Plastics

Everything you need to know about plastics… (or wish you didn’t!)

It will have been hard to miss,  but  in case you didn’t know, it takes hundreds of years for plastic to degrade. And when it does eventually ‘break down’ it just becomes microscopic pieces (micro or nano plastic).

Unless it has been incinerated, every piece of plastic ever produced, since it first was developed in the 1950s, is still with us today – in landfill, in oceans, in the bellies of fish, whales and sea birds, and even in the air as nano-plastics.

There are many items that are used at events which are made of various types of plastic, and it will depend on the availability of facilities locally, whether you will be able to send them for recycling. 

Plastics are ‘hard’ such as bottles and containers, or ‘soft’ such as bubble wrap, plastic bags, cling/pallet wrap, shade cloth, builder’s sacks, and plastic sheeting.

Materials recovery facilities (MRFs) exist to separate and on-sell plastics to re-processors, and as businesses, they are looking for plastics that have enough value to re-sell at a profit.

There are many types of plastics that can be recycled – PET, HDPE, LDPE, LLDPE, and PP are the most popularly recycled types of plastic. Each type of plastic must be recycled separately.

Check that your recycling facility can take all the plastics you intend to collect and send their way, as otherwise it will end up in landfill. 

Plastic bags and other ‘film’ plastic or soft plastics are sometimes a problem to handle at recycling facilities which segregate different types of materials, so check first what they can take.

If your MRF won’t take a certain type of plastic, and you’ll produce a lot of it, then search out a re-processor or dealer you can send it to directly. 

The demand for plastics fluctuates, and with China banning plastic waste imports, and other southeast Asian countries following, finding a responsible market for plastic is becoming more challenging.​

Recycling Symbol and Plastic Codes 

Back in the day (around 1970) a paper company put on a competition to create a symbol to promote the recycled content in their products. A university student won the competition, the company did some slight alterations and the resulting three chasing arrows recycle logo was born. 
This symbol has been appropriated by many since then and has become a universal, if somewhat, overused design. The plastics industry puts their system of numbers inside the recycle symbol to identify what the plastic is. 

Unfortunately, many people take the chasing arrows symbol with a number inside to mean the item is recyclable. It still depends on what your local facilities will take. 
The recycle symbol is not trademarked and can be used by anyone. In various countries and states, the government has put restrictions on its use to ensure that misrepresentation of recycled content does not occur. 

In the UK, a % can be placed inside the symbol to indicate the percentage recycled content.

1 – PET Polyethylene         
2 – HDPE High Density Polyethylene 
3 – PVC Polyvinyl Chloride         
4 – LDPE Low Density Polyethylene 
5 – PP – Polypropylene         
6 – PS – Polystyrene 
7 – OTHER             
20, 21, 22, 23 – Cardboard, mixed paper, paper, paperboard
40, 41 – Steel, Aluminium        
50, 51 – Wood, Cork
60, 61, 62 to 69 – Cotton, Jute, other textiles    
70, 71, 72, 73 to 79  – mixed glass, clear glass, green glass

 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET)

Bottles, containers, jars, trays

Polyethylene terephthalate is a very common plastic, and is used for synthetic fabrics (polyester) or beverage bottles and food-grade containers (generally called PET). 

Recyclability: PET is probably the most commonly collected plastic for recycling in communities through business, residential and public place recycling schemes. The sheer volume of PET being manufactured primarily for disposable packaging makes its collection for recycling an imperative.  

Recycled into: PET is readily recyclable, and many products including carpets, polar fleece, t-shirts, and bottles are made from recycled PET.

  • Eliminate single-use PET items in food and beverage
    The best way forward is to completely eliminate this single-use plastic as it is a fairly easy one to find alternatives to – such as reusable cups and bulk-dispensing beverages.
  • Choose alternatives to single-use PET products
    Remind caterers and food stallholders that PET cannot be used to provide food and beverage service to visitors. That means soft drinks too. The alternatives:Wet pour/bulk dispensed with paper or re-usable cups • Cans • Glass bottles • Reusable bottle system • Compostable service-ware
  • Check where the PET materials will be processed                                                                 
    You do not want your waste to be shipped overseas for processing. Enquire with the cleaning company and MRF, what the PET’s onward processing journey is, where it is recycled, and what it is made into.

