In this post, we’re going to try to understand the challenges involved in recycling plastics. To do this, it’s important to know which plastic you’re dealing with. In the first part of the post, we’ll take a look at the various plastics you’re likely to come across. In the second part, we’ll see why many plastics are difficult to recycle. Finally, we’ll go through the available solutions, as well as those on the horizon, in the third part.
A lot of people are still confused when it’s time to recycle plastics. And rightly so, because knowing exactly what to do with this material is quite a challenge. Nonetheless, most plastics can be recycled. So, why then is it like searching for the Holy Grail every time we have to dispose of them?
That’s what we’re going to find out.
First of all (like all recyclable materials), plastic recycling doesn’t like when different types of plastics mix. We’re all familiar with the logo on containers indicating the number of the polymer family used to manufacture the product: #1 = PET, #5 = PP and so on. Each number indicates that the plastic:
- Is recyclable; and
- Is made of a specific type of polymer.
OK, maybe I’m already losing you. In short, the number is the ID card of the plastic.
Plastic No. 1
Let’s start with No. 1 = PET = polyethylene terephthalate = water bottle (the famous single-use bottles found everywhere). As a citizen, you’ll tell me you’re really not interested in the scientific name of No. 1, you just want to know if you can put it in a bin.
The answer is yes. Why? Because No. 1 is a polymer that is very easy to recycle, not only to make other bottles, but also to manufacture all kinds of containers, and even T-shirts. Yes, that’s right, clothes!
Plastic No. 2
Another plastic: No. 2. This is a high-density polyethylene (HDPE). It’s very easy to recycle. HDPE examples: some cleaning product bottles, pallets, all kinds of containers, etc. It’s a high-strength plastic. So, No. 2 is OK to go in the bin.
Plastic No. 3
No. 3 = PVC = polyvinyl chloride, a plastic with a bad reputation because it contains chlorine (and other than in the pool, we don’t like chlorine). It’s also recyclable. Furthermore, it’s not advisable to throw it in the garbage because the chlorine leaches into the environment over time, and nature doesn’t like chlorine either.
Plastic No. 4
No. 4 = LDPE = low-density polyethylene, the little brother of No. 2. Also very easy to recycle. This is often plastic film (the type used as flexible plastic film) and some grocery bags. By the way, the problem with grocery bags is that they fly around in nature (and not in the grocery store), the real reason we’re trying to ban them.
Plastic No. 5
No. 5 = polypropylene. Examples: Tupperware, the food containers that can go in the microwave, and many bottles for products such as dishwashing liquid. Easy to recognize when it’s a food container because it’s “milky” rather than “watery” (for colourless containers… anyway, you get it). It’s recyclable!
Plastic No. 6
No. 6 = polystyrene. This is fully recyclable, but it poses a challenge in terms of transport. As foam, it is bulky and lightweight and therefore expensive to transport. So, the issue is not the material, but the logistics. Many sorting centres are unfortunately not yet equipped to handle this type of product, which means most municipalities in Quebec prohibit putting it in the bin (blue, green or other… check in your city). To my knowledge, only the Gaudreau Environnement (Victoriaville) sorting centre accepts this material.
So, to summarize: Nos. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 = RECYCLABLE.
I bet some of the geeks out there are thinking I forgot No. 7 (and “other plastics”).
No, I didn’t forget, they’re in Part 2… To be continued!