretty typical of most food containers: if the integrity of the container is ruined by the food, they can’t be recycled. It is different for plastics, though. Every city has a different recycling mandate that states what needs to be rinsed off before it can be accepted for recycling. With a little research, you can find your city or state’s mandated recycling codes. To avoid having to get into the specifics, it’s probably just easier to rinse out all bottles and food containers before you recycle them. After all, if you keep recycling dirty containers, you’re actually making the job harder for the recycling company and you’re not actually contributing the recycling initiative because those plastics will more than likely just be tossed away.