 High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)

Bottles, buckets, milk & juice bottles, shopping bags

Items made from HDPE include milk and juice bottles, cleaning bottles, shampoo bottles, yoghurt, and butter tubs, and some rubbish and shopping bags, are made from HDPE. 

Recyclability: HDPE is a common plastic and the majority of recycling facilities will accept it. In most cases, it is acceptable to put HDPE into mixed (‘commingled’) recycling bins, as the recycling facility is able to identify HDPE from other plastics effectively.

Other items made from HDPE that you need to check if they can be placed with other plastics or mixed recyclables include: Plastic grocery bags, Cereal box liners, Small medicine bottles, Big buckets, Large disposable plastic containers, Shopping bags.

The reason these items can be a problem is that if the local MRF  or other centres that sort recycling out, is automated, then it may not be able to readily identify and separate out these items if they aren’t conveniently shaped like a bottle or container. 

Recycled into: HDPE is also readily recyclable and things such as more bottles, floor tiles, pens, benches, picnic tables, fencing or drainage pipe are made from recycled HDPE. 

At events, apart from bottles, you may have leftover plumber’s piping or hose from bars and damaged plastic furniture, which would be made from HDPE.

  • Check if the MRF will accept HDPE.
  • Ask if it only takes bottles or if ‘odd-shaped’ HDPE items are accepted. 
  • It’s possible you could put any item made from HDPE in with your mixed (‘commingled’) recycling to be picked out at the MRF. But do check before you put this material in the mixed recycling. If you’re using a MRF that is primarily dealing with household waste, the ‘odd-shaped’ items from HDPE may not be accepted in mixed recycling, but may be accepted if delivered in bulk pre-sorted. If not, then contact a plastics recycler or dealer directly to arrange recycling of your pre-sorted HDPE material.
  • Check where the HDPE materials will be processed.
    You do not want your waste to be shipped overseas for processing. Enquire with the cleaning company and MRF, what the HDPE’s onward processing journey is, where it is recycled, and what it is made into.

 PVC (polyvinyl chloride)

Containers, banners, piping, gloves, stickers

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is one of the most commonly used plastics, and comes as a rigid or flexible material, as flexible sheeting and as fabric. (e.g. vinyl banners).

Rigid PVC is most often used for building materials and piping. PVC is ‘plasticised’ to make it flexible through the use of additives (phthalate). Packaging, handled bottles and cabling are made from this flexible PVC. Sheeted and flexible PVC is used for stickers, labels, wrapping overlay such as event or sponsor branding on walls. Then we have PVC fabric, which is used for signs (vinyl banners), billboard ads, marquees, roofs etc. 

At events you will have vinyl sticker sheeting (mounting film) to brand your event (overlay) which needs to be disposed of, and possibly vinyl banners, which once they have been used over and over again, eventually need to be disposed of.

PVC could appear also as industrial shrink wrap, plumbers pipe, floor coverings, drums, non-food containers, gloves, medicine bottles, bulk food containers.

PVC has been the focus of environmental concern for a time and is called the ‘poison plastic’ by some. 

Recyclability: Apart from the bad press it gets from the environmental impacts of manufacture, use and disposal through landfill or incineration, PVC is surprisingly quite recyclable. The challenge is the availability, consistency and quality of volume of PVC material to recycle. Unlike PET, PE and PP, which are often used for single-use ‘disposable’ items such as beverage bottles and packaging, PVC is built (and used) to last.

Recycled into: If PVC is successfully collected for recycling, it can be made into flooring, mats, and panelling. 

