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Navigating the minefield of plastic recycling

By Tessa Buhrmann

, |

Navigating the minefield of plastic recycling

By Tessa Buhrmann

, |

3 min read

You’re trying to do the right thing by recycling. Cans, glass, cardboard and paper are easy – but plastic! And all those little ‘recycling’ symbols and numbers on them, fat lot of good they do to clear up the confusion. That is unless you know what they mean and how to interpret them.

Contrary to popular belief, these three little chasing arrows forming a triangle around a number do not mean that the plastic item can readily be recycled, but are special material identification codes developed by the Plastic Industry Trade Association (originally known as the American Society of the Plastics Industry). These codes are used globally by recyclers to tell what polymers are present in the plastic product so that they can be separated and sorted accordingly.

The numbers range from one to seven with the acronym of the polymer displayed underneath. The most commonly recycled are #1 (PET), #2 (HDPE), #4 (LDPE) and sometimes #5 (PP) and #6 (PS).

Still confused? Me too, so let’s delve a little deeper into understanding these numbers.

  1. 1. PET – Polyethylene terephthalate. PET is one of the most common polymers used for food and beverage packaging and is used to make carbonated drink bottles, water bottles, plastic jars, punnets, trays, strapping tape and more. PET is widely recycled in South Africa and around the world and is often used to make trays for fruit, fibre for carpeting, fibrefill for pillows and duvets, polar fleece and geotextiles.
  2. PE-HD (or HDPE) – High-density polyethylene. This is a hard and strong form of polyethylene that is used to manufacture milk bottles, fruit juice bottles, plastic drums, buckets, crates, bins and shampoo bottles. Its strength and durability make it ideal for products that need to withstand wear and tear. PE-HD is recycled in South Africa and is often recycled into pens, picnic tables, benches and plastic ‘wood’.
  3. PVC – Polyvinyl chloride. PVC is a sturdy and hard plastic polymer used to create irrigation pipes, tamper-proof medicine seals, shrink-wrapping, conduiting, toys, plastic gutters and more. It is quite difficult to recycle, and requires special machinery, so many small-scale recyclers in South Africa cannot process it. Fortunately, many plastics manufacturers have started to replace PVC products with PET.
  4. PE-LD (or LDPE) – Low-density polyethylene. This is used for products such as grocery bags, packets, cling film, bubble wrap and sandwich bags. PE-LD is a flexible polymer that is widely recycled in South Africa and often finds its second life as compost bins, bin liners and even floor tiles.
  5. PP – Polypropylene – PP is a temperature-resistant polymer that is used to manufacture ice cream containers, kettles, straws, microwave dishes, garden furniture, bottle caps and takeaway cutlery. This is also commonly recycled in South Africa and is often recycled into brooms, plastic pallets, ice scrapers, car battery cases and more.
  6. PS – Polystyrene. PS comes in two forms: expanded PS and a hardened PS. Expanded PS is the foam-like material used to make packaging fillers and takeaway food containers. The hardened PS is used to manufacture coat hangers, bread tags and yoghurt cups. PS is accepted in some recycling facilities in South Africa, so check with your local recycling centre. When recycled it can be turned into foam packaging and insulation.

And then there’s this one …

  1. Other – This is used to denote any other type of plastic polymer. So, if other isn’t enough to confuse, then wait till you see the assortment of acronyms beneath the triangle, like ABS, E/VAC, POM, PC, PETG, PA or a combination of them. The only good (while being bad) thing about this is that at least we know that plastics with this code are often made from a mixture of polymers, making them difficult to recycle, or more likely, not at all.

Ideally, we should all be reducing our reliance on plastic – taking our own bags when shopping, buying unpackaged vegetables and fruit, and generally choosing items, when possible, that don’t come with excess packaging. And if we must use plastic, choose those that are recyclable and use these numbers as a guideline when you’re sorting for your recycling bin (if in doubt, check with your estate or municipality’s recycling centre). And instead of just binning the balance, how about making ecobricks instead?

For more info: – has a useful search section for finding a recycling centre near you

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