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Plastics 101: The Recycling Process

plasticrecyclingWe look at the bottom of our plastics in search for a code number 1 through 7. This code, as previously explained in last month’s post, identifies the type of plastic resin. It also facilitates the recycling process as the type of resin an item is made of limits the products it can recycled into. For a printable list of resin codes, click here.

How are plastic resins recycled?  There are five basis steps to the Recycling Process (sometimes referred to as down-cycling):

  1. Sorting – After plastic is collected by the recycling company, it is sorted by resin type.
  2. Washing – Plastic items are cleaned of all adhesives and labels. You can help make this job easier and cheaper for recycling companies by doing the bulk of this process yourself.
  3. Shredding – Plastic is shredded by large machines and made into small pellets.
  4. Identification and Classification – So far, the plastic has been identified by the eye alone. Now, the small pellets are chemically tested to ensure accurate classification.
  5. Extruding – Finally, the plastic is melted and extruded into clean, properly identified pellets. (note, often the plastic resin is still not 100 percent pure)

The plastic is then sold or used to fill orders to manufacturers who create the new plastic product. Here is a list of the seven types of commonly used plastics and what they are frequently recycled into.

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET)
First developed in 1957, the more commonly known name for this type of plastic is polyester. You can find PETE in the following items:

  • Nylon and polyester clothes
  • Bed sheets
  • Cosmetics
  • Household cleaners
  • Upholstered furniture
  • Water and Condiment bottles
  • Jelly and Peanut Butter Jars

PROS: Not known to leach chemicals, unless it contains BPA
CONS: Some studies have found that antimony is leached from water bottles made from PETE after prolonged use in heat; BPA has been linked to breast and uterine cancer

Commonly Recycled Into: Tote Bags, Furniture, Carpet, Paneling, Fiber, and Polar Fleece

2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Along with PETE, it is the most commonly used and versatile of plastics. HDPE resists UV rays, can tolerate high temperatures, and is dishwasher safe. It is found in a variety of items:

  • Landry detergent bottles
  • Milk jugs
  • Folding Chairs and tables

PROS: Not known to leach chemicals, no known health concerns.

Commonly Recycled Into: Pens, Recycling Containers, Picnic Tables, Lumber, Benches, Fencing, Detergent Bottles, Crates, Garden Products, Office Products, Automobile Parts[i]

3. Polyvinyl chloride (V or PVC)
PVC might be the most difficult plastic to recycle, next to 7. It is incredibly durable and resists impurities, but it is also the most chemically dangerous. PVC can be found in the following items:

  • Shower Curtains
  • Cling wrap
  • Clothing
  • Inflatable structures
  • Waterbeds
  • Pool toys
  • Car interiors
  • Vinyl flooring

CONS: Known to leach chemicals, SHOULD BE AVOIDED[ii]; Not as widely recycled as 1 or 2

Commonly Recycled Into: Paneling, Flooring, Speed Bumps, Decks, and Roadway Gutters

4. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE)
This type of plastic was created in 1954. Polypropylene is excellent at withstanding heat. Research is mixed regarding the safety of polypropylene. Regardless, it is used in much of our plastic food packaging:

  • Bread and frozen food bags
  • Packaging material
  • Plastic grocery bags
  • Squeezable bottles

PROS: Not known to leach chemicals
CONS: Not as widely recycled as 1 or 2

Commonly Recycled Into: Compost Bins, Paneling, Trash Cans and Liner, Floor Tiles, Shipping Envelopes

5. Polypropylene (PP)
A very strong plastic with a high melting point, it is a likely candidate for reusable food containers such as:

  • Yogurt and margarine containers
  • Plastic cups
  • Baby Bottles
  • Kitchenware, microwavable plastic containers and lids2

PROS: Recycling becoming more common; dangerous during production process, but not known to leach any chemicals after the fact. Dishwasher safe
CONS: Not as widely recycled as 1 or 2

Commonly Recycled Into: Brooms, Auto Battery Cases, Bins, Pallets, Signal Lights, Ice Scrapers, and Bicycle Racks, Flower pots

6. Polystyrene (PS)
This plastic can be converted into either foam, made 97 percent of air, or a tougher, yet brittle substance like that used for CD cases. Here are some of the items PS is found in:

