Test Your Environmental IQ: Take Our Plastic Recycling Quiz
by Alison Rogers
Think you know a lot about plastics and how to recycle them? Take our quiz to find out.
1. How many types of plastic are there?
2. Which types of plastic are accepted at most recycling centers?
* # 1 PET (or PETE) and #2 HDPE
* Only #3 PVC
* None of them are recyclable, which is why they’re piling up in landfills.
* All non-PVC plastics can be recycled throughout most of the United States.
3. Which type of plastic is not easy to recycle?
* #1 PET and #2 HDPE
* #5 PP
* #3 PVC
* None of the above
4. How many years does it take for plastic to biodegrade in landfills?
Plastics fall into seven general categories, which are divided by the type of resin contained in the plastic. The resin type is identified by a number (from one to seven) inside a triangle of arrows on the bottom of the product.
* Plastics with a #1 indicate the presence of polyethylene terephthalate (PET, or PETE) — often found in plastic water bottles, food containers, polyester fabrics and carpet.
* #2 high density polyethylene (HDPE) is found in plastic water bottles, grocery bags and bottles that contain cleaners.
* #3 polyvinyl chloride (PVC, vinyl) is used in plumbing pipe, fencing and linoleum for flooring.
* #4 low density polyethylene (LDPE) is what you’ll find in toys, container lids and garbage bags.
* #5 polypropylene (PP) make up bottle caps and some appliances.
* #6 polystyrene is found in packing peanuts, compact disc cases and building insulation; and finally.
* #7 (other) usually indicates that the product is made of a combination of resins, or one that does not fit into the other categories.
2. A: # 1 PET and #2 HDPE
#1 and #2 plastics are most commonly accepted at recycling centers nationwide, with a few exceptions for items such as plastic bags. It’s important to note that recycling plastic is often referred to as downcycling, which means it becomes a lower-quality material. Recycled plastic bottles don’t become the same kind of plastic bottle, but rather a product such as plastic lumber. Read more about plastic recycling and safety in this report from Co-op America.
3. C: #3 PVC
All plastics from #1 to #6 are thermoplastics, which can be melted down and remolded into new products. However, few facilities accept PVC, as it is difficult to recycle — the chlorine molecule it contains keeps it from mixing properly with other plastics when heated. Because the majority of plastic bottles in the United States are made of #1 and #2 resins, separate processes and facilities that recycle PVC are not considered cost-effective and are therefore unlikely to develop in the near future. It’s best to steer clear of #3.
4. D: 1000
The Earth Policy Institute estimates that buried plastic bottles can take up to 1,000 years to break down, and therefore will continue to hog much-needed space in landfills. In contrast, a banana peel and many other types of organic waste take only a few weeks.
Plastic is derived from crude oil — according to the Earth Policy Institute, it takes approximately 17 million barrels of oil just to make the amount of bottles used by Americans annually for bottled water, which is enough to fuel 1,000,000 U.S. cars for a year. Conversely, each ton of plastic bottles recycled saves about 3.8 barrels of oil, according to the American Chemistry Council.
Last November, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) proposed the Bottle Recycling Climate Protection Act. The bill was designed to encourage nationwide plastic recycling by establishing a 5 cent deposit on plastic beverage containers. While 11 states already have similar systems in place, Markey recognized the need to increase the effort. The bill is currently awaiting action by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
Wondering what to do with your used plastic bottles? Earth 911 has an online search function that will help you find facilities in your area that are equipped to accept plastics; you can even search by resin number. Remember, many different kinds of food and drink containers fall into the category of the #1 and #2 plastic bottles or jars that are commonly accepted by recycling centers, so don’t trash your salad dressing bottles, peanut butter jars, shampoo bottles, etc. without checking for those numbers first. You can leave the labels on them, but be sure to remove the caps.