So many numbers, what do they all mean? What plastics can be recycled and which ones can’t. Are there different rules depending on what region you live in? Is your recycling actually being recycled at all?
This well researched recycling guide has been put together by Matthew Beasley, Co-Founder of Livegreen.co.nz which is an online store that sells environmentally friendly products, including ours, throughout NZ.
“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle! While we have all heard it, it doesn’t prevent staring at plastic packaging trying to figure out whether it can or cannot be recycled, before deciding it is better to be ‘safe than sorry’ and throwing it in the trash. But the reality is your probably throwing aways hundred even thousands of items away into landfill each year that could be recycled.
So what can you recycle? And what can’t you recycle? Is it really that bad throwing non recyclable items into the recycling, or recyclable items into landfill?”
Creating a one size fits all guide proved a lot more difficult than what I first expected. Different regions have different rules and regulations when it comes to recycling. Recycling and Waste management are governed by the local council. Each council has potentially different systems and ability to recycle each type of plastics and other materials. This is part of what makes it so difficult to create an easy guide to recycling for New Zealand. Luckily, there is resource available that shows what each individual local council does with its waste and recycling streams. It’s definitely worth checking out your region and some of the more specific regulations regarding your region.
One of the first thing we need to do when dumpster diving into the world of recycling is learn our plastics. That might sound bizarre to the plastic noob, however there is actually SEVEN* different types of plastic, all with different properties that affect its ability to be recycled.
Recognise those little triangles? All plastic products will display this triangle, with the relevant number, somewhere on the packaging and/or product. These triangles are the bread and butter of an effective recycling system in your household. If you don’t know which numbers are or aren’t recyclable, then chances are you are included in the ‘throws-recyclable-items-into-landfill’ group.
The truth is pretty much all plastics are ‘able’ to be recycled (with the exception of some “7’s” like PLA). However, not all recycling plants in NZ are ‘able’ to recycle all types of plastic. Some plastics cost more or have little value (from a profit perspective) when recycled, and as a result little to no recycling plants are available in your region. While disappointing, unfortunately there is no immediate solution, as current recycling plants can’t just be simply adjusted to accept the other plastics.
Type 1 – Polyethylene (PET/PETE)
In New Zealand, plastic type 1 (PETE) can be recycled in almost every region. PETE is the classic type of plastic you know can be recycled, such as plastic drink bottles. Just ensure they have been rinsed clean with water before being recycled.
Note that while PETE is very suitable to being recyclable, (the plastic is crushed and then shredded into small flakes which are then reprocessed to make new PETE bottles, or spun into polyester fiber) reuse is not recommended as repeated use increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth. PETE plastic is difficult to decontaminate, and proper cleaning requires harmful chemicals.
Type 2 – High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
HDPE plastic is similar to PETE in the sense that it is very easily recycled and repurposed into something new.
HDPE plastic is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs, detergent and oil bottles, toys, and some plastic bags. HDPE is the most commonly recycled plastic and is considered one of the safest forms of plastic. It is a relatively simple and cost-effective process to recycle HDPE plastic for secondary use.
Type 3 – Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
PVC is a soft, flexible plastic used to make clear plastic food wrapping, teething rings, children’s and pet’s toys, and bubble packaging for a myriad of consumer products. It is commonly used as the sheathing material for computer cables, and to make plastic pipes and parts for plumbing. Because PVC is relatively impervious to sunlight and weather, it is used to make window frames, garden hoses, arbors, raised beds and trellises.
PVC is dubbed the “poison plastic” because it contains numerous toxins which it can leach throughout its entire life cycle. Almost all PVC production uses virgin material for their construction; less than 1% of PVC material is recycled. Although PVC is seemingly bad, as a very tough, lightweight material, over 85% of PVC produced is used in durable, long-life products designed to last more than 15 years, such as window frames, pipes, floor coverings and electrical cable insulation.
**Products made using PVC plastic are recyclable in many regions in NZ. You can put PVC into your curb side collection programme in most regions around NZ. If it is not available in your region at the curb side, consider to see if any PVC producers will take it back and recycle it for you, as many are now doing in locations all over NZ.
Type 4 – Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
LDPE is found in shrink wraps, and the type of plastic bags used to package bread. Most retail plastic bags are also LDPE. However this may be a thing of the past for many large New Zealand retailers (Countdown, The Warehouse, Torpedo7 etc) who have committed to ditching the LDPE plastic bag from its stores, in favour of more environmentally friendly alternatives.
