Clearing the Air on Chasing Arrows and Recycling of Plastic

The theme of the 2018 World Environment Day was #BeatPlasticPollution. The theme urges governments, industries, communities and individuals to come together and explore sustainable alternatives. It also urges them to reduce the production and excessive use of Single-use plastic, which are polluting our environment even more and are threatening human health.

Plastics are organic polymers of high molecular mass often containing other substances. Due to their low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility, non-corrosiveness and imperviousness to water, plastics are used for multiple purposes at different scales. About 50% of all plastic used is Single-use plastic which is immediately discarded after first use. In India, plastic disposal is a major contribution to the overflowing landfills. This is an alarming situation which can be sorted only by focusing on waste management and recycling of the plastic.

What is Plastic Recycling?

There is much confusion about recycling of plastic and there is need to clear the air on this issue. Recycling is a way of making sure that natural resources are returned to nature to ensure their sustainability. Plastic was supposed to be the wonder product of 20th century but the toxic waste produced from this has made its recycling and management difficult and very important.

Plastic recycling is a process of recovering different types of plastic material in order to reprocess them into varied other products, unlike the original form. An item made out of plastic is recycled into a different product, which cannot be usually recycled again.

Stages in Plastic Recycling

Before any plastic is recycled it has to go through five different stages:

  1. Sorting: it is necessary that every plastic item is separated according to its make and type so that it can be processed accordingly in the shredding machine.
  2. Washing: once the sorting has been done, the plastic waste needs to be washed properly to remove impurities such as labels, adhesives. This enhances the quality of the finished product.
  3. Shredding: after washing the plastic waste is loaded into different conveyor belts that run the waste through the different shredders. These shredders tear up the plastic into small pellets, preparing them for recycling into other products.
  4. Identification and classification: after shredding, a proper testing of plastic pellets is conducted in order to ascertain their quality and class.
  5. Extruding: this involves melting the shredded plastic so that it can be extruded into pellets, which are then used for making different types of products.

Chasing Arrows

Now lets talk about what kind of plastic is recyclable and how to identify if it is single use or recyclable one. We often see a symbol on the plastic products of chasing arrows. Within each chasing arrow there is a number which ranges from 1 to 7. The purpose of this number is to identify the type of plastic used for the product, and not all plastics are recyclable or reusable.

There are numerous plastic based products which can not be broken down and cannot be recycled. Here are the standard classifications for plastics and recycling and reuse information for each type. This number is usually placed inside the Chasing Arrows on most plastic materials.

  1. PET: polyethylene terephthalate is one of the most commonly used consumer’s plastics found in most water and pop bottles and some packaging. It is intended for single use applications; repeated use increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth. Products made of #1 (PET) should be recycled but not reused. Its recycled products include polyester fibres used to make textiles such as fleece, carpets etc.
  2. HDPE: (high density polyethylene) is the stiff plastic used to make milk jugs and detergent and oil bottles and some plastic bags. This is the most common plastic to be recycled and considered to be the most safest form of plastics. Products made od HDPE are reusable as well as recyclable. It is also popular for recycled plastic raised garden beds.
  3. PVC: (polyvinyl chloride) is a soft, flexible which is used to make clear plastic food wrapping, cooking oil bottles, children’s and pet’s toys. It has been dubbed as “plastic poison” because it contains numerous toxins which it can leach throughout its life. PVC made products are not recyclable. These products should not be reused for applications with food or children’s use.
  4. LDPE: (low density polyethylene) it is often found in shrink wraps, dry cleaner garments, squeezable bottles, and bread packaging plastic. LDPE is considered less toxic than other plastics and are relatively safe to use. Products made of recycled LDPE are not recyclable but are reusable.
  5. PP: (polypropylene) it is tough, lightweight and has excellent heat resistance qualities. Commonly used for disposable diapers, plastic bottle tops, straws, potato chip bag.
  6. PS: (polystyrene) is inexpensive and lightweight which is used to make disposable cups, cutlery, lining of floor. Polystyrene leaches styrene which is a potential human carcinogen, into food products. Recycling is widely unavailable for this and it should be avoided where possible.
  7. Other (BPA, Polycarbonate and Lexan): these plastics are used to make baby bottles, sippy cups and car parts. Of primary concern with these plastics is the potential for chemical leaching into food or drink products packaged in polycarbonate containers made using BPA (bisphenol A). BPA is a known endocrine disruptor.

When possible it is best to avoid #7 plastics while the plastics with recycling label #1, #2, and #4 on the bottom are safer choices and do not contain BPA. The recycling label #1 is classic case of Single-use Plastic and should be avoided for that reason.

By understanding these simple classifications, we can best use plastics to our advantage while minimizing the health and disposal issues that may otherwise arise.

Benefits of Plastic Recycling

Here are some obvious benefits of recycling plastic.

  • Making different products from plastic recycling helps increase production and sustainable livelihood.
  • Conservation of natural and energy resources.
  • Clearing of landfill space.
  • Makes environment cleaner and greener.

An impact of plastic waste that is not immediately realized by many is that it often ends up in the stomach of animals like cows and whales. Sea creatures often get entangled in polythene and sea-birds have been found to ingest large amounts of plastic. This makes it our moral and ethical responsibility to minimize the use of plastic and recycle all of it to the extent possible.

This article is one of the three-part series promoting 3Rs of Reducing, Reusing and Recycling of Plastic to #BeatPlasticPollution. Image by B. Smith

Deepali Khandelwal

Deepali Khandelwal is a graduate from the University of Delhi and holds a master's degree in Environmental Science from Guru Jambheshwar University of Science & Technology, Haryana.

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