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What You Need To Know About LDPE, HDPE, & Everything In Between
Without a doubt, we wouldn’t be where we are today without plastic – having only been around since the early 1900s, it’s hard to imagine our lives now without it. We’re now using about 20 times more plastic than we did 50 years ago; it’s used just about everywhere and takes so many different forms.
We’re currently disposing of around two thirds of the plastic we make, with just 9% getting recycled. Something needs to change without a doubt, and the key to starting is learning. So, do you know your polythene from your polypropylene? Or your PET from your HDPE? Don’t worry – we’ve got it covered to help you understand, and these will no longer just be a random collection of letters which vaguely ring very distant bells.
The Seven Symbols
A good place to start is by familiarising yourself with what you may have already seen or noticed. On just about every item housed in plastic packaging, you’ll notice there’s a triangle with a number in it, and possibly a few letters too. Here’s where each one may be used, what they mean, and what to do with it:
Don’t underestimate the importance of understanding these symbols. They can seem confusing at first but it’s worth getting your head around as education in this area will ultimately be the difference between getting your packaging disposed of in the correct waste stream and it ending up in landfill or the environment. Over 7 billion tonnes of plastic waste have been generated, and almost 80% of that is sitting in either landfills or the environment. Understanding each type of plastic and how you can and should correctly dispose of them is critical for the future of our planet. It’s a vicious cycle at the moment where more and more new plastic is being created due to the lack of it being recycled, and then the newly created plastic is ending up in landfill as well – we need to break the cycle, and quickly too. There’s no better time than now.
rPET - Polyethylene Terephthalate (Recycled)
Polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, is a type of plastic resin as well as a form of polyester. It can be fully recycled, in which case it becomes recycled polyethylene terephthalate, or rPET. Essentially, the material is a polymer, which is made by combining purified terephthalic acid and modified ethylene glycol, both monomers. PET was originally discovered in 1941 in the United Kingdom, where it was also patented.
If you grab a container or bottle, you may notice a #1 code on the bottom of it. That is to say it is made out of PET. It is very common as a packaging material, including things like peanut butter, beverages, produce, bakery goods, salad, frozen foods, cosmetics, dressings, and household cleaners. PET itself is incredibly popular because it is transparent, thermo-stable and incredibly durable. Additionally, it is lightweight, affordable, shatter resistant, resealable and, most important of all, recyclable. This is where rPET comes in.
rPET is created by recycling plastics that were previously used as packaging materials. These include plastic bottles, for instance. Once collected, it is sorted and cleaned, after which it is transformed into rPET, which can then be used for new packaging materials or products, creating a circular economy.
Plastic Recycling in the UK
Most people want to dispose of their waste plastics responsibly. The biggest factor affecting recycling rates is the lack of facilities. Where there are no facilities – plastic goes to landfill. Where facilities are introduced, the amount getting buried drops. All modern plastic items have a stamp on them indicating what category of plastic they fall into. There are seven categories. Let’s take a look at each and see how easy they are to dispose of.
#1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
Plastic drinks bottles are nearly all manufactured from PET. This is a highly recyclable material and 94% of UK councils will now collect PET plastic bottles either from your doorstep or from recycling centres.
2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE is the more rigid plastic that is used for bottles containing substances such as bleach, shampoo and detergents. Products made from HDPE are not biodegradable but they can be recycled for use in plastics manufacture. Oil is an ingredient in manufacturing plastic that can be replaced by recycled HDPE.
3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC can be rigid or flexible. In its rigid state, it can be turned into window frames and bank cards. The flexible version can be used to replace leather in clothes and shoes or as insulation for electrical wiring. Both states can be reduced to their component chemicals and turned into more PVC.
4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Plastic bags and six pack rings are made from LDPE. These two items are often cited as the most polluting plastic products – turning up in the ocean where they cause havoc to the ecosystem. Although LDPE is recyclable – just 5% of what is produced gets recycled. A greater recognition of plastic types and facilities for their separation and disposal could improve this figure.
5. Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene has a high softening point, so it is often chosen for containers that will house hot drinks. You don’t want your coffee to melt your cup. Less than 1% of PP gets recycled.
6. Polystyrene (PS)
Polystyrene (PS) is a plastic used for manufacturing yoghurt pots, foam meat or fish trays, burger boxes, egg cartons, vending machine cups, plastic cutlery, protective packaging for electronic goods and toys. Polystyrene can be called GPPS (general purpose polystyrene) & HIPS (high impact polystyrene). A versatile, cost-effective, impact-resistant material, which is easy to vacuum form, extrude, bend and mould into shape. It boasts extreme malleability and can be re-moulded over and over, making it environmentally friendly, as it can be recycled. One common secondary use for Polystyrene is to shred it into tiny balls and use it as cavity wall insulation.
Polystyrene is identified by the number 6 on its recycling symbol.
7. Everything Else
Some common plastics that fall into this category are Polyactide – used in 3D printing – and polycarbonate which is used in roofing. The fact that everything is a bit mixed up in this category means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to recycling plastics stamped with a number 7. Most types can be turned into ‘plastic lumber’ which can be used in the construction industry