Updated: Apr 6, 2022
Plastic pollution is a huge issue that I’m sure most people are aware of. From personal experience, I can say that trying to understand the world of plastic production and its value chain and life cycle is no simple task. There’s a lot of science involved too, not surprisingly. As the world attempts to become greener and more sustainable, I thought it would be beneficial to understand what the 7 types of plastic are and how they can be handled appropriately. I always knew that there were different types, but I didn’t realize they could be broken down into 7 simple categories.
I decided to do a scavenger hunt around my house to see what types of plastic I could find. You can tell what type of plastic your item is by searching for the triangular recycling icon with any number 1 through 7 in the center. In my experience, I’ve usually found it on the bottom of plastic things.
1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE)
This plastic is clear and commonly used to make bottles and jars, and is also generally accepted by recycling anywhere. In my house, it’s the most common type of plastic I have. I’ve found a bottle of honey, a jar of coffee grounds, and a bottle of BBQ sauce among many others. PETE is well known for its ability to be airtight and prevent spoilage of the contents inside. When recycled, PETE is remanufactured into new containers, carpets, and furniture. Don’t forget to remove the lid before recycling. Lids can be #4 or #5 plastics, and are recycled differently at recycling plants.
2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
#2 plastic is also commonly recycled and needs to have its lids removed. I have a half gallon of lemonade, a gallon of milk, a medicine bottle, and a container of laundry detergent. All of these items mark the general checkbox for HDPE. Another way to tell if the plastic is HDPE is by its thicker feel and by bending it back. If it snaps back, you have HDPE.
3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC-U)
This plastic is rarely recycled and seen in the form of travel bottles, toys, food trays, etc. It's also what PVC pipe is made out of, surprise surprise. In my scavenger hunt, I was able to find just a simple travel water bottle. You can tell a plastic is PVC-U by the way it breaks. If you drop a water bottle, for example, and it cracks, it will crack in a star shaped pattern. Specialized services need to recycle PVC as it seeps many dangerous chemicals as it breaks down.
4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
LDPE is the simplest plastic to produce and is used to make thin plastic items like bags, plastic wrap, and frozen food containers. I have what is referred to as “The Bag” in my closet, a plastic bag that holds all my other plastic bags bundled up into balls. LDPE shopping bags can be returned to the store that they were brought from, which will then be reprocessed and reused as new bags at the store.
5. Polypropylene (PP)
I have heard of PP prior to learning about all the different types of plastic. However, I didn’t know that it was a form of plastic. What can I say? I didn’t do well in chemistry in high school. PP is used to make bottle caps, soda cups, pill bottles, butter and margarine tubs, etc. Consequently, those are all items I’ve found in my scavenger hunt. PP isn’t generally recycled, but check your local recycling guidelines to find out how to recycle this plastic.
6. Polystyrene (PS)
We all know what polystyrene is by its street name: Styrofoam. Styrofoam is used to make parcel packaging, cups and plates, and insulated coolers. Like PP, PS is not generally recycled, so be sure to check your local guidelines to properly dispose of this material
Type 7 plastic is classified as any other plastic that is not on this list. These plastics are referred to as household plastics. They are tough, and will most likely shatter if too much pressure is applied to them. As I typed that sentence, I was reminded of sitting on the porch many summers ago, and the iconic CRACK that echoed through the air when the plastic chair I slumped into snapped and broke. Now that I think about it, that was most likely a #7 plastic. These items also tend to come with their own recycling instructions, so be sure to recycle your item according to its guidelines.
Now, you know what all the basic types of plastic are, and how to get rid of them the right way. Understanding the basics will help out in the long run when it comes to cutting down on our plastic usage and becoming more sustainable.