What is plastic?

Many of us use plastic products without really knowing what it is, or how it’s made.In fact, even though the majority of people recycle, few know that there are different kinds of plastics and how to tell them apart.Not only do plastics come in different shapes and sizes, but they come in different compositions.

Before getting into the differences between plastics, we first have to look at the basics of plastic.The word plastic comes from the term used to describe anything that can easily be molded into different shapes, but once cooled, will keep the shape it has.Most plastic is synthetic, though contains some organic material.Because it’s not completely from nature, it has a very hard time decomposing, which is the reason many places in the world encourage people to recycle their plastics.Because of its durability, plastic has replaced a lot of other material, such as wood, which rots and breaks down easily.Sometimes even though these items are replacing other materials, they are designed so they still look like the traditional leather, wood, or ceramic.

There are seven common kinds of plastic that we encounter during our day.They are:

  1. Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) – These are the plastics that make up soda bottles and disposable water bottles.They’re semi-rigid, and are usually very light-weight.These can be recycled and when they are, usually turn into clothing of some sort.
  2. High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) – This is a heavy duty plastic that is dishwasher and microwave safe.It’s mostly used for beverage containers and food storage.
  3. Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) – This is the kind of plastic used for pipes, and also outdoor furniture.Studies have shown that using this plastic for food storage is harmful to people’s health, so most companies have stopped using it.
  4. Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE) – These are plastics that are often very light, like garbage bags, dry cleaning covers and grocery bags.
  5. Polypropylene (PP) – These plastics make up things such as bottle caps and straws.For a long time, most places could not recycle these and they often contaminated recycling collections.This has changed, and they now join the list of recyclable plastics.
  6. Polystyrene (PS) – Most recognized as styrofoam, they make up things such as packing peanuts and to-go containers.They’re extremely toxic, especially to wildlife that may consume it.It’s best if these products are avoided at all costs.
  7. Other – This group is mostly made up of plastics that are used to make common forms of Tupperware containers.The major problem is that even though they are marketed as food containers, they often leach BPA, which is harmful for humans to consume.If you’re going to use a container to store food or drinks, aim to find another, safer plastic.

Though some plastics are easy to distinguish, such as #4, which makes up many of the bags we get from stores, others may be harder to figure out.Luckily, many products put the number of the plastic either on the side or on the bottom of the item.Make sure to check it out both for your own safety, but also to match the recycling rules of your area.