Environmental Focus on Kingston: Plastics by the Numbers

Starting Novemember 8th the sale of all water bottles under a gallon will have a 5¢ deposit added to them.  This is the result of being included in the state’s newly expanded Bigger Better Bottle Bill.  It marks the first change to the state’s bottle deposit law since it was created in 1982.

An estimated 3.2 billion water bottles are sold annually across the Empire State.  Including water bottles under the deposit law is expected to result in increased recycling and decreased litter, which sounds good for the environment.  There’s even some good news for the state; 80% of unclaimed deposits will now go to Albany in the form of much-needed revenue, which is projected to be as much as $115 million.

Despite my long love affair with drinking the icy cold, refreshing liquid, thankfully I’ve avoided developing a water bottle habit.  I can probably count the number of times I buy them annually on one hand.  And when I do it’s usually under extreme duress, like immediate threat of dehydration or imminent death.

While including water bottles under the deposit law is a great idea that is long overdue for the state and the environment, it really got me thinking about the many different types plastics there are and how to recycle them.

Plastic is one of the most widely used materials in the US.  It’s in everything from toys, clothes, food containers, to medical equipment and devices.  It makes up 11.7% of the nation’s waste stream and is among the least recycled items.

Plastics are made from fossil fuels and their manufacture can involve the emission of toxic substances into the atmosphere and water.  When they are incinerated, toxins such as lead and chlorine are released.  When put into landfills, they can take 100-400 years to decompose.

There are over a hundred kinds of plastics that have been created, but the most common containers fall into one of seven categories.  The Society of the Plastics Industry developed this numeric system to identify the type of plastic resins used in specific products.  This helps recycling centers to sort them so they can find life in new products.

Here’s the low down on each of the seven types of common plastics used today:


#1 Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)*: This is the most common type of plastic and is considered to be one of the least toxic.  However, most environmentalists agree that it is fit for single use only.  PET plastics are typical of soda, juice, water, and even cough syrup bottles.  (Accepted for recycling at UCRRA)

#2 High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)*: Is considered one of the safer plastics, despite it being manufactured with chemicals such as hexane and benzene.  #2 plastics are most often used in shampoo and detergent bottles, milk jugs, cosmetic containers, toys and sturdy shopping bags.  (Accepted for recycling at UCRRA)

#3 Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): Is considered a plastic to avoid and many environmentalists think it to be the most toxic, despite the plastic industry’s defense its safety.  Both its manufacture and disposal releases dioxin into the air and water.  It is used in shower curtains, meat & cheese wrappers, 3-ring binders, some bottles, plumbing pipes and many toys.  (NOT accepted for recycling at UCRRA)

#4 Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)*: This type of plastic is used for shopping bags, six-pack rings, CD and DVD cases and some bottles.  (Acccepted for recycling at UCRRA)

#5 Polypropylene (PP)*: #5 is generally regarded as a relatively benign plastic.  It is used in prescription bottles, yogurt, food storage containers, diapers, candy containers and lab equipment.  (Accepted for recycling at UCRRA)

#6 Polystyrene (PS): This plastic has undergone some chemical changes since it was phased out of McDonald’s sandwich wrappers some 20 years ago.  Ozone depleting CFC’s are no longer used in its manufacture, but environmentalists still dislike it because of the presence of toxic styrene and it is known to pollute nearby air & water.  #6 plastics are found in disposable cups, take-out food containers and packing peanuts.  (NOT accepted for recycling at UCRRA)

#7 Other: These types of plastics are “wild cards.”   They do not fall within the guidelines for the other common categories.  They include toothbrushes, protective head-gear, reusable water bottles, sunglasses and cell phones. (Accepted for recycling at UCRRA)

Remember when recycling plastic containers to remove and discard all caps and be sure to rinse all containers.  Lids are generally accepted.

*A quick word on bisphenol A (BPA), which has been a frequent media topic lately.  Scientists are studying the link between heating a plastic container lined with BPA and the potential leaching of the chemical into foods and beverages.  Some believe that BPA leaching causes neural and behavioral issues, particularly in young children.  The current expert thinking is that #1, 2, 4 & 5 plastics do not use BPA in the manufacturing of their related plastic products.

Finally, if that isn’t enough to help you understand plastics, the importances of choosing the right kinds as consumers and why/how to recycle them – then check out this article from How Stuff Works.

(Courtesy of: Silverman, Jacob.  “Why is the world’s biggest landfill in the Pacific Ocean?.”  19 September 2007. HowStuffWorks.com,  29 October 2009.)

– Wilbur Girl