How should you recycle plastics? It’s complicated!

The first priorities should be refuse, reduce and reuse, but recycling also plays an important role in reducing pollution and laying the foundation for a more sustainable world.

Why recycling plastics is not enough?

Simply recycling plastics does not make up for the environmental damage done when the resource is extracted, the the plastic manufactured and the final product is transported to the consumer. Read more about plastic vs glass vs other beverage containers.

Therefore we should all try to minimise the amount of plastics we use. For example use resealable glass containers to store and heat food, a stainless “to-go” coffee cup instead of single-use plastics, and for water bottles, try resistant and light borosilicate glass bottle by Retap or a stainless steel bottle.

But reducing plastic to zero is almost impossible.

So how does plastic recycling work?

Here’s a guide for you on the best and worst materials and how to recycle plastics.

The main plastics to avoid

  • PVC – Plastic 3: PVC or polyvinyl chloride, is commonly considered the most damaging of all plastics. It releases carcinogenic dioxins into the environment when manufactured or incinerated and can leach phthalates with use.
  • PS – Plastic 6: Foam or polystyrene cups and “to go” boxes as well as some clear cups and containers.
  • PC – Plastic 7: Or polycarbonate. Can potentially leach bisphenol-A, a known hormone disruptor.

Safer plastics to use

  • PETE – Plastic 1: Polyethylene terephthalate is considered among the safest plastics, though some studies do indicate that repeated use of the same PETE bottle or container could cause leaching of DEHP (di-phthalate).
  • HDPE – Plastic 2: Used in some reusable sport bottles, which are much better than the #7.
  • LDPE – Plastic 4 and 5: Low-density polyethylene and polypropylene are considered reasonable safe.
  • PLA – Confusingly also called #7: Safe, biodegradable, compostable (not recyclable) plastic made from plants. Make sure it’s certified by BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) before composting.

Another way of categorising plastics

  • HDPE – Opaque bottles
  • PVC – Transparent bottles, with seam running across the base
  • PET – Transparent bottles, with a hard moulded spot in the centre of the base
  • ABS – Typically plastic toys, kitchenware and other more resistant plastics

All of the above are theoretically recyclable with plastic except PLA, although few end up being effectively recycled since generally plastic recipients are made up of a mix of plastics of different densities (which makes them complicated and more costly to repurpose). In many cities, recycling plants don’t even have the machines that are necessary to recycle all the different types of plastic that we throw in the recycling containers, so they specialize in one or two types, the most common ones and easier to recycle (ie. PET).

How to separate / sort plastics

What happens with our waste when we separate it into different containers for garbage collection or in recycle containers?

The best type of recycling is Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs), which collect plastics for recycling. These exist almost everywhere in Germany and Scandinavia and the reach is growing in e.g. the U.K.

Putting the plastic in the recycling bin or plastic collection points doesn’t necessarily mean that it  actually gets recycled:

  • The bottle must be clean to be recycled.
  • It must be easy to identify what kind of plastic it is.
  • Much of the plastic still ends up in landfills and incinerated due to poor sorting or demand for waste that can be burned for energy.

In summary

But don’t give up recycling even if it’s a bit complicated. It’s definitely worth it in the long term. Because if we don’t recycle, more plastic will definitely end up in landfills, groundwater, rivers and the oceans.

So, recycle plastics that you can’t avoid, but make sure you do it right.