Opinion

Recycling plastics: are you doing it wrong?

Recycling plastic items is an easy and small way that individuals can live more sustainably, and help to stop plastic from ending up in landfill and polluting our oceans and waterways.

While recycling is easy, research from the Australian Plastics Recycling Survey 2016-17 found that out of the 3,513,100 tonnes of plastic consumed annually, only 11.8% of consumer plastic in Australia was recycled.1 When considering the unsustainable rate of plastic consumption in Australia, the environmental effects of plastic pollution, and the strain that that the production of new plastic places on our finite natural resources — recycling is something we must become better at individual and governmental levels, if we are to address the present and future environmental challenges of plastic pollution.

For National Recycling week 2018, this blog post aims to make plastic recycling easier by explaining what plastics can and can’t be recycled at home, and provides discussion on the need for a circular economy of plastic waste in Australia.

Recycling Plastic

Many of us might be confused by what plastic is and isn’t recyclable. While most of us recognise that the recycle symbol found on the bottom of consumer plastic is ‘recyclable’, it does not always mean that it can be processed by your local council’s recycling programme.

There are seven different numbers in the recycling symbol found on plastic products, and each number represents both the type of plastic that the item is made of and indicates whether it can be recycled in your home collection bins. While every plastic variety is fully recyclable, not all plastics are accepted in curbside recycling programmes run by your local council.

As a general rule, the majority of recycling programmes in Australia accept numbers 1 (PETE or PET) and 2 (HDPE), but it is essential to check with our local council to see what items they accept, as each recycling programme and system can differ slightly.

1: Polyethylene Terephthalate

Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE or PET) is plastic that most of us will be in contact with on a daily basis because it is found in plastic drink bottles and food packaging.2 As with other polymers, PET is non-biodegradable and can take centuries to decompose, and it imperative that it is recycled. It is reported that the production and consumption of PET materials are increasing, and too often these products are ending up in landfill, even though the waste scrap could be recycled and recovered.3

2: High Density Polyethylene

This plastic type is known as HDPE is accepted in the majority of recycling programmes. HDPE plastics are highly durable, do not absorb liquid readily, and experience little degradation during the lifetime.4 Due to its durable properties, this plastic type is commonly used to hold liquids such as detergent or household cleaning products, milk cartons, and butter and yoghurt tubs. Almost a third (about eight million tons) of HDPE produced worldwide is used for these types of containers,5 making it one of the largest used commodity plastics.6

HDPE is produced using considerable amounts of fossil fuels, and it takes a total of 1.75kg of petrochemicals to manufacture just 1kg of HDPE.7 HDPE is also non-biodegradable and has a relatively low product life, meaning that contributes significantly to the problem of Municipal Waste Management,8 meaning that is essential for HDPE wastes to be recycled and recovered to prevent environmental pollution.

3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

This plastic type is commonly known as vinyl and is rarely recycled and commonly not accepted by recycling programs. PVC is usually used for medical grade plastic items and building materials,9 and is not typically used for household items that can be consumed as it can contain phthalates and is not considered safe when contact with food items.10

PVC is considered hazardous for its potential impacts on human health and the environment. For example, Thornton (2012) explains that the by-products of vinyl are bioaccumulative, and made of toxic substances the resist natural degradation, build up over time in the environment and are distributed long distances by currents of air and water.11

4: Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

LDPE plastic type is usually found in soft plastics such as shopping bags, squeezable bottles, frozen food or bread bags.12 This plastic type is typically not accepted in local council collections for homes and businesses. However, LDPE plastics are accepted in many soft plastics recycling programmes, and when recycled, LDPE is commonly turned into plastic bags, clothing fibres and bottles.13

5:  Polypropylene (PP)

PP is not accepted in council collections and is most commonly used in the productions of plastic fibres for textile production (such as carpets and nylon fabrics),14 and used to make plastic straws, condiment bottles and bottle caps.15

In recent years, polypropylene has grown to become one of the most largely used plastic raw material,16 and from an environmental perspective, this poses significant threats to the environment.16 The use of polypropylene in the beauty products and the textile industry has resulted in microplastic fibre pollution in marine environments,17 which is having a detrimental impact on our oceans and the marine life which inhabit them.

6: Polystyrene

‘Styrofoam’ is usually found in carry-out containers, meat trays and take away cups and is typically not recyclable through council collection programmes. As with polypropylene, polystyrene plastic pollution in marine environments is a growing concern due to its adverse effect on marine life.18 Plastics comprised of polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene, and polyvinyl chloride are the most prevalent forms of plastic marine pollution and are spread through our oceans by surface currents, wind patterns at an average density of 1000 to 4000 pieces per km-2.19

It is reported that a large number of marine species are known to be harmed and killed by polystyrene debris, which could jeopardise their survival, especially since other forms of anthropogenic activities already endanger many marine species.20

7: Mixed Plastics

Plastic type 7 refers to plastics varieties that do not fit into the other varieties and is not accepted in council collections in Australia. While many biodegradable, photo-sensitive, and plant-based plastics fit in this category,21 so do potentially harmful plastics such as polycarbonate, BPA & Lexan.22

Recycling Soft plastics

Soft plastics are the leading cause of contamination in the recycling system, and most councils do not accept soft plastic such as cling wrap or cereal liners to be recycled in the curbside programs. However, you can recycle soft plastics such as plastic bags, bread bags, biscuit and confectionery packets, etc., at any Coles store across Australia at their REDcycle collection bin. For full details of what plastics are accepted, click here.

