Recycling plastic

Knowing which plastics are suitable for recycling can be confusing because of the overwhelming number of types of plastics used.

To help identify the different plastics, a Plastics Identification Code is stamped on the final product to indicate what type of resin it contains. The code is displayed as a number inside a triangle of chasing arrows. This information is specifically for use by recyclers. The majority of plastic packaging is made with one of six resins, assigned a number from 1 to 6.

The coding system also includes a seventh code, identified as "other". This code indicates that the product is made with a combination of resins other than the six listed. While these are recyclable, they can not be recycled in Council’s kerbside collection system. The use of biodegradable plastics is also increasing and is also coded as a number 7. Specific detail can be obtained from the Bioplastics Industry Association.

Plastic Identification Code

Name of plastic

Description

Some uses for virgin plastic

Some uses for plastic made from recycled-waste plastic

The number 1 in a triangle made of three arrows with PETE below.

Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Clear, tough plastic, may be used as a fibre

Soft drink and water bottles

Soft drink bottles, detergent bottles, clear film for packaging, carpet fibres, fleecy jackets

The number 2 in a triangle made of three arrows with HDPE below.

High density polyethylene (HDPE)

Very common plastic, usually white or coloured

Milk and cream bottles, bottles for shampoo and cleaners

Compost bins, detergent bottles, crates, mobile rubbish bins, agricultural pipes, pallets, kerbside recycling crates

The number 3 in a triangle made of three arrows with the letter V below.

Unplasticised polyvinyl chloride (UPVC)

Hard, rigid plastic, may be clear

Clear cordial and juice bottles, blister packaging

Detergent bottles, tiles, plumbing pipe fittings

The number 4 in a triangle made of three arrows with LDPE below.

Low density polyethylene (LDPE)

Soft, flexible plastic

Ice-cream containers lids,  garbage bins

Film for builders, industry, packaging and plant nurseries, bags

The number 5 in a triangle made of three arrows with PP below.

Polypropylene (PP)

Hard but flexible plastic - many uses

Ice-cream containers, hinged lunch boxes

Compost bins, kerbside recycling crates, worm factories

The number 6 in a triangle made of three arrows with PS below.

Polystyrene (PS)

Rigid, brittle plastic. May be clear, glassy

Yoghurt tubs, margarine containers

Clothes pegs, coat hangers, office accessories, spools, rulers, video/CD boxes

The number 7 in a triangle made of three arrows with OTHER below.

Other

Includes all other plastics, including acrylic and nylon. These plastics are unable to be recycled in your yellow-lid bin

Which plastics can be recycled in Brisbane?

Deciding whether your plastic items can be recycled is easy.

  • all rigid or firm plastics numbered 1-6 can be recycled in your yellow-lidded recycling bin
  • type 6 polystyrene plastics (commonly coded EPS – expanded polystyrene) are not recyclable in your yellow-lidded bin, but they are recyclable by private recyclers
  • type 7 plastics are not recyclable in your yellow-lidded bin, even if they are rigid. Type 7 plastics vary significantly in material type and composition, so they melt differently and can not be turned into pellets for recycling. Put these in your general waste bin
  • soft plastics, such as cling wrap, chip packets and plastic bags, are not recyclable in your yellow-lidded recycling bin, despite sometimes being labeled as plastic types 1-6. They are not recyclable because they jam the machinery at the recycling facility during the sorting process. Place these soft plastics in your general waste bin
  • while plastic bags are made from a Type 4 plastic, they are not recyclable in your yellow-lidded bin. However, they can easily be recycled by taking them to your local supermarket and placing them in the designated collection bins. However, reuse is always better than recycling, and avoiding them altogether is better still. If you acquire a large quantity of plastic bags, consult Council’s Recycling Services Directory for advice on companies that recycle commercial quantities

The challenges with recycling plastics

When different types of plastics are melted together they tend to phase-separate, like oil and water, and set in these layers. The phase boundaries cause structural weakness in the resulting material, which limits their ability to be used widely. This is why plastics must be sorted into types before being melted down for reuse.

Degradable or biodegradable

Products are increasingly being made from degradable or biodegradable packaging. However, this does not necessarily mean they are better for the environment or assist in reducing waste in landfills.

So what’s the difference?

Degradable plastics are made from oil and gas, and are designed to break down physically through chemical reactions. However, because they are still petro-chemical products, they will always exist in the environment, just in smaller and smaller pieces. This degradation can be caused by heat or exposure to UV light. There is a significant disadvantage to degradable products: when these plastics come into contact with moisture, the degradation process ceases altogether, and the item remains in its current state until the product dries out again, when it will recommence degradation. A common example of this is the degradable plastic bag - when it comes into contact with water, instead of breaking down it stays in its current state and is no better than any other plastic bag that will be around forever. This issue also means that degradable plastics bags are not suitable for composting. 

Biodegradable plastics are made from plant or animal sources, and are designed to break down through the action of naturally occurring micro-organisms such as bacteria. Over time and with exposure to UV light, water, micro-organisms or oxygen, these plastics will eventually be converted back into a natural state. While this often sounds ‘greener’, there are significant disadvantages to biodegradable waste. When disposed of in landfill, the micro-organisms that are required to begin the break-down process are not able to survive in the oxygen depleted environment, so the waste breaks down extremely slowly creating methane gas and taking up valuable landfill space. These products require oxygen and micro-organisms to break down, so unless you have a compost bin at home or access to a commercial composter, you should avoid these products and choose reusable or recyclable instead.