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P.E.T – What it really means

I have often heard people talking about plastic bottles and products and saying ‘it’s O.K they are PET’ or ‘PETE’.  Then they turn the bottle over and say  ‘see this symbol, it means it has been recycled once or twice or even up to 7 times.’  It is then that I have to chip in and say, well no, not exactly.  Afterall how do they know when they all get thrown into one bin.

These PET symbols actually relate to the type of resin used to produce that particular package.  Here is a table that outlines what we are talking about.

Plastic Identification Code Type of plastic polymer Properties Common Packaging Applications
Plastic-recyc-01.svg Polyethylene terephthalate (PET, PETE) Clarity, strength, toughness, barrier to gas and moisture. Soft drink, water and salad dressing bottles; peanut butter and jam jars
Plastic-recyc-02.svg High-density polyethylene (HDPE) Stiffness, strength, toughness, resistance to moisture, permeability to gas. Water pipes, hula hoop rings, five gallon buckets, milk, juice and water bottles; the occasional shampoo / toiletry bottle
Plastic-recyc-03.svg Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) Versatility, ease of blending, strength, toughness. Blister packaging for non-food items; cling films for non-food use. Not used for food packaging as the plasticisers needed to make natively rigid PVC flexible are usually toxic. Non-packaging uses are electrical cable insulation; rigid piping; vinyl records.
Plastic-recyc-04.svg Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) Ease of processing, strength, toughness, flexibility, ease of sealing, barrier to moisture. Frozen food bags; squeezable bottles, e.g. honey, mustard; cling films; flexible container lids.
Plastic-recyc-05.svg Polypropylene (PP) Strength, toughness, resistance to heat, chemicals, grease and oil, versatile, barrier to moisture. Reusable microwaveable ware; kitchenware; yogurt containers; margarine tubs; microwaveable disposable take-away containers; disposable cups; plates.
Plastic-recyc-06.svg Polystyrene (PS) Versatility, clarity, easily formed Egg cartons; packing peanuts; disposable cups, plates, trays and cutlery; disposable take-away containers;
Plastic-recyc-07.svg Other (often polycarbonate or ABS) Dependent on polymers or combination of polymers Beverage bottles; baby milk bottles. Non-packaging uses for polycarbonate: compact discs; “unbreakable” glazing; electronic apparatus housings; lenses including sunglasses, prescription glasses, automotive headlamps, riot shields, instrument panels;

The next misconception is that you can recycle all of these materials.  Unfortunately here in Australia, not all of them are recycled.  Types 1,2 & 3 are easily recycled and this is what most of us throw away into recycling bins.

I’ve just received a package that states the bag is 100% recyclable.  I turned it over and it states LDPE or type 4.  Whilst this can be recycled, the process is extremely costly and is only available in very few locations.  In fact it is just not profitable to do this kind of thing and hence even the recyclers often send these to the land fill.

At the end of the day we only recycle 36% of PET products Australia-wide and of those, I wonder just how many actually make it to be recycled.  And another thing, are they actually recycled or are they downcycled?  What I mean by this is, are bottles made back into bottles or are they melted down and turned into other products that are not recycled?  So in effect, even though we say that these products are recyclable, we are really just delaying the time it takes to get them to the land fill.

The best option when it comes to plastic is to reduce, reuse and then recycle.  Reducing the amount you use is the first process and the most important.  Glass, aluminium and steel are far better options than plastic.  Maybe they are a bit heavier buy they are lighter on our evnironment.

If you have to use, then you have to try and reuse as many times as possible.  Fill up your plastic containers time and time again.  The more often you use them the longer it takes to get to landfill and also you are in effect reducing the amount you use.

Finally you have to recycle.  Yes it is only a delay tactic but it is better than single use plastics that go straight there and then you go buy another item and it goes straight there.

Plastics are like diamonds, they are forever.