Think You Know Plastic?

By Scott Laczay on at

The world is up to its ears in plastic. You would be hard pressed to find items in your life that are devoid of this amazingly versatile material. But plastics are a varied bunch and some could potentially even give you cancer. So, read on to avoid being suckered into buying a knockoff water bottle that infuses a nauseating chlorine-flavour into your drink because it's made from cheap, shiny PVC.

"I just want to say one word to you. Just one word. Are you listening? Plastics"
-From The Graduate

To start with, you had better like love acronyms, because plastics are full of them: PET, PETE, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS, and loads more. Back in 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry created an identification system to label the most-used polymer types for recycling purposes (turns out plastic polymers don't play nice with each other in the melting pot). These seven internationally used resin symbols are embossed onto nearly every recyclable plastic. How many of these can you find?


1- PET

Introducing Polyethylene terephthalate, which you might know as every water or soft drink bottle you have ever seen. It is naturally colourless, rigid and lightweight, making it an ideal material for storing all kinds of foods and liquids. PET is a high value resin and is often recycled into polyester fibres used in carpets, rucksacks and well-hip clothes. Disco!



Say hello to high-density polyethylene. HDPE is strong stuff (given its density), which is why you will find it in your bottle caps, 3D-printer filament, cereal box liners, and shopping bags. When recycled, it's often reborn as pipes, plastic lumber and even recycling bins.


3- PVC

Who doesn't know this stuff? Polyvinyl chloride isn't bashful about being the third most-used plastic. Vinyl records, sewage piping, signs, house siding and even sexy clothes -- PVC is all over the shop. Just best to keep it out of the food shop, as it's not terribly grub-and-drink friendly when made the least bit flexible, as the required plasticisers are a tad toxic.



Next time you squeeze ketchup out of a plastic bottle, I hope you think about your old pal low-density polyethylene who's making that possible. LDPE is a resilient plastic which holds its shape but is highly flexible. You will find this beauty in squeezable bottles, cling film, and the bags keeping your electronics protected in their boxes.


5- PP

Polypropylene is one tough plastic. It's strong, heat resistant and enjoys just hanging out in your microwave. You'll find it in kitchenware, takeaway containers and hard plastic items such as the plastic hinges on tic tacs.


6- PS

If there is a plastic we love to hate, it's polystyrene. It simply never gets recycled. Coming in two forms, it can be rigid and found on the back of CD jewel cases or foamed into the packing we commonly know it in. Used for cups for hot drinks, shipping filler, egg cartons and more, a move away from this rather environmentally-negative material is a good call.  With a biodegradability of almost nil, this stuff will outlive us all, ten fold.


7- Other

Who doesn't love a category called "other"? Resin code 7 is a bizarre catch-all for all the other plastics not identified in 1 through 6. The history behind this code might be most accurately inaccurately recalled here. This awkward group includes acrylics, nylon, and all other plastics polymers in need of a home. A famous product from this group is the Nalgene water bottle, which came under scrutiny when the Canadian government declared BPA, a chemical component found in Nalgene's plastic, to be toxic. Nalgene has since created BPA-free products along with many other manufacturers. 7s don't seem to be that common, though we did find one, a soft mobile phone case.

All in all, these identification symbols are meant for recycling purposes rather than consumer knowledge, but it's still interesting to see the various types of plastic that make up the products in our daily life. Despite this though, much of it doesn't get recycled, and ends up in our oceans and destroying wildlife.

So, what have you managed to find lying around?