Know Your Plastics: 7 Different Types and How to Recycle Them
Humans have been making plastic for over 100 years, and today, it’s an important component of virtually all manufacturing. Plastic is a part of everything from cars, medical equipment, computers, and machinery to homewares, packaging, and even clothes! Despite the negative press plastic often receives, it is an invaluable material and our world would not be the same without it.
The key to using plastic sustainably is recycling it. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry created a set of plastic resin identification codes to help people identify different types of plastic and recycle them accordingly.
The Seven Types of Plastic Explained
We can categorise plastics into seven groups based on their resin identification codes. You may have seen these codes on the back of plastic packaging like water bottles and takeaway containers. Here’s a breakdown of what each code means with examples.
PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate. This type of plastic is strong, flexible, and transparent. It’s very lightweight, and it is a popular glass alternative. Examples of PET plastic include water, cooldrink, and sauce bottles, soap, mouthwash, and lotion bottles, and other packaging you can squeeze easily.
We also use PET to make fabric, which is known as polyester. You’ll find polyester in many lightweight clothes, sheets, curtains, etc. South Africa has a well-established recycling system for PET bottles, which can be turned into recycled fabric or packaging. We use the code “rPET” for containers made from recycled plastic bottles.
HDPE (sometimes called PE-HD) stands for high-density polyethylene. This type of plastic is slightly stronger than PET and can withstand much higher temperatures without melting. It’s also highly resistant to chemicals and will not absorb water or be damaged by acidic liquids and bacteria.
For these reasons, manufacturers often use HDPE for detergent bottles, chemical containers, and paint tubs.
HDPE is not perfectly transparent, but you can usually see what’s inside it to a degree. Examples of HDPE at home include milk and fruit juice bottles, containers for cleaning products and bug sprays, and kids’ toys. In South Africa, we recycle HDPE into strong reusable shopping bags.
PVC stands for polyvinyl chloride. It comes in two forms: rigid and flexible. The rigid type is one of the strongest plastics and is incredibly resistant to sun damage. Therefore, it’s a popular material in the construction industry. PVC piping is the most common example of the material. In its flexible form, PVC is used for gumboots, shoe soles, pencil erasers, charger cables, jumping castles, tents, and shower curtains.
Flexible PVC contains chemicals called plasticisers, which is why we don’t use it for food containers or children’s toys. In South Africa, we recycle PVC to make hoses and sewage pipes.
LDPE (or PE-LD) stands for low-density polyethylene. It’s the most flexible type of plastic and is very common for packaging. Bread bags, plastic packets, cling wrap, freezer bags, bubble wrap, and some soft cosmetics tubes and sauce bottles are made from LDPE. This plastic is food-safe, so it will not react with the ingredients and affect the taste of its contents.
It is the most widely recycled plastic in South Africa. We can turn it into recycled grocery packets, bin bags, hoses, insulation, luggage wraps, and more.
PP stands for polypropylene. Plastic number 5 is perhaps one of the most diverse plastics with hundreds of different uses. It can withstand heat better than LDPE, so it won’t melt at high temperatures. It’s also very rigid and won’t bend or lose its shape when pulled into a thin sheet. Plastic straws and microwavable meal containers are often made from polypropylene.
We can recycle it into almost anything–recycled fabric to make rugs and furniture, plastic kitchenware, or new packaging materials.
PS stands for polystyrene. While you might know it as the white, spongy material they use for takeaway containers, polystyrene comes in a hard, rigid form. This hard type of polystyrene is used to make the plastic domes that cover cakes and sushi. It’s also used for yoghurt tubs, bread tags, cell phone cases, coat hangers, and toys. It’s very easy to form into elaborate shapes and has a high-gloss finish.
The other type (think takeaway containers and shipping peanuts) is called expanded polystyrene or EPS for short. It’s extremely light and cost-effective and makes excellent insulation. Polystyrene is 100% recyclable in South Africa. We can turn it into picture frames, seedling trays, outdoor furniture, and construction materials.
Plastic number 7 is called “other” because it covers all polymers that don’t fit into groups 1 – 6. Not all number 7 plastics look the same, and they are sometimes made by blending two or more plastic types. Polycarbonate (windshields, roofing, etc) is a type of number 7 plastic. Recycling “other” plastics can be challenging. To make them easier to recycle, manufacturers should print the plastic’s “ingredients” under the symbol.
Learn More About Plastic Recycling in South Africa
The SA recycling market is growing, with many exciting opportunities for entrepreneurs in the waste sector. In 2021, the government gazetted new plastic packaging recycling laws. These regulations make it mandatory for businesses to get involved with industry-specific recycling and waste prevention. Click on the link to learn more about our EPR laws and how eWASA helps businesses comply.
- Plastics SA: