What are plastics?

Plastics are made from a wide range of synthetic or semi-synthetic organic compounds that can be molded into solid objects. Typically, plastics are synthetic and consist of chemical compounds derived from petrochemicals, or oil. Plastics' malleability stems from its chemical makeup - a long chain of polymers that may be shortened or lengthened without changing the chemical nature of the plastic itself.

While the word "plastic" gives off the impression that all plastic objects are made from the same exact chemical makeup, there actually exist many different types depending on what other additives are mixed into the polymer chains.

Examples of different types of plastics

  • Polyester (PES) - found in fabrics or textiles;
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) - found in drink bottles, plastic jars, plastic film or microwaveable packaging;
  • Polyethylene (PE) - found in single-use plastic bags;
  • High-density polyethylene (HDPE) - found in detergent bottles, milk jugs or molded plastic cases
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) - found in plumbing pipes and flooring;
  • Polyvinylidene chloride (PVDC) - found in food packaging (AKA Saran wrap);
  • Polypropylene (PP) - found in bottle caps, drinking straws, yoghurt containers or appliances;
  • Polystyrene (PS) - found in packing foam ("peanuts") or disposable cups, plats and cutlery (AKA Styrofoam)
  • Polycarbonate (PC) - eyeglasses or CDs

Recycling Plastics

As consumers, we can tell the difference between types of plastics by looking at the number stamped into them (1-7). This number dictates whether the material may be recycled in your local municipality. Like-numbers must be combined together for recycling, and most centers cannot recycle them all.

When determining whether you can recycle certain objects, visit your local city or county's website which will provide you with a list of the types of plastics (or numbers) your municipality accepts at its recycling centers.

Remember, however, that most plastics cannot be recycled and that the recycling process itself is extremely energy intensive and often results in degraded plastics. The best option is to opt to reduce your plastics consumption and reuse what you have so as not to bring more new plastics into the plastics lifecycle.