Decoding Plastic Recycling: Helpful LDPE and PS

Posted on Mar 21 2012 - 2:01pm by Tim Eyre

Plastic shopping bags and those little packing peanuts, aw, things I love and hate, or is it love to hate? Annoying or not, these items (sometimes) have a place in my world, and they just might have more life to give after I’m done with them. By the way, are you surprised that packing peanuts are considered a plastic?

As all delightsome things must come to an end, I remind you that this post marks the close of our series on plastic recycling. Previously, we discussed plastics PETE and HDPE, plus a more difficult trio to recycle: PVC, PP and Other.

These last two plastics can’t always be included in curbside recycling, but options for recycling exist at dedicated locations. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) is marked with the number four inside the recycling symbol. You likely use it daily! I think of LDPE as the helpful plastic. It’s used in plastic grocery bags, food storage bags and wrapping films. Of those items, you’re more likely to see recycling opportunities for plastic grocery bags.

Even though I usually take my own bags to the store, I somehow accumulate plastic shopping bags anyhow. They’re omnipresent! Plus, I’ll admit I don’t always remember to grab my reusable shopping bags before heading out. If I forget them, I don’t beat myself up too much. I can use plastic shopping bags to line small garbage cans in my bathroom and office. However, it’s possible to get quickly swamped with plastic shopping bags.

The easiest way to recycle your plastic shopping bags is to simply take them back where you got them! Doing a grocery run on my way home from work is one way to win brownie points with my wife, but it’s not my favorite task in the world. I’m often ready to get out of there before I’ve walked inside. Maybe that’s why it took me a while to finally see the plastic bag recycling containers at the entry of my grocery store. Chances are, your grocery store or large discount store also has a container where you can leave clean, dry grocery bags for recycling. Check the label on the container. Sometimes other items made from LDPE are also accepted.

Our final plastic is one that you likely know well – Styrofoam! Polystyrene (PS) is marked with the number six inside the recycling symbol. Styrofoam is actually expanded polystyrene (EPS). Either way, EPS or PS, this plastic may be marked with the number six. Even though it’s light as air, Styrofoam doesn’t biodegrade, so I try to recycle, reuse or avoid it.

The bad news is that food packaging made from Styrofoam (coffee cups, egg cartons, meat trays) isn’t typically accepted for recycling. For that reason, I choose different packaging when possible. For example, I select eggs packaged inside cartons that can be recycled, like those made from PETE or cardboard. Other items made from PS, like CD and DVD cases and some cups, can be recycled at facilities that accept items marked with the number six.

While Styrofoam food packaging is a sad recycling story, the Styrofoam packaging used to protect products during storage and shipping can be recycled. I find it intriguing that Styrofoam is made of 98 percent air, yet can be remade into new things. The Alliance of Foam Packaging (AFPR) says that in 2010, more than half of the EPS (this is how they like to refer to Styrofoam) collected for recycling was used to make recycled-content packaging. AFPR maintains a list of drop-off locations for foam packaging, plus information on how to mail it back.

Sometimes you can’t avoid Styrofoam. It might be delivered to your doorstep in the form of packing peanuts, those flyaway jewels I adore. (Technically, they’re called polystyrene loose fill, but who says that?) Love them or hate them, packing peanuts aren’t likely to go away. I never know when I’ll find peanuts inside a package, but I do know what I can do with them when they cling to my sleeve. For your peanut recycling needs, the Plastics Loose Fill Council/AFPR maintains a 24-hour Peanut Hotline at 800-828-2214. You can also rehome your peanuts by searching online for drop-off locations at their Loose Fill Search Center. And if you don’t mind the mess, just keep your helpful little peanuts to use for packing up boxes that you’ll store, ship or move.

As you’ve seen, the world of recycling can be rather complex, even if your part is as simple as tossing a bottle into the proper container. To keep up, I suggest visiting the Earth 911 Facebook page. If you click “like,” you can count on a multitude of fascinating recycling stories, and recently tips on green write-offs for tax season.  Ah, taxes….

Tim Eyre