Types of plastics that can be recycled

Vincent Chung, founder of social enterprise UrbanR Recycle, urges people to reduce use of throwaway plastics. Photos: The Star/S.S. Kanesan

There are seven types of plastic, but it’s only practical to recycle three types in Malaysia.

Since the other four kinds of plastic don’t get recycled in this country, the best solution is simply to reduce usage of plastics.

Each Malaysian generates an average of 1.44kg of (general) waste every day and 0.8kg (55%) of that can actually be recycled.

If we actively reduce that amount of waste from going into our landfills, we will be doing our environment, and us, a great favour.

That’s what social enterprise UrbanR Recycle+ has set out to do since it was established last April.

The recycling and waste management organisation collects things like paper, plastic, metal, electronics and electrical items, old clothing, batteries and even furniture. It either recycles, resells, donates or discards (as a last resort) the items it collects.

Its founder, Vincent Chung, was invited by Sampah Menyampah (a community group that promotes a cleaner environment) to give a talk in Kuala Lumpur recently about plastics and recycling.

Vincent Chung, founder of social enterprise UrbanR Recycle, urges people to reduce use of throwaway plastics. Photo: The Star/S.S. Kanesan

Chung explained that there are over 1,000 different types of plastics in our environment and most of them are categorised under seven general groups (see below).

“Plastics under the categories of one, two and five are 99% recyclable in Malaysia,” he said.

“The rest depends on the availability of recyclers, because it is not cost effective to recycle those types of plastic at the moment. Most of such plastics cannot be recycled in Malaysia due to lack of infrastructure.”

There are seven types of plastic, but it’s only practical to recycle three types in Malaysia.

From a collector’s point of view, Chung added that sorting out the different plastics before sending them for recycling is time-consuming.

“The actual process of recycling plastic is quite simple but the sorting out and logistics part is (more complicated),” he said.

When it comes to plastic bottles, he gave this advice: crush or flatten them first before they are sent for recycling because that reduces the energy needed for the recycling process.

It is important to understand what kinds of plastics can be recycled. Photo: The Star/S.S. Kanesan

As for “biodegradable” plastics, he said there is also a lot of confusion about this term. Such plastics actually contain small amounts of chemicals to speed up their breakdown process into smaller pieces, with the help of heat or light.

Due to this, such plastic is not suitable to be recycled with other plastics and the chemicals in them may also leach into the environment when they get buried in landfills. (For plastic to biodegrade, it needs oxygen, water, light and microorganisms and is a time-consuming process in a natural environment).

In summary, Chung has three pieces of advice on plastics.

1) try to understand your plastics, the different categories and what types can or cannot be recycled.

2) if you must buy plastic, consider buying pre-loved (second hand) items, like toys and so on

3) cut down on using plastic (especially those used just once and then thrown away) and look for alternatives.

Chung recallled, “Back in the old days, we used to have glass bottles for our drinks. We should go back to that.”

The ‘seven sisters’ of plastic

The US-based Plastics Industry Association (Plastics), formerly known as the Society of the Plastics Industry (SPI), established a classification system in 1988 to allow consumers and recyclers to identify different types of plastic via a code or number that is usually moulded at the bottom of each plastic product.

Plastics under the categories of one, two and five are 99% recyclable in Malaysia. The other types are more difficult, due to the lack of supporting facilities in this country.

The seven general categories of plastics are:

1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE)

Category 1: Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE). Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

Commonly recycled, PET sometimes absorbs odours and flavours from the foods and drinks that are stored in them.

This type of plastic is used to make many common household items like beverage bottles (mineral water bottles), food trays, medicine jars, rope, clothing and carpet fibre.

Festive season cookie jars are also made from PET material, with their caps made from Polypropylene (PP).

2. High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

Category 2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE). Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

Also commonly recycled, HDPE products are safe and not known to transmit any chemicals into foods or drinks.

Items made from HDPE plastic include containers for milk and non-carbonated drinks, toys, buckets, motor oil, shampoos and conditioners, soap bottles, detergents, and bleaches.

However, it is not safe to reuse a HDPE bottle as a food or drink container if it didn’t originally contain food or drinks.

3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)

Category 3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC). Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

PVC is most commonly found in plumbing pipes. It is also used to make credit cards and synthetic leather products.

However, PVC should not be mixed with food items as it can be harmful if ingested.

(In the early 1990s, several Thai workers died mysterious deaths in Singapore. It was later found that they had been cooking rice in PVC pipes that could be easily found for free on construction sites. When heated, PVC pipes give off potentially toxic hydrogen chloride fumes.)

4. Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Category 4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE). Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

Sometimes recycled, this is a plastic that tends to be both durable and flexible.

Items such as cling-film, bubble wrap, sandwich bags, squeezable bottles, and plastic grocery bags are made from LDPE.

5. Polypropylene (PP)

Category 5: Polypropylene (PP). Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

Commonly recycled, PP is strong and can usually withstand higher temperatures. It is commonly used to make lunch boxes and margarine containers.

Yoghurt pots, syrup bottles, medicine bottles and plastic bottle caps are often made from PP as well.

6. Polystyrene (PS)

Category 6: Polystyrene (PS). Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

PS can be recycled but it is usually difficult to do so. Items such as disposable coffee cups, plastic food boxes, egg boxes, clear vegetable clamshell packaging are made from PS.

Other things made from this material are bottles holding yoghurt or other similar drinks, plastic cutlery, packing foam and cassette tape covers.

7. Others

Category 7: Others Plastics. Photo: The Star/Azman Ghani

This category covers all the other types of plastic not defined by the earlier six codes. Polycarbonate (PC) and polylactide (PLA) are included in this category.

Plastics in this category are difficult to recycle.

Polycarbonate (PC) is used in baby bottles, compact discs, and medical storage containers while polyurethane or PU is commonly used in furniture upholstery.

Many types of toys are made from ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), a common thermoplastic polymer also used to make phone covers and electrical equipment.

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