Plastic recycling relies on governments and local authorities to provide the infrastructure, but also on committed consumers who know what can be recycled. Sorting rubbish to avoid contamination and knowing where different types of recycling need to go is important for recycling to be effective.
Can recycling plastic reduce plastic waste?
Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, but just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. Micro plastic can be found in all corners of the earth, including the arctic and the deepest parts of the ocean. It harms both animals and humans and as it is airborne, we breathe in micro-plastic particles as well as ingesting them in seafood.
Plastic items thrown away today will remain in the environment for hundreds of years.
Replacing plastic with more sustainable materials in our everyday lives will help reduce the amount of new plastic in the environment. Avoiding the use of single use plastics should be a high priority for everyone. Governments worldwide are moving towards banning them. Enforcing bans will not be easy, given the amount in use, the fact that single use plastic is cheap to make and buy, and the perceived convenience.
“Circular economies” are the way forward
Sadly, as with most things environmental, Australia lags behind most of the western world. There is little incentive for manufacturers to use recycled plastic when using new plastic is cheaper. There are no penalties in place for doing so. Australia has been sending much of our waste overseas for recycling and so does not have sufficient infrastructure to successfully recycle much of our plastic waste into other products.
Countries such as Europe are more forward thinking and are putting a lot of effort, and investment into processing their own waste into new products, creating “circular economies”.
Industries are starting to step up, despite the lack of government initiatives, and are working towards better environmental practices. Large supermarkets are not among them. Over packaging in single use plastic continues to be a major cause of plastic waste.
We can vote with our wallets and stop buying produce which is over packaged or packaged in plastic unnecessarily. We should also be discouraging the small plastic supermarket give away items targeting children which are totally useless and just add more waste into the environment.
Where to start when considering plastic waste
Eliminate or at least reduce your use of single use plastics. Find reusable alternatives. The aim is to reduce waste as much as possible. By gradually replacing plastic with alternative products, the amount of plastic recycling you need to do should be much reduced. Otherwise, try to buy products with minimal packaging and ensure the plastic is recyclable by checking the codes.
The Process of Plastic Recycling
Once sorted, plastic is broken up into chips or flakes and washed. It is then dried, melted, and the pellets created are used to manufacture new products. These include artificial fleece, carpets, floor mats, tiles, furniture, motor oil, plant pots, garden furniture, detergent bottles and pipes. Plastics cannot be recycled infinitely, and will eventually end up in landfill. Again, reducing the use of single use plastic products addresses this to some degree.
What type of plastic can be recycled?
On most plastic bottles, jars, containers and other packaging, you’ll find the recycling symbol with a number in the middle, and sometimes letters underneath. This is the Plastics Identification Code.
The code was launched in 1988 by the Society of the Plastics Industry in the US and introduced to Australia in 1990.
The number in the triangle found on the bottom of plastics is not a recycling symbol but rather a plastic or resin identification code. It advises what type of plastic the item is made from but NOT if it is recyclable. These codes are very important when it comes to recycling products but aren’t widely known throughout our communities. Recycling information on packaging can also be confusing.
What the numbers mean
1 – PETE – Polyethylene Terephthalate
These are often the easiest plastics to recycle. This category includes products like soft drink bottles and common food packaging. These materials can be placed into your recycling bin and are recycled into plastic bottles and polyester fibres.
2 – HDPE – High Density Polyethylene
You can find HDPE in both rigid and soft plastic forms. The rigid form is used as packaging for detergents, bleach, shampoo, conditioner and milk containers. They can be placed into your council recycling bin for collection and are recycled into more bottles and bags for future use.
As a soft plastic, HDPE is used for freezer bags, plastic bags, and other plastic food packaging. It can be recycled in the REDcycle bins found at Coles and some Woolworths stores.
3 – PVC – Polyvinyl Chloride
PVC products include pipes, toys and packing. It can be difficult to recycle and has been described as one of the most hazardous consumer products ever created. It should never be sent to landfill and should always be mechanically recycled so that it can be reused. If you have PVC you need to recycle, contact your local council to find out the best way to dispose of it.
4 – LDPE – Low-density Polyethylene
LDPE is used to create items such as ice-cream lids, garbage bags and sandwich bags. It is a soft and flexible material and can be recycled into the same thing. Local councils usually do not accept these types of materials, but programs like REDcycle do, passing them onto a manufacturing company called Replas, who give these plastics a new life!
5 – PP – Polypropylene
Polypropylene is used to create clothing, tubs, ropes or bottles and can be turned into fibres when recycled properly. You can place items in this category into your local council kerbside recycling bin.
6 – PS – Polystyrene
Polystyrene, manufactured from petroleum, can be difficult to recycle due to its bulky, yet lightweight nature. You should avoid buying products that have this recycling code on them. However, if you do have products that contain this code, try to reuse the material for another use inside your home, or donate it to a local craft shop so that it doesn’t go into landfill. Do not place this material in your curbside recycling bin.
7 – All other plastics
The code used for all other types of plastics, including anything from acrylic to nylon. Recycling plants do not want this material.
It’s important to check your products for these codes to ensure that you are recycling them in the correct way. Mixing incorrect types of plastics can send perfectly good recycling to landfill.
Codes 1, 2 & 5 can be placed in your kerbside recycling bin, and recycled by your local council. Contact your local council for codes 3, 4, 6 & 7 to find out if they can be recycled and where the collection points are.