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How to Recycle Plastic: An In-Depth Guide to Being Environmentally Friendly

Every day, we’re surrounded by plastic, and we don’t even realise it. Yes, we know that there’s plastic in packaging – some of it’s nearly impossible to get off which can cause 10 solid minutes of frustration. Plastic is found in so much more than packaging and disposable cutlery, though. It’s also in our home insulation, paint, lampshades and picture frames, and even the clothing and shoes we wear. Plastic is everywhere, and it’s more powerful and necessary than the weak, bendable, clear plastic you’re picturing.


What are Plastics?

The nature of plastics means they can be molded into practically anything – cars, bowls, toothbrushes, etc. Though “plastic” is often referred to singularly, there are a number of different kinds of plastics, each one used to create an assortment of items.

Here are just a few examples of how plastic is used:

  • D30 is a plastic that’s normally soft but that hardens when hit suddenly, and it’s used in sports gear and equipment for added protection.
  • Epoxy resin filler, which you can use to fill in wood that’s rotted away, is a type of plastic that turns hard after just a few minutes.
  • Fibreglass, which is plastic that’s reinforced with glass, is used in the construction of cars and boats.

To understand plastics, you have to first understand polymers, because that’s what plastics are made of. Polymers are compounds created by stringing many smaller, similar monomers together. Different monomers create different polymers and types of plastics.

The Different Types of Plastic

In order to properly recycle plastic, you have to know what type of plastic it is. Similar plastics have to be separated from the rest and processed together in order to prevent contamination. There are a number of ways to group plastics, including by what they’re made from and what happens to them when they’re put into a landfill.

Plastics are generally synthetic, meaning they’re artificial and human-made, though some are natural and created from animals and plants. Cellulose (which is used to make tape and other items) is an example of a natural polymer, while nylon (found in stockings and other clothing items) is an example of a synthetic polymer. You may not think of these materials as plastic, but they’re definitely part of the plastics family.

Plastics are also defined by how they behave when heated. Thermoplastics soften and become flexible when heated, while thermosets will never soften once they’ve been molded. A plastic bottle is an example of a thermoplastic – while it’s molded into a bottle shape, it can change shape if you heat it up, let it melt and then remold it. Other examples of thermoplastics are credit cards and toys. Thermoplastics are easy to recycle because they can be melted down and reformed.

photo of plastic drinks bottles

Thermosets, short for thermosetting plastics, have stronger polymer chains than thermoplastics, which is why you can’t melt them down and remold them once they’ve been initially molded and set. Thermosets are much less noticeable in daily life than thermoplastics, but examples include polyurethane, which is used for building insulation, and epoxy resin, which is used in adhesives.

Why is Plastic a Problem?

Just about all plastics are synthetic. Since they’re not found in nature, evolution has not allowed animals and other organisms to learn how to safely eat them or break them down. So many plastics today are designed to be disposable, which results in a lot of plastic garbage. Some of that plastic ends up in places where it becomes dangerous to wildlife, like the ocean. It can also make beautiful landscapes become overrun with litter.

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Some plastics can also become toxic when heated. Chemicals can leach into the water supply or be released into the air. Health issues can arise, particularly affecting the young and elderly populations. Putting plastics in landfills isn’t a solution – it can take up to 1,000 years for plastic to degrade. During that time, landfills can run out of space, which is a shame considering that many of their plastics could have been recycled. 

Why is it Important to Recycle Plastic?

Recycling plastic comes with a host of benefits:

  • Energy conservation
  • Keeping plastic out of landfills and natural environments
  • Limiting pollution
  • Protecting natural resources
  • Reducing greenhouse gases

It requires less energy to make a product from recycled plastic than from new plastic. Unfortunately, there’s not enough of a supply of recyclable plastic to meet demand – a lot of it is ending up in regular garbage cans instead of recycling bins, and manufacturers don’t have the recycled plastic they need to make products from it. This means that more households should make recycling a priority.

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How is Plastic Recycled?

There are several steps that have to be taken to recycle plastic. While some facilities may take a slightly different approach, these are the basic steps that many facilities follow:

Sorting: At the recycling facility, sorting machines are used to separate plastics by type. If a batch of plastics is contaminated by another type of plastic, it cannot be reprocessed. Some recycling facilities can only process certain types of plastics, while others can process all types of plastics.

Resizing: In order to easily handle the recycled plastic, granulators and shredders are used to reduce the size of the waste. There are facilities that send the ground or shredded plastic to manufacturers, but processing may also continue in-house.

Wet Separation: The plastic pieces are washed in order to remove any contaminants, like glue, paper or sand. Float tanks are also used to separate different types of plastic based on density.

Dry Separation: There are a few different dry separation treatments. Air classification can separate thin plastics from thick ones. Heat can be applied to the plastics to separate them by melting point. Light may also be used to separate plastics by how much light they absorb.

Compounding: The pieces of plastic are turned into pellets, which are easier to distribute and work with than ground plastic.