  • Foam Insulation
  • Disposable cutlery
  • CD and DVD cases
  • Egg Cartons
  • Foam Cups & To-Go Foam from restaurants

CONS: According to the Foundation for Achievements in Science and Education fact sheet, long term exposure to small quantities of styrene can cause neurotoxic (fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping), hematological (low platelet and hemoglobin values), cytogenetic (chromosomal and lymphatic abnormalities), and carcinogenic effects. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).[1]; Not as widely recycled as 1 or 2

Commonly Recycled Into: Egg Cartons, Vents, Foam packing, Insulation

7. Other
Any plastic that doesn’t fall under a 1 through 6 ends up with a 7. Bio plastics are also given the label 7. Other items include:

  • Microwave Ovens
  • Eating Utensils
  • Baby Bottles
  • 3 and 5 Gallon reusable bottles
  • CD and DVD cases
  • Electrical Wring

CONS: Made  with biphenyl-A (commonly known as BPA) that can leach into your food – a chemical that simulates the action of estrogen; rare recycling availability.

Commonly Recycled Into: Plastic Lumber and Custom Made Items

Although all plastics should be avoided whenever possible, we can conclude that there are some plastics safer to use than others – 2, 4, and 5 – as they have not been known to leach chemicals after production.[iii][iv][v].


1 For more information visit Baby Green Thumb.
2  Saying something is microwavable only means that it will not change the shape or melt during the process, it does not imply that it is safe or that toxics will not be released. /small>



[i] Bear Board. (2014). What is HDPE?
[ii] T Jones (2010). Danger! It’s PVC, Plastic Number 3. GreenDepot: Blog
[iii]Amanda Wills. (2009). The Ultimate Plastic Breakdown. Earth 911.
[iv] Brian Clark Howard. What Do Recycling Symbols on Plastics Mean? Good Housekeeping.
[v] Jeffery M. Smith. (2012). 3 Plastics to Avoid. Esquire./small>

Photo Credit: Michal Ma?as

Plastics 101: Making Plastic and Introduction to the Plastic Code

recycleWe live in the Age of Plastics.[i] The quantity of plastic items in your home would likely surprise you.  A form of the Greek word, plastikos, plastic means “to mold, form.” Today, the word plastic is commonly used to refer to a singular type of synthetic substance that possesses the qualities, of well, plastic.  However, plastic should be thought of as a family of substances, each consisting of a variety of polymers[ii], (Greek for “many parts)[iii].

In general, the majority of mass produced plastics are made from hydrocarbons extracted from the cracking process when refining oil and natural gas. These hydrocarbons, through various chemical processes, become monomers (Greek for “one part”)[iv]which combine to form polymers. These monomers can be linked in different combinations to create diverse plastic resins. Visit this link for a complete list of resins.  Resins are typically produced in the shape of pellets. Often these resin producing chemical processes are patented and secretly held by companies.[v]  Therefore, we don’t know exactly what types of chemicals have been used in the plastic making.[vi]

Plastic resins can generally be classified into one of two categories: thermosets or thermoplastics. Thermosets are plastics that, once melted, retain their shape and cannot be remelted and reshaped. In other words, they cannot be recycled. They can only be reused as a different shape or as filler. On the other hand, thermoplastics can be reshaped through processes involving reheating and cooling repeatedly. It’s easier to recycle them into something else.

Recycling plastics became more common in the eighties. Since it is impossible to tell what type of plastic you are holding simply by looking at it, pressure was placed on the plastic industry to establish a common classification and identification system. In 1988, the Society of Plastics Industry developed the SPI resin identification coding system to facilitate the plastic recycling process. You will notice a wide variety of different materials listed underneath each plastic resin classification – giving testimony to the volume of different types of plastic polymers

For a printable chart of all 7 identification codes click here.  Next month, my last article on plastic will focus on explaining the SPI code in more detail and recycling process itself.

For more detailed information about the plastic making process – visit one of these references:

Craig Freudenrich, Ph.D. How Plastics Work – How Stuff Works
PlasticsEurope – How Plastic is Made
Wise Geek – What is the Plastic Manufacturing Process?


[i] Susan Freinkel. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011.