LDPE is easily recycled, however it is not commonly recycled due to lack of facilities. This is starting to change in many communities today as more recycling programs gear up to handle this material. Check your local supermarket for soft plastic recycling bins.
When recycled, LDPE plastic is used for plastic lumber, landscaping boards, garbage can liners and floor tiles. You need to check with your local collection service to see if they are accepting LDPE plastic items for recycling.
Type 5 – Polypropylene (PP)
Polypropylene plastic is tough and lightweight. It serves as a barrier against moisture, grease and chemicals. The thin plastic liner in a cereal box is polypropylene. This keeps your cereal dry and fresh. PP is also commonly used for disposable diapers, pails, plastic bottle tops, margarine and yogurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape and rope.
Once again, while PP is recyclable, few curb side collection programs in New Zealand can recycle ALL polypropylene plastics. PP products like plastic bottle lids can be recycled, whereas PP products like straws can’t.
Bear in mind these are sweeping statements, and I recommend to check with your local council for a more specific guideline for your area regarding Type 5 plastics.
Type 6 – Polystyrene (PS)
Polystyrene is an inexpensive, lightweight and easily-formed plastic with a wide variety of uses. It is most often used to make disposable styrofoam drinking cups, take-out “clamshell” food containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, foam packaging, meat trays (note: can get polystyrene free meat trays, which can be recycled) and those “peanut” foam chips used in packaging to protect the contents. **Polystyrene comes in two main ‘types’, EPS (the foamy stuff you automatically think of) and HIPS (rigid polystyrene often used in meat trays and coffee cup lids)
Many of these are single use, designed to be used for mere minutes before discarded. Because polystyrene **(especially EPS) is structurally weak and ultra-lightweight, it breaks up easily and is dispersed readily throughout the natural environment. Beaches all over the world have bits of polystyrene lapping at the shores, and an untold number of marine species have ingested this plastic with immeasurable consequences to their health.
Polystyrene may also leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products (especially when heated in a microwave). Chemicals present in polystyrene have been linked with human health and reproductive system dysfunction. **While recycling of polystyrene is technically possible, many regions around NZ do not accept either type, notably Auckland Regional Council does not except any polystyrene in roadside collections, although does provide drop off places where you can recycle it. HIPS is much more likely to be able to be recycled in NZ.
As a rule, avoid polystyrene! Especially food vendors who still use these for clamshells etc. There are plenty of eco friendly food packaging companies out there already capable of producing much more environmentally friendly alternatives, and as the paying consumer, YOU have the power to make these business to change to more sustainable systems.
Type 7* – Other
Unfortunately, as novel and different ways to produce different types of plastic are created, they lump all other types of plastic into this one category. As a general rule, most ‘Type – 7s’ are not recyclable. Type 7 plastic products will display a few letters underneath the triangle (just like the other types) that are the code for the specific type of plastic. It is worth checking each time for plastics to learn which ‘7s’ are able to be recycled in your region.
However not all Type 7 plastics are bad. One ‘type 7’ plastic that is making waves in the environmentalist circles is ‘PLA’ or ‘Poly-Lactic Acid’. PLA is made from sources such as cornstarch and is showing promise in becoming a fully compostable alternative to plastic. PLA is not perfect yet, it is important to note that PLA is not actually recyclable. The point of PLA is to break down into the earth, so they cannot be put into the recycling bin. However for this to occur it often needs high-heat industrial compost facilities. These facilities are not readily available all over New Zealand YET, but don’t let that discourage you from buying PLA products. They are still a much better alternative, and by investing into these types of products eventually the facilities will be there for us to live in a truly circular fashion.
Obviously, you can also recycle cardboard/paper materials, metal such as tin/aluminium cans, and glass. Sometimes regions will separate glass from the rest of the recycling. Generally speaking, there is little confusion as to which of these can or cannot be recycled. If you do get confused about a particular material then the resource I mentioned at the top of the page is would be the best place to start.
From my research into this topic, as someone who already knew the basics to recycling, I was super surprised to find out how difficult it was to find out the appropriate information to create a guide such as this. I can only imagine the confusion across NZ that leads to just throwing everything straight into the trash.
Hopefully this guide makes things slightly easier for you. We need to start being proactive and sensible about our waste, especially since since China has pulled out of a recycling deal, leaving us with growing mountains of trash.
Matthew Beasley, Co-Founder of Livegreen.co.nz