Know your plastics
Have you ever noticed the small numbers printed on your plastic containers? Here’s a guide to what these numbers mean when it comes to recycling.
PET – Polyethylene Terephthalate
PET is a favourite of soft drink manufacturers. It’s also used for bottled water and a wide variety of food products are packaged in it.
South Africa has a PET recycling company, established in 2004, called Petco. Thanks to its efforts, PET container recycling is increasing significantly from 19,000 tonnes in 2007 to 95,859 tonnes in 2019. In fact, 62% of PET bottles were collected for recycling in 2019, according to Petco.
Collectors gather PET from landfill sites or households because they can earn a small amount of money for it. They are paid by weight. Petco says 65,900 employment opportunities were created through PET recycling in 2019.
PET is recycled into …
- Hollowfibre filling for jackets, duvets, pillows and sleeping bags.
- Fibre for polyester carpeting and for luggage and upholstery.
- Fabric for T-shirts, long underwear, athletic shoes, sweaters, strapping, sheeting for sandwich blisters and chocolate trays, bottles for detergents, and even new PET cold drink bottles.
- Green bottles are turned into ceiling insulation (Isotherm).
- PET is also recycled in geotextiles for road stabilisation and dam linings, and Plastiwood. 1kg = about 25 x one litre bottles or 50 x 500ml bottles.
HDPE – High density polyethylene
This is a thicker, often coloured plastic. You’ll find the number 2 logo on milk bottles, cleaning products, motor oils, cosmetics and toiletries (eg, shampoo and lotions), food storage containers, cereal box liners, carrier bags, crates, drums for chemicals and pesticides, and pipes used in various industries.
HDPE is recycled into …
- Recycling bins, compost bins, dustbins, toys, automotive mud flaps, pallets, refuse bags, carrier bags, plastic barrier cones, pipes and plastic timber products.
PVC – Polyvinyl chloride
PVC is used to make a wide range of products. When it is burned it releases toxic dioxins. There are two basic types of PVC: rigid and flexible. Rigid and flexible PVC are both recycled in South Africa, according to PlasticsSA. Rigid PVC is used in the construction industry in products such as water pipes and vents, wastepipes, conduit and guttering. Soft flexible PVC is used to make shower curtains, rainwear, gumboots, shoe soles, artificial leather, garden hoses, medical tubing, flooring, banners and cable insulation, among others. PVC is recycled into shoe soles, pipes, hoses, door mats, car mats, conduit, speed humps, traffic cones and sewage pipes, says PlasticsSA.
LDPE – Low-density polyethylene
Number 4 plastic is the most popular material for recycling in South Africa, according to Plastics SA. About a third of the plastic recycled is LDPE. It is used for packaging and wrapping a variety of consumer goods. It is used to make rubbish bags, frozen veggie bags, milk sachets, domestic cling film, peelable lids, bubble wrap, some squeezable bottles and cosmetic tubs, car wash bristles, road barriers, pallet wrap, irrigation pipes and cable insulation.
LDPE is recycled into …
Bin liners, pallet sheets, irrigation pipes, a variety of containers, dust bins, refuse bags, furniture covers and construction and building film.
PP – Polypropylene
This type of plastic is used in a wide variety of products such as ice cream, yoghurt, margarine and cottage cheese tubs, drinking straws, microwave dishes, garden furniture and stadium seating, lunch boxes, packaging tape and bottle caps, woven bags for dog food, chocolate wrappers and chip packets, baby nappies, sanitary pads, syringes, shopping trolleys and baskets, car dashboards and bumpers, and coathangers.
PP is recycled into …
Buckets and bowls, rubbish bins, shopping baskets, coathangers, outdoor furniture, paint trays, flower pots and storage containers.
PS – Polystyrene
Polystyrene is produced from naphtha, a byproduct of the petroleum refining process. There are two kinds of recyclable polystyrene: high impact, from which products like coathangers, bread tags and yoghurt cups are made, and expanded polystyrene, from which meat and vegetable trays are made. An industry body called the Polystyrene Association of South Africa (PASA) facilitates the recycling of this material.
PS is recycled into …
Picture frames, curtain rails, skirting boards, cornices, stationery, eg, rulers and pens, seedling trays, coathangers, Tutudesks, polystyrene beads that are used in Wonderbags, which are used for cooking, and beanbags. Recycled polystyrene can also be mixed with cement and used to build houses.
The number 7 is used for all packing materials that are not included in numbers 1 to 6. The material names should appear under the arrows – such as acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) or polycarbonate (PC) – but they often don’t, says PlasticsSA.
ABS and polycarbonate are not commonly used for packing, but polycarbonate was used extensively in baby bottles until it was banned in many countries because Bisphenol A (BPA) may leach from the product.
Number 7 can also refer to multilayer plastics, such as those used in toothpaste tubes, filter coffee packs and portion packs of butter and margarine. Multimaterial plastic products can only be recycled if the layers can be separated, says PlasticsSA.
With awareness of recycling growing, you’ll find most plastic containers will be stamped with a number. If you come across something that doesn’t have a number, but you suspect that it is recyclable, the advice of PlasticsSA is that you put the item in a separate plastic bag along with the number 4 plastics. The recycling companies that collect the material from the drop-off sites will sort it out.