[ii] Please note that not all polymers are plastic. For example, proteins are starches are also made of polymers.

[iii] Susan Freinkel. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011.

[iv] Susan Freinkel. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2011.

[v] Werner Boote. Plastic Planet. A Documentary

[vi] Werner Boote. Plastic Planet. A Documentary


Plastics 101: A Series on Plastic Recycling Part 1: The Life of a Plastic Bag

plastic bagI have frequently wondered what happens to the plastics placed in Oklahoma’s recycle bins. Is it actually being recycled? What happens if a plastic bag is placed with plastic #3? What does plastic #3 really mean anyway? These questions pushed me to understand more about plastic recycling.  My research into plastics is too lengthy for a single blog post; therefore, I have partitioned the story into three sections. Part one focuses on the life cycle of a plastic bag.

As Americans, we throw away approximately 100 billion plastic bags annually and less than 5 percent of all plastic bags used are recycled. Yep – less than 5 percent. It is estimated that 1 trillion bags are used each year around the world, which equates to approximately 1 million bags every minute.  46,000 pieces of plastic are floating in our oceans and 3.5 million tons of plastic were disposed of in 2008.

Plastic bags were first introduced into stores in 1977. A product of crude oil, natural gas, and other molecules[i], plastics bags were lauded for being cheap to manufacture and purchase, as well as convenient for carrying groceries. However, anything made from petroleum products brings with it the problem of disposal. Plastic bags are not biodegradable.

Four things can happen to used plastic bags:

  1. They can fill and contaminate a landfill.
  2. They might be recycled here in America.
  3. They could be exported to an overseas recycling market.
  4. They might be reused by the consumer.

The can fill and contaminate a landfill
This happens when plastic bags simply end up in the trash. It takes 1,000 years for a plastic bag to decompose, but it never completely biodegrades. Instead, sunlight breaks down the plastic into small contaminating bits that weasel their way into soil and marine life.

They might be recycled here in America
Based on the petroleum and other complex molecules plastic bags are made of, they are coded as a mix of plastic #4 and plastic #2[ii]. However, placing plastic bags inside your cities’ recycle bin will cause the recycling machines to clog and malfunction. Therefore, plastic bags are only accepted at certain locations. You can enter your zip code at the plasticfilmrecycling.org for locations near you.

Notice that this website refers to plastic film. Yes, plastic bags often fall into a larger category called plastic film. Usually locations that accept plastic bags (call ahead to inquire first) will also accept the following plastic items you were never quite sure what to do with:

  • Bread bags
  • The thin packaging around napkins, paper towels, bathroom tissue paper, and diaper wrap
  • Case wrap (like the plastic film around water bottles)
  • Produce bags
  • Newspaper bags
  • Air pillows
  • The thin plastic dry cleaning bags around your clothes
  • Cereal box liners
  • Sealable food storage bags (no food inside!)
  • Shipping envelopes

According to Wal-Mart, once the plastic bag recycle bins are full, they are picked up by an outside recycling company and transported to regional recycling centers. I have contacted Wal-Mart for more information and will provide you with an update when I hear back from them.  Target and Lowes are also popular retailers that offer plastic bag and film recycling.

So what are these plastic bags and films recycled into? One type of product is composite wood which can be used to make outdoor decks, window and door frames.  Other possible items your plastic bags might turn into include: garden products, crates, pipe, and new film packaging.

According to multiple sources, it is challenging to recycle plastics. First, it is costly to collect and sort through plastics. It costs $4,000 dollars just to recycle one ton of plastic. The recycled product can then be turned around and sold for just $32.00, according to the Clean Air Council.   Recycling plastics also releases many greenhouse gas emissions, harming the environment. Recycling plastics can also be difficult because after all, it is an economic market. If there are buyers for recycled plastics, then the plastics will likely be recycled, if there are no buyers for the product……then the plastic might end up in a landfill anyway.

Exported to an overseas recycling market
A lot of our plastic bags are shipped to China for recycling and reuse. However, as explained at myplasticfreelife.com, entire communities might be hurt by emissions from the recycling process there.

Reused by the consumer
Many consumers find ways to reuse plastic bags at home. For example, some may use them as trash can liners and others to pick up their dog’s poop. You could also bring them with you to the store for reuse. For those of you with a crafty side, visit this website for cool ways to reuse your bags.