What Do the Plastic Symbols Mean?

Plastic symbols can get confusing. Understanding what the symbols mean can help you decide if you want to buy an item in the first place and how to recycle it once you’re done with it.

  • If you see the Mobius Loop on a package – three arrows that form a triangle – that means that the item can be recycled.
  • If you see a green square with a white, circular arrow, that means that a majority of authorities will recycle the product.
  • The same circular arrow on a black background means that you should check locally to see if the item can be recycled.
  • If there’s a diagonal line through the symbol, that means the item is not yet recyclable.
  • The Green Dot, which is a circle made up of two conjoined arrows in different shades of green, means that the manufacturer supports recycling, but not necessarily that the item can be recycled.

When it comes to recycling, plastics are separated into seven categories. Here are their names, the items that are included and how they’re recycled:

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Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): Food packaging and soda bottles; easy to recycle; used to make other PET products

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High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE): Cleaning products, milk cartons, soap dispensers and shampoo bottles; easy to recycle; used to make more milk cartons, plus garden furniture and pipes

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Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Car parts, pipe fittings, thermal insulation and window fittings; difficult to recycle; used to make other PVC products

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Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE): Plastic bags and magazine wrappings; manageable to recycle; used to make plastic bags, plastic furniture and floor tiles

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Polypropylene (PP): Car upholstery, carpet fibers and filaments, margarine tubs, microwave meal trays and wall coverings; easy to recycle; used to make clothing fibers, food containers and speed bumps

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Polystyrene (PS): Insulation, plastic cutlery, protective packaging, takeaway containers, yogurt containers; difficult to recycle; used to make more plastic packaging

Other: Composite plastics, like packets for crisps or pre-mixed salads; very difficult to recycle and usually goes to the landfill

Products may include the number and/or acronym for the plastic (the plastic resin code) in or below the Mobius Loop.

10 Actionable Ways to Recycle Plastic at Home

When people know the realities of how plastic impacts the environment, they’re more willing to reduce their plastic use and recycle the plastics they do use. Here are 10 ways to recycle plastic at home:

1. Repurpose used containers to hold your next round of leftovers.

Even getting one more use out of food containers can limit your need for plastic wrap when saving leftovers.

2. Reuse plastic containers whenever you can.

You’d be surprised how many used containers can be repurposed semi-permanently. For example, coffee creamer containers can be washed, dried and filled with dried food, like nuts or popcorn kernels. They’ll be easy to pour out, too.

3. Save large containers to use as watering cans.

No need to buy a watering can – an old detergent bottle is the perfect size for watering your plants. Just punch a few holes in the cap to use it as a spout.

4. Squash and put all remaining plastic bottles in the recycling bin.

If the neck is smaller than the body of the container, it’s a bottle and should go into the recycling bin. That means you’re not limited to drink bottles – liquid soap, cleaning products and laundry detergent count, too. Squash them down first – it’ll save space in your recycling bin and prevent them from rolling off the conveyor belt during processing.

5. Keep the caps on when recycling bottles and containers.

The caps are often made from recyclable plastic. If you take them off and put them in the bin separately, they may be too small to go through the sorting machine, which will cause them to be rejected. The same goes for straws – push the straw into the container before putting it in the bin.

6. Wash out any remaining food first.

You don’t have to thoroughly wash items before recycling them, but you should give them a rinse to get rid of any leftover food. For example, a half-eaten container of yogurt shouldn’t be tossed into the bin without rinsing or wiping it out first.

7. Return your plastic bags to the original store to be recycled.

You can also bring in your bread, produce and zipper bags (so long as they’re clean).

8. Place recycling receptacles in several rooms.

You probably have a recycling bin in your kitchen, but what about the garage, deck, bathroom and laundry room? It’s easier to toss items in the garbage if there’s not a recycling receptacle nearby, so keep them handy so you’re more inclined to recycle.

9. Know what can and cannot be picked up curbside.

For example, plastic bottles and containers can usually be picked up curbside, but plastic bags may have to be dropped off.

10. Change your regular routes so that you pass a recycling centre.

Some items may not be picked up curbside and you’ll have to drop them off. If you pass a recycling centre on your way to work or the gym every day, it’ll easily fit into your routine.

You’ll probably want to recycle more than plastic. Don’t forget to recycle paper, and not just newspaper. There are all sorts of paper items you can recycle, including wrapping paper, greeting cards, envelopes, junk mail and phone books. Recycle cardboard big and small, too. You know to recycle your cardboard boxes, but you can also recycle the cardboard rolls from toilet paper and paper towels. Plus, you can recycle glass and some metal objects.

Final Thoughts

While it’s wonderful to limit how much disposable plastic you use, it’s not practical or even beneficial to dream of a plastic-free world. Plastics are used in positive ways in many of the items we need and enjoy, like vehicles, computers, toys, medical adhesives and even replacement body parts. Learning how to choose, use and recycle plastics is the best option for our well-being and the well-being of the planet. 

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