How to recycle plastics

Recycle plastics. We normally talk about refuse, reduce and reuse, but recycling also plays an important role in reducing pollution and build a more sustainable world. Simply recycling plastics does not make up for the environmental damage done when the resource is extracted or when the plastic is manufactured. So for safer alternatives use resealable glass containers to store and heat food, a stainless "to-go" coffee cup instead of single-use plastics. As for water, find a reusable bottle which suits your need. But if reducing plastic waste to zero is too challenging, then here's a guide for you on the best and worst alternatives:

The main plastics to avoid are:

  • 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 time.
  • 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 sports bottles, which are much better than the #7.
  • LDPE - Plastic 4 and 5: Low-density polyethylene and polypropylene are considered reasonably 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 categorizing plastics is:

  • HDPE - Opaque bottles
  • PVC - Transparent bottles, with seams running across the base
  • PET - Transparent bottles, with a hard molded spot in the center 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). If you want to learn more about how to identify the type of plastic a water bottle has been made of, the potential chemicals that it could be leaching to the water and how to recycle it, check out this article. How to recycle plastics What happens with our waste when we separate it into different containers for garbage collection or in recycling containers? The best type of recycling is Reverse Vending Machines (RVMs), which collect plastics for recycling. These exist in parts of Canada. In the U.S many states have a water bill, and you can return your used bottles to the store you bought them - this varies from state to state. 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.
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.
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