Tips for Reduction of Plastic Bag Use:
1)      Get reusable bags
2)      When you purchase only 1 or 2 items at the store, decline the bag. You can carry those items out in your hand.
3)      Go to stores that don’t use plastic bags


[i] Approximately 12 million barrels of oil are used annually to make plastic bags. (Americans consume 18 million barrels of oil per day)

[ii] I’ll explain more about what plastic numbers actually mean in my next two posts

Photo Credit- EdinburghGreens

World Oceans Day

Today is World Oceans Day, while Oklahoma doesn’t have any oceans to enjoy, we do still have an impact on the health of the world’s oceans. Plastic waste is one way that we are all having an impact. Around 10 percent of the plastic produced each year ends up in our oceans.  That’s around 10,000,000 tons of plastic each year. This plastic isn’t floating around in large pieces in the ocean that would be able to be cleaned up, they are photodegrading and turning in to tiny pieces that would be impossible to clean up.

So what can we do to help the problem? We should be rethinking the items we buy and reduce our use of plastics. Since plastic is everywhere this can seem overwhelming but with some simple steps you can make a big difference.

  • Stop using bottled water. An estimated 25% of bottled water is just tap water. If you are worried about your tap water invest in a good filter and fill your own stainless steel reusable bottles at home.
  • Use reusable bags. Plastic bags are one of the items often seen in the ocean. Every year, Americans use approximately 1 billion plastic shopping bags and few are recycled. Reusable bags are easy to use, come in many great styles and often stores offer discounts for when you use them.
  • Use real dishes. Using real dishes will help save you money and greatly reduce your waste. You can even use neat products like To-Go Ware utensil sets to help reduce waste when away from the house.
  • Use a reusable mug. When you get coffee and other drinks out bring your own mug. Many insulated mugs will keep your drink hot or cold for several hours, unlike disposable cups.
  • Think before you buy. This is one of the biggest things you can do. Ask yourself these questions before you buy a product. Is it something you really need? Is there a better option that will last longer and has less waste? These are good questions to ask not only to reduce your waste but also keep more money in your pocket.
  • Recycle your plastic. When you do end up with plastic do your best to recycle it. You can find places to recycle your plastic on our recycling page.

And remember take it one step at a time. If you do these things slowly they become habits and you won’t become overwhelmed. And if we each do our part we can help save our oceans.


About the Author

Lisa Sharp is passionate about green living, organic food, animals, and natural medicine. She is an environmental activist, green living expert, and consultant. In addition to being the founder and editor of Green Oklahoma, Lisa has a green living blog, Retro Housewife Goes Green. You can follow Lisa on twitter @Retrohousewife5 and Facebook.


Bring Your Own Bag

We use 14,000,000,000 plastic bags in the US every year. Only about one percent of those bags are recycled. The bags that aren’t recycled end up in landfills, littering our towns and the ocean.
Plastic pollution is becoming a large problem as plastic never biodegrades. It just breaks down into smaller more toxic pieces. The toxic chemicals in these bags are ending up in everything, even our bloodstreams.

Each of us can help fix this problem by taking our own reusable bags for grocery shopping. There are many great options out there; so you are sure to find one that fits your needs. Many stores are starting to offer incentives to help encourage us to take our own bags.

Everywhere from Target to Whole Foods offer discounts. Aldi charges for bags, giving you even more of a reason to remember your bags. Even some locally owned stores are starting to encourage reusable bag use by offering discounts.

An added benefit of using reusable bags is that you don’t have all of those plastic bags and paper bags hanging around. You can only reuse so many of grocery bags!

You can find reusable bags at many local stores and we recommend you check locally first. If you can’t find a bag you like you can find a wide range at on Amazon.com or ReuseIt.com.

Reasons to Bring Your Own Bag

  • It’s better for the environment.
  • It can save you money.
  • They don’t break like plastic and paper bags.
  • They are more attractive.
  • Less to recycle or store.

Want to learn more about the plastic bag problem in a  somewhat humorous way? Check out this video.

What are your favorite reusable bags? Do you have tips that help you remember to bring them to the store? Share in the comments below.