CHOICE guide to plastic recycling

Only 15% of plastics we consume are recycled. Here’s what you can do.
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  • Updated:26 Feb 2009

02.Which plastics can be recycled?

Common recyclable plastics

You can identify most recyclable plastics by their Plastics Identification Code (PIC) number in the “recyclable” triangle, or chasing arrows (see the table). This is a voluntary coding system that helps recyclers identify seven types of plastic (or polymer) when sorting manually.

Plastics with the numbers 1 (PET) and 2 (HDPE) are generally acceptable for recycling across Australia; they also constitute the vast majority of all plastics recycled. To find out which other recyclables are collected in your area, check with your council, or browse the website, which has a wealth of recycling information you can search by product, postcode or suburb.

The remaining plastics are most commonly bundled together and sent as mixed plastics (PIC number 7) to overseas plants for reprocessing. Plastics with the numbers 3-6 are also separately reprocessed locally. While plastics sorted by type gain a better rate on the reprocessing market, the small size of the recycling market in Australia makes exporting as mixed plastics the more viable option.

Unacceptable recyclables

Despite the visible PIC, there is no guarantee that the container can be recycled in your area, nor that it’s indeed suitable for recycling. What can and cannot be recycled in kerbside collections in any particular area depends both on what the container was used for and the technology at the relevant MRF.

The following are some unacceptable recyclables, even though they’re made of recyclable plastic.

  • A high-density polyethylene (HDPE) container if it has carried a hazardous substance.
  • Plastic shopping bags, low density polyethylene (LDPE) packaging film, small bits of polystyrene packaging. This lightweight packaging is likely to get blown out and contaminate the paper stream in the MRF, unless the facility is fully automated and uses optical laser sorting technology.
  • Plastic bottle lids They’re generally made of different plastic from the container and may fall through the holes in the sorting cylinder (trommel), or create air pressure in a closed polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottle when it’s compressed, so that when the bottles pop open, the bales can fall apart. However, because they’re a valuable source of recyclable plastic, some MRF operators now advise recycling plastic lids, as optical sorters can deal with the different plastics issue – so follow your council’s advice.

Public place recycling

Recyclables from bins in public places or at big events are processed separately from kerbside collections because their contamination rate is much higher. We still have far too few public place recycling schemes in Australia – again, it’s a matter of cost for councils – but if there’s one in place at your local picnic spot, help keep it viable by recycling just as meticulously as you do at home and only put the listed items in the dedicated recycling bins.

The four Rs of recycling

  • REDUCE the number of products you buy packaged in plastic. Where possible, choose refill or bulk packs and avoid products that are overly packaged.
  • REUSE plastic packaging you can’t avoid, such as takeaway or ice-cream containers, to store food in the freezer.
  • RECYCLE all plastics your council accepts.
  • RECOVER where possible – buy products with recycled content.

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