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Recycling 101 - What do the Plastic Codes Mean?

A Brief History of the Recycling Symbol and How it’s Used

The recycling symbol we know today – the chasing arrows symbol – was originally designed in 1970 as a way to inform people that a product was recyclable. Just a few years later, in the 1980s, plastic manufacturers started using a very similar symbol, with a number inside, known as the Resin Identification Code (RIC). The RIC tells plastic manufacturers what type of plastic a container is made from, but doesn’t address the recyclability of the product.

Consumers therefore naturally assume that anything with the arrows symbol is recyclable, creating one of the most common misconceptions about recycling. Because the onus of recycling falls on us to understand these numbers and properly sort them, it’s no surprise that recycling contamination is a problem.

However, with some foundational knowledge, the RIC can help us decipher if a product is recyclable and to help us choose between different packaging options. We’ve broken down the seven different plastic codes that are used and what exactly they mean below.

Recycling codes 01 The Resin Identification Codes

#1 PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate

This type of plastic is one of the most widely recycled plastic in the world and is used in a lot of food containers. Clear PET, in particular, has one of the highest recycling market values, as it can be turned into products of similar quality and form. Additionally, the recycling process is simple and it can commonly be recycled onshore.

You may sometimes also see rPET, which means that the container is made from recycled PET. Wherever possible, we encourage people to select products that are packaged in #1 plastics over other plastics, since they can be widely recycled.

Common products made of PET:

  • Soda, juice, and water bottles
  • Fruit and vegetable clamshells
  • Plastic peanut butter and mayonnaise jars

In Australia and New Zealand, Flight plastics are producing food-safe rPET packaging from recycled plastics. Additionally, Eco Plastics in the UK are working with Coca-Cola to produce rPET bottles. Recycling PET is becoming increasingly valuable and worthwhile worldwide.

#2 HDPE – High-Density Polyethylene

Similar to PET, HDPE is another widely recycled plastic worldwide and is one of the few plastics where there is likely to be an onshore recycling centre. It’s a durable, hard plastic that can withstand most solvents. Because of this, it’s most commonly used for cleaning or personal care products. Since it’s not usually used for food products (except milk bottles), it has a high market value and can be recycled more times than many other types of plastics.

A 2018 study by ESE World B.V. found that non-contaminated HDPE can be recycled up to 10 times, which is an impressive number. This is why it's always important to rinse your recyclables and follow local requirements on lids. Some collectors require lids on, others need them removed depending on their recycling process – please check with your local provider.

Common products that use HDPE:

  • Milk bottles
  • Cleaning product bottles – especially harsher chemicals such as bleach or ammonia
  • Soap and shampoo bottles
  • Garden flower boxes

#3 PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride

PVC is a durable plastic that is not easily impacted by sunlight, water, or other harsh conditions. Due to this, it is commonly used across different industries including construction, plumbing, and transport. While it is durable, it has been known to leach chemicals over time, so it is not as safe for food use.

While PVC recycling is slowly increasing, there is less of a market for recycled PVC as it’s not as durable. Even though its longlasting, most PVC is not collected kerbside and many places do not have the facilities to do so.

Common products that use PVC:

  • Yard signs
  • Plumbing pipes
  • Garden hoses and cables
  • Children’s toys

#4 LDPE – Low-Density Polyethylene

LDPE is used to create most soft plastic products around the world. It is a lightweight plastic that is less toxic than other plastics, which makes it popular for food use. However, due to the flimsy nature of the plastic, it is often only for single-use applications and continues to receive a lot of public attention.

It’s not accepted in kerbside collections, as it is difficult to sort from other materials and very difficult to fully recycle, though it can be upcycled into fence posts or other materials. Given this, many governments have banned single-use grocery bags and have introduced soft plastic recycling schemes with drop-off collection points.

Common products that use LDPE:

  • Dry cleaner bags
  • Bread bags
  • Ziploc bags

#5 PP – Polypropylene

PP is a tough and lightweight plastic, that is known for its excellent heat resistance, which makes it popular to use in takeaway shops. Additionally, it is considered safe for continued reuse as it’s unlikely to leach chemicals and break down over time.

It’s a durable plastic with many uses and many kerbside collections have started accepting PP to be recycled. We even use 50-80% post-consumer recycled materials in our Method bins.

Common products that use PP:

  • Takeaway containers
  • Margarine and yogurt containers
  • Straws
  • Ice cream tubs

#6 PS – Polystyrene

Polystyrene, also commonly known as styrofoam, has a variety of uses but is falling out of general use across the world as it’s hard to recycle and has been known to leach chemicals when heated. Polystyrene can be hard to identify as it comes in two forms: the hard, compressed PS that is often used in food packaging and expanded polystyrene (EPS) which is the lighter “puffed’ version.

Polystyrene isn’t easily recycled and is generally not collected in kerbside recycling. It often breaks down into small pieces that can harm wildlife and our ecosystem. There is limited use for recycled EPS in manufacturing insulation and other industrial applications, however, it can’t be recycled for its original purpose.

Given this, it’s a particularly problematic form of plastic and we encourage you to seek out alternatives such as PET food packaging and use paper-based packaging in place of polystyrene peanuts.

Common products that use PS:

  • Styrofoam containers
  • Packing peanuts
  • Burger clamshells
  • Coffee cup lids

#7 Other – Miscellaneous

#7 plastics is a catchall for all other types of plastics that don’t fall into the other categories, including bioplastics. #7 plastics are almost never recycled, as it’s not one specific type, which makes it hard to source separate.

One material that falls into this category is bioplastics. Poly Lactic Acid (PLA), a common form of bioplastics, are a relatively new form of packaging that has entered as a #7 plastic. They’re commercially-compostable plastics made from natural materials such as corn starch, sugarcane, or tapioca.

Bioplastics, though, aren’t recyclable – they’re designed to break down in commercial composting facilities under specific conditions. This process doesn’t occur in a landfill or if littered. As with all forms of recycling/organics, check with your waste provider about what they accept in their organics collection, as not all commercial composting facilities are able to process bioplastics.

Common products that use #7 plastics:

  • Anything marked as ‘bioplastic’ or ‘compostable plastic’
  • Baby bottles and sippy cups
  • Water cooler jugs
  • Car parts

A Note on Coloured Plastic

Once plastic is coloured it's pretty much impossible to go backwards. Because of this, clear or natural plastic is the most valuable and easiest to recycle. This is why products made from recycled materials are often dark or black because they can be made darker but you can’t remove the colour once it's bonded with the plastic.

Australasian recycling label icons The Australasian Recycling Labels are designed to reduce confusion and contamination

The Future of Plastics

Luckily, the industry does seem to be moving away from hard-to-recycle plastics or imposing fees for manufacturers that choose to use them. The goal of this is to put the onus back onto manufacturers and product designers to take the lead on making our packaging recyclable.

Additionally, some locations have implemented new packaging symbols to help consumers understand what materials are and aren’t recyclable. This includes the Australasian Recycling Label, which seeks to eliminate confusion with clear, straightforward labels, like the one below.

Effective recycling and resource streams start at the beginning of the design process, and we hope that more businesses continue to consider the end of life of a product when they design it. However, individual habits have the power to make a difference in environmental outcomes and specifically, put pressure on companies to change. After all, sustainable change isn’t one person doing sustainable change perfectly, it's all of us doing it imperfectly.

So until things change from the top, we hope this information helps you select better, more recyclable plastic containers, when no other option exists.

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