Decoding Plastic Recycling: Charming PETE and Sturdy HDPE

Posted on Mar 2 2012 - 11:45am by Tim Eyre

Plastics may seem like a dull topic at first, but I found that when I started paying a little attention to those translucent nobodies, they were lifted out of the trash and back into the world as useful items, keeping people warm or providing a seat for the game. You may be familiar with the triangular recycling symbol composed of arrows on soda cans and other containers, but plastic items may also contain a number from one through seven inside that triangular recycling symbol. In 1988, the SPI, the plastics industry trade association, developed the system of numbering plastics to help everyone with sorting and recycling, but the meaning behind those numbers may be a mystery to many of us.

To help make all of this number talk as clear as plastic, I’d like to introduce you to PETE and HDPE, the first plastics we’ll discuss in this series on Decoding Plastic Recycling. Plastic number one, also known as PETE, may not be as charming as a sweet puppy dog, but when it comes to the world of plastics recycling, you can’t find a more friendly plastic out there. PETE was born as polyethylene terephthalate, the most commonly recycled plastic. He is everywhere, from water bottles and soda cans to food containers and medicine bottles.

What’s perhaps most charming about PETE is what he can be turned into! Your water bottles can become carpet, fiberfill for winter coats, polar fleece, sleeping bags, life jackets, ski jacket insulation, beanbags, rope, tennis ball felt, sails for boats, car bumpers, backpacks and new water bottles. As you can see, PETE can be a warm, cuddly plastic, not so different from a puppy after all.

If PETE is a warm puppy, then plastic number two (HDPE) is a full-grown St. Bernard. HDPE, high-density polyethylene, is just as lovable as PETE, but he’s much more sturdy! HDPE is used in containers for milk, shampoo, laundry detergent, bleach and motor oil. While St. Bernard dogs look tough, they’re full of love too. HDPE is no different. He’s commonly accepted at most recycling centers and curbside recycling programs, just like his friend PETE. By the way, if you need help figuring out where to take your recycling, check with Earth911, where you can search by ZIP code.

HDPE is recycled into some useful and fun things like outdoor play sets, Frisbees and other toys, buckets, stadium seats, plastic lumber for outdoor furniture, and a container for your shampoo all over again. Obviously, HDPE is very loyal and dependable, just like a St. Bernard, or a husband who rolls the recycling to the curb without being asked!  

If you start recycling all your plastics, you’ll notice something interesting happen: You take out the trash less often. For me, that means my wife doesn’t have to remind me to take the trash out as often. Charming PETE and sturdy HDPE may be fun to recycle, but when they’re tossed, they turn into space demons in the garbage. I used to get frustrated with how hefty the newly emptied trash got after adding just a detergent bottle and milk jug. All that trash obesity forced me to spend more cash on plastic garbage bags. Now, when I place our recyclables in the reusable recycling bins, my family saves money on garage bags too, thanks to the friendly PETE and loyal HDPE.

Please check back soon for a discussion on the moodier relatives of PETE and HDPE: plastics with recycling numbers three, five and seven.

Tim Eyre