The need for a Circular Economy

However, while individuals can work to limit plastic pollution, it is important to recognise that recycling is not the answer to all of our environmental problems, and the path to ensuring environmental sustainability also requires transformation across all levels of government and business.

For example, most of Australia recyclable plastics are processed overseas, which has caused major problems for plastic waste management since the Chinese government announced a ban on imported low-value plastic materials earlier this year, which has disrupted the export of 30 per cent of Australia’s recyclable plastics.

While the ban has placed a strain on waste management processes, we are currently faced with an opportunity to completely transform how we deal with our plastic waste. This is evident in the recent calls within the waste industry to transition to a circular economy model that would ensure that all plastic waste and consumption is local, e.g. collected, processed and then reused to make new products, here in Australia, for Australian consumers, that are sold in Australian markets.

The majority of us use plastic in our everyday lives, and we must become more accountable and responsible of our consumption and waste if we are to drive demand for recycled plastic products. With plastic use worldwide on the rise, it is essential that we create a sustainable community that reduces, reuses and recycles plastics across all levels of production and consumption.

References 

1. Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy. (2017). 2016-2017 Australian Plastics Recycling Survey. Access here.
2.  Al-Sabagh, A. M., Yehia, F. Z., Eshaq, G., Rabie, A. M., & ElMetwally, A. E. (2016). Greener routes for recycling of polyethylene terephthalate. Egyptian Journal of Petroleum25(1), 53-64.
3. Datye, K. V., Raje, H. M., & Sharma, N. D. (1984). Poly (ethylene terephthalate) waste and its utilisation: A review. Resources and Conservation11(2), 117-141.
4. Loultcheva, M. K., Proietto, M., Jilov, N., & La Mantia, F. P. (1997). Recycling of high density polyethylene containers. Polymer degradation and stability, 57(1), 77-81.
5. Thomas, G.P. (2012). ‘Recycling of High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE or PEHD)’. Azo Clean Tech (July 25 2012). Access here.
6. Kumar, S., Panda, A. K., & Singh, R. K. (2011). A review on tertiary recycling of high-density polyethylene to fuel. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 55(11), 893-910.
7. Thomas, 2012.
8. Kumar, et al., 2011.
9. US National Library of Medicine. (2017). Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Environmental health Concerns and toxic chemicals where you live, work and play. Access here.
10. Jaakkola, J. J., & Knight, T. L. (2008). The role of exposure to phthalates from polyvinyl chloride products in the development of asthma and allergies: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Environmental health perspectives, 116(7), 845-853.
11. Thornton, K. (2002). Environmental Impacts of Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) Building Materials: A briefing paper for the Healthy Building Network. Report for the Earth Institute and Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University. Access here.
12. SUEZ Australia and New Zealand. Plastic recycling: Soft Plastics [Plastics Identification Code Fact Sheet]. Access here.
13. Hamilton, C. (2017). ‘How Is LDPE Recycled?’ Sciening [blog] (April 25, 2017). Access here.
14. Maier, C., and Calafut, T. (1998). ‘Fibers’ in Polypropylene: The Definitive User’s Guide and Databook. Plastics Design Library, Science Direct. Access here.
15. Ibid.
16. Maier, lR.D., Bidell, W., and Shamiri, A. (2016). Polypropylene: Gas-Phase Polymerization and Reactor Blends. Reference Module in Materials Science and Materials Engineering. Science Direct. Access here.
17. Eriksen, M., Mason, S., Wilson, S., Box, C., Zellers, A., Edwards, W., … & Amato, S. (2013). Microplastic pollution in the surface waters of the Laurentian Great Lakes. Marine pollution bulletin, 77(1-2), 177-182.
18. Kwon, B. G., Koizumi, K., Chung, S. Y., Kodera, Y., Kim, J. O., & Saido, K. (2015). Global styrene oligomers monitoring as new chemical contamination from polystyrene plastic marine pollution. Journal of hazardous materials, 300, 359-367.
19. Azzarello, M. Y., & Van Vleet, E. S. (1987). Marine birds and plastic pollution. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 37, 295-303.
20. Derraik, J. G. (2002). The pollution of the marine environment by plastic debris: a review. Marine pollution bulletin, 44(9), 842-852.
21. See, for example, Stevens, E.S. (2002). Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradeable Plastics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.
22. See, for example, Smith, R. and Lourie, B. (2009). Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Life Affects Our Health. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf.

NOTE: While this blog post has provided a general overview of recycling in Australia, it is recommended that you check with your local council about what items they accept, as each recycling programme and system can differ slightly. 


Anastasia Mortimer is the Content Editor & Knowledge Translation Officer at the Sydney Environment Institute. Anastasia completed Honours at the University of Sydney in 2016, and was awarded First-class Honours. Her thesis examined discourse produced by the Western Australian State Government and unequal relations of power in the case of the proposed LNG development on James Price Point.