Recycling Plastics

Today we can not imagine a world without plastic. The versatility of this material allows it to be used to make virtually everything we use in our lives. Can you think of a toy that doesn’t have some plastic in it? How about your car? The containers that hold and package our food and nearly every other product we use from soap, pet supplies and even medicine, are all made of plastic. Even the internal workings of our homes, appliances, medical and surgical equipment, and machinery – all these things are made of plastic. Fences, siding for housing, indoor and outdoor furniture, carpeting, athletic tracks – the list goes on and on such that we really can not imagine our world today without plastic! The benefits of plastics are infinite!

The discovery and subsequent development of plastic has dramatically changed our lives. Because of its easy manipulation, resistance to corrosion, and low manufacture cost, plastics have replaced metal, wood, glass and other materials in all kinds of applications.

But is plastic infinite? While there are no limits to the creativity of the human mind, there are limits to our natural resources and the materials used to make plastic. Petroleum is the main source of plastics, but other raw materials such as coal, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, chlorine and sulfur are also major contributors. The mining and processing of these materials is costly, both in terms of the financial strain, and in terms of environmental devastation.

Plastic is the result of the physics of molecules. Long-chains molecules which contain small groups of recurring atoms linked together become one giant molecule chain. These chains them become entangled with each other in a process we call polymerization. When subjected to heat, these chains move apart allowing them to slide one over the other, still retaining their cohesiveness. This is what makes plastic so unique, versatile, and durable. Yet because they require considerable force to move them apart, this same phenomenon is what makes it so difficult to recycle plastic.

The challenge of plastic is to retain its infinite benefits while at the same time ensuring that it does not cause environmental harm.

Remember that plastic is the result of combining various raw materials. Raw materials are the essence of the earth’s existence. We are taking and taking and taking the earth’s raw materials with no consideration of how long (billions of years) it took the earth to produce them, or that that this supply is not limitless.

In an ideal world, we would take our man-made products and break down the chemical combinations, back to the raw elements, so to speak, use them again to make new man-made products, and then we would have a self-sustaining industry. Scientists have not yet come to fully recognize this, however, due to the complicated combinations and intense structure of polymerization. As a result, there are many plastic products that we are not yet able to recycle. There are, however, many that we can recycle, and fortunately, these are the plastics that are most common in our daily lives.

It is important then, for us to understand what plastics we can recycle do so! We must then focus our buying power on these recyclable products. We should also buy products that are made from recycled plastic. Finally, it is also important that we reuse many of our possessions, especially those that can’t be recycled.

Recyclable Plastics

PET (1)

Bottles for soft drinks, water, juice, sports drinks, beer, mouthwash, salad dressing;

Food jars for peanut butter, jellies and jams and pickles

Microwavable food trays

HDPE (2)

Bottles for milk, water, juice, cosmetics, shampoo, dish and laundry detergents, and household cleaners

Cereal box liners

Reusable shipping containers

LDPE (4)

Bags for dry cleaning, newspapers, bread, frozen foods, fresh produce

Shrink wrap and stretch film

Container lids


Squeezable bottles (such as honey and mustard)

PP (5) containers for yogurt, margarine, takeout meals and deli foods

Medicine bottles

Bottle caps and closures

PS (6)

Food service items such as cups, plates, cutlery, hinged takeout

Protective foam packaging for furniture, electronics, and other delicate items

Packing peanuts

Compact disc cases and aspirin bottles

Products made from recycled plastic

Taking your used plastics to a recycler is just the first step in making a difference in the environment. In order to make an impact, we must become conscious consumers and be committed to buying new products that are made from recycled materials.

Plastics rescued from landfills are made into all kinds of products. In many cases, they are remade into the same product; shampoo, detergents and drink bottles are made back into more bottles for the same use. These bottles also become the lumber for outdoor decking, fencing, and furniture as well as pipes, floor tiles, buckets and crates, and outdoor playground equipment. Drink bottles also become fiber for carpet, fleece jacks, comforter fillers and new food and beverage containers.

PVC pipes, siding, window frames and decking materials become paneling, gutters, mud flaps, electrical boxes, traffic cones and garden hose.

Thin bags from dry cleaning, newspaper bags, bread, fresh produce and household garbage bags become shipping envelopes, trash can liners, furniture, landscape timber and outdoor lumber.

Containers from yogurt, margarine, takeout meals, medicine bottles and bottle caps are often used to make automobile parts such as signal lights, battery cases, battery cables, and oil funnels. This plastic is also used to make bicycle racks, brooms, and garden rakes.

Food service items such as plastic cutlery, cups and plates, and packing peanuts become thermal insulation, thermometers, light switch plates, and camera casings.

These are just a few examples. Consumers should be cautious, however, because some manufactures of the above listed products make them from 100% virgin plastics while others make them from recycled materials. Just because you buy a garden rake or paneling for your home does not mean you are supporting the recycling effort.

The only way to be sure that a product has been made from recycled materials is to look for the “made from recycled” logo on the item.

Below is a list of facts about just one kind of plastic – PET bottles.

Plastic Bottle Recycling Facts

  • In 2006, Americans drank about 167 bottles of water each, but only recycled an average of 23%. That leaves 38 billion water bottles in landfills.
  • Bottles water costs between $1 and $4 per gallon. 90% of the cost is in the bottle, lid, and label.
  • It takes over 1.5 million barrels of oil to manufacture a year’s supply of bottled water. That is enough oil to fuel 100,000 cars.
  • In 2006 we spent over $16 billion on bottled water. That is more than we spent on iPods or movie tickets.
  • It takes over 700 years before plastic bottles even begin to decompose in a landfill.
  • If everyone in NYC gave up water bottles for one week they would save 24 million bottles from being landfilled; one month would save 112 million bottles and one year would save 1. 33 billion bottles.

If we could just increase the percentage of drink bottles that are being recycled instead of being dumped in the landfills, it would have a tremendous impact on our earth. Imagine what could happen if we diverted PET and HDPE from the landfills! And then let’s get really wild with our imagination – what if we recycled even more kinds of plastics! We really can make a difference in our world – even one person, one bottle at a time.

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