Recycling: getting to know your plastics

Last year, bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical compound found in clear hard plastics, scared many people into questioning the hazards found in the plastics they use in their everyday lives, especially water bottles. The media carried headlines with talk of BPA causing hormone imbalances and several types of cancer. Now that the plastics industry has calmed fears of BPA by removing the chemical from plastic products and adding a "BPA-free" label in its place, what about the other plastics in our lives? After becoming aware of the potential dangers of plastics, we should now focus on minimizing their use and effective recycling.

Plastics are part of almost every aspect of the average American's lifestyle. To name just a few, our everyday synthetic tools, toothbrushes, disposable bags, toys, food packaging, and computers all contain plastic. And most of these plastic products will have the "chasing arrows" symbol indicating that it is recyclable. However, this symbol is misleading. Unfortunately, it is not so simple to recycle plastics; we must first observe the number inside the "chasing arrows" symbol, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the plastic container.

Numbers 1 and 2 are the most common plastics. Number 1 plastics, the most common material for single-use containers, are made of PET (polyethylene terephthalate) and found in soft drink and beer bottles, mouthwash bottles, peanut butter containers, and oil containers. They are usually picked up through curbside recycling and recycled into polar fleece, fiber, tote bags, carpet, and paneling. Though the recycling rate is a humble 20 percent, PET is in high demand by manufacturers because it is lightweight and inexpensive.

Number 2 plastic is made of HDPE (high density polyethylene) and it is a versatile plastic with many uses. It is found in milk jugs, juice bottles, bleach, detergent, shampoo bottles, and trash bags. These items are usually picked up through curbside recycling programs, although some programs only allow containers with necks. The items are then recycled into floor tiles, lumber, pens, and picnic tables.

In order to properly recycle plastics, it is necessary to segregate by type. However, if your particular neighborhood or college campus does not offer different bins for each grade of plastic, then the recycling process does not function optimally.

The high costs involved in the recycling process also contribute to inefficiencies in recycling plastic. In order to reform the plastic, large amounts of heat must be used, which requires a lot of energy, usually in the form of oil, gas, or coal. To top that off, most plastics are made from petrochemicals which are also used to recycle the material by melting and remolding.

Treating plastic as a disposable product makes no sense when its material is harmful to the environment in its production and disposal. Considering that plastic is not made of natural substances and will never break down or decompose on its own, recycling is an important disposal method for the material. Unfortunately, efficient recycling programs are lacking. Reduction in the use of plastic objects in your daily lifestyle is the best solution for addressing waste and health concerns.

Plastics acquired widespread use beginning in the 1950s, when oil was cheap and environmental issues were not of concern to mainstream America. Oil today is neither as plentiful nor cheap and so it is not very sensible to produce a widespread range of single use disposable products made from expensive and diminishing resources which, when recycling, also require the use of these scarce resources. Moreover, the pervasive use of plastics has had a major adverse impact on air quality, global warming, waste management, and the safety of our water. The cost of addressing these issues must be assigned to the manufacturing and recycling of plastics. Eliminating hidden subsidies from these processes by including the full cost of the impact on our environment would certainly lead to higher prices for these products which will minimize the single and wasteful use of plastics. The real pricing of this material will motivate the manufacturer and consumer to act more carefully in the recycling of plastic.


  1. Hi
    Im living in Jakarta and helping a small resort in the thousand Islands and a new cafe in jakarta to transform to be more environmentally sustainable, I some how was brought to your blog when researching on the net, i admire the focus of your blog and your interest in the environment. Are you living in Jakarta at present? I would love to meet you if you are, it would be great for us here in Jakarta to extend our network of like minded people. you can email me at
    Ok best wishes Vera


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