I Don’t Get It: Plastic Recycling 101

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Words || Annie Renouf

Most of use view our relationship with plastic as one of convenience, with many of us throwing it away within minutes. With a life cycle of 1000 years, a non-biodegradable plastic item inhabits our planet long after we go on our weekly shopping trip. And when we know that only 12% of the 3,000,000 tonnes of plastic produced each year in Australia is being recycled, it’s clear that we need to rethink our plastic use.

What is Plastic Recycling?

Did you know that even our so-called ‘single-use’ plastic items can be collected and the material can be reprocessed into useful products? The process of plastic recycling involves recovering waste or scrap plastic and transforming it into something new. But what kinds of plastic exist? And which can we recycle?

Plastic Recycling Doís!

If Plastic Recycling 101 was a unit, you would get an HD for remembering that there are three types of plastic that are safe to recycle.

One of them is polyethylene terephthalate (commonly known as PET), which is used to make soft drink and plastic water bottles. PET has been used to make landmark advancements in sustainable fashion. Plastic PET bottles that have been recycled can undergo a complete reincarnation, transforming our discarded Iced Tea into stylish polyester fabrics. You might know that Emma Watson’s standout five-piece look at the 2016 MET Gala was created by Calvin Klein from recycled plastic bottles (made of – you guessed it! – PET). Even better, this look was designed to be repurposed for future use – the pants could be worn on their own and the elegant black train could be used for other high profile events.

High – Density Polyethylene, or HDPE, is a thicker and durable form of plastic that’s used to create shampoo containers, heavy – duty plastic bags and toys.  It can be used to make materials that require weather-resistant plastic, like the rubbery plastic you find on a tarp. If you want to organise a picnic with your friends near the lake to celebrate the end of the semester, it is likely that you will use a picnic blanket made out of this material.

Polyprylene (commonly known as PP), is a light and flexible material which is used to prevent your chips or cereal from going stale before you open the packet. If you have ever thought about committing to living more sustainably, PP can be recycled and turned into a compost bin. This is something that you could use to earn extra credit through improving your environmental impact.

Plastic Recycling Doníts!

Using the other three types of plastic would result in you getting an F in Plastic Recycling 101, since you would be contaminating the recycling stream. This is an outcome we don’t want to achieve when we are provided with an opportunity to use plastic while minimising our environmental impact.

Polyvinyl Chloride; which is known as PVC, is a soft plastic used for plastic wrapping and cooking oil containers. It is a challenge to recycle this plastic into something else and most recycling facilities won’t accept it.

Polystyrene; which is known as PS, is used to make takeaway containers or disposable coffee cups. It is a versatile substance which can be used as insulation and sheeting for laminate flooring. This material poses a great risk because it is widely used, even though it made up of a highly dangerous carcinogens which are capable of causing cancer. To avoid using them and recycling them, bring your KeepCup and save money on the daily coffee you rely on to stay awake during your tutes. If it is challenge to remember to meal prep every day, you can still depend on the convenience of takeaway meals if you bring a collapsible container. It can be stacked into a flatter form after you use, so it doesn’t take up too much space in your bag.

Low – Density Polyethylene; known as LDPE, is used for grocery bags and garment bags. It is less toxic than other plastic and relatively safe for use. Even though LDPE is a lightweight material, most recycling facilities have not developed the technology to process them. To prevent LDPE from entering the recycling stream in the first place, you can remember to bring a reusable bag through attaching your shopping list to it or always having one in your shopping bags.

How Can I Benefit From Recycling?

The Return and Earn Program is the NSW Container Deposit Scheme which allows you to earn a $10c refund for every eligible drink container that you return. Container materials that can be returned include PET, HDPE, glass, aluminium, steel and liquid paperboard. When they are presented at a collection point it is important that they are empty, uncrushed, unbroken and have the original label attached.

Not all containers are included in Container Deposit Schemes, so you can’t earn a reward for recycling them. Make sure not to present these items at a collection point:

  • Plain milk or substitute containers.
  • Flavoured milk containers of 1 litre or more.
  • Pure fruit or vegetable juice containers of 1 litre or more.
  • Glass containers for wine and spirits.
  • Casks for wine and casks for water of 1 litre or more.
  • Sachets of wine of 250 millilitres or more.
  • Containers for cordials, concentrated fruit and vegetable juice.
  • Registered health tonics.

At most major supermarkets, you can recycle soft plastics. These are the kind of plastic that can be scrunched up into a ball, and are one of the biggest problems in kerbside recycling systems. This recycling process is possible through Redcycle, who have worked with major retailers to set up soft plastic recycling bins in most Australian stores. You can recycle:

  • Plastic shopping bags.
  • Bread, rice, pasta, lolly and cereal bags.
  • Biscuit packs (not the trays)
  • Frozen food wraps.
  • Newspaper wraps.
  • Bubble Wrap
  • Dry – Cleaning Bags
  • Fruit and Vegetable Bags & Netting
  • Toilet paper and similar product packaging.
  • Old green bags and other reusable bags.