  • Check if the MRF will accept PVC.
  • Ask if it takes ‘hard’ PVC or banners and stickers too.                                                                
    If you’re using a MRF that is primarily dealing with household waste, then it is very likely that the type of PVC your event will produce as ‘waste’ will not be accepted in mixed recycling.
  • Choose alternatives to PVC                                                                                                      
    You should never be using PVC for temporary banners and signs. So just get on with it and choose other materials. For stickers, you can use PP options such as that offered by Doro Tape or Nenshen. Or biodegradable/plant-based plastic options such as EarthCling
  • Purchase from responsible producers and handlers.  If you must use PVC based materials ensure you only use it with companies that you know will be responsibly handling it for onward recycling. This could be the branding company, and when they de-install your branding, they diligently collect up the PVC and ensure it goes to recycling (which they have pre-identified and guaranteed with you will happen). You could also see if there are materials manufacturers which have their own take-back systems, that the branding companies may participate in. 
  • Plan for re-use.
    If you must use PVC in branding for banners etc (for durability reasons for example) then design it in such a way that it can be re-used, and not single-use.
  • Collect up all PVC and do not allow it to go in the general waste or mixed recycling.               
    It is very likely that odd-shaped PVC materials will not be accepted by the standard MRF that your mixed recycling will go to. If that is so, set up a system that ensures all PVC will be collected separately onsite, or have a BOH sorting system (mini MRF) to separate out this material to avoid it hitting landfill.
  • Check where the PVC materials will be processed.
    You do not want your waste to be shipped overseas for processing. Enquire with the cleaning company and MRF, what the PVC’s onward processing journey is, where it is recycled, and what it is made into.
  •  Set up a special PVC recovery mission. 
    To find out how to recycle PVC, the first place to enquire is your country or region’s plastics industry association. This type of organisation was involved in brokering the collection and recycling of all vinyl overlay at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympicswhich was then recycled by a local carpet company along with its other PVC recycling.
  • Salvage, donate, repurpose. 
    If you must use PVC for banners, ensure the artwork is designed for re-use each year.  Look for a re-use centre that will take them or a company that makes banners into bags and other items. You could even arrange for this year’s banners to be made into next year’s merchandise like they did at Cherry Creek Arts Festival. In association with Billboard Ecology.  www.billboardecology.com

 Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)

Six-pack rings, bags, wrapping, packing, squeeze bottles

LDPE is a flexible plastic with many applications. Shopping bags (the ones that make a loud scratchy noise), squeezable detergent bottles and plastic containers, and even clothing, furniture and carpet are often made from LDPE. Items such as big one-tonne white builder’s bags and shade cloths are also made from LDPE and can be recycled. Typically, LDPE would be items such as: Clear plastic bags (the type that a sleeve of paper cups would be contained in; Six-pack rings;  ‘Zip lock’ bags; Some packaging such as pictured above; Squeezable bottles.

Recyclability: LDPE is a very common plastic, but often problematic for recycling centres and many won’t accept it. It is very often ‘film plastic’ which means it’s soft and very often a small item and in unusual shapes.

This means some of the automated MRFs won’t be able to readily identify the items, and they will end up being missed from recycling and go to landfill or incineration.

Most of these items, especially plastic bags, cause chaos in automated recycling centres and so can’t go in the co-mingled recycling bins. However, it is definitely a recyclable plastic and plastics recyclers will accept it.

Recycled into: Rubbish bin liners, rubbish and compost bins, panelling, lumber, and floor tiles.

  • Check if the MRF will accept LDPE.
    ​Those events that have lots of cleaning (of people or things) may also create LDPE waste streams. You may be able to send containers made from LDPE in with mixed recycling.
  • Ask the MRF if or how they want any soft plastic LDPE.
    Shopping bags and bin liners are probably your biggest LDPE soft plastics at events.
  • Check where the LDPE materials will be processed.                                                              
    You do not want your waste to be shipped overseas for processing. Enquire with the cleaning company and MRF, what the LDPE’s onward processing journey is, where it is recycled, and what it is made into. 
  • If you have a large volume, contact a plastics recycler or dealer directly. Arrange to collect this material onsite separately.

 Linear Low-Density Polyethylene (LLDPE)

Film plastic, cling wrap, bubble wrap

The ‘cling wrap’ plastic that comes wrapped around just about every pallet of goods delivered to an event and is designed to stretch and stick is LLDPE.

Typically, LLDPE would be items such as: Pallet wrap; Cling wrap from catering kitchens; Bubble wrap; Shrink wrap around cases of beverage cans.

Recyclability: LLDPE can be recycled, however finding a MRF that will take it can be a challenge. There is absolutely no problem in recycling it, however, the hassle comes in when it is mixed up with other items, making it troublesome to separate. Often a MRF won’t take it due to handling issues.

A Note on ‘Film Plastic’
One thing to watch out for, when separating out LDPE or LLDPE from other plastics, is to not mix in shopping bags, which are often made from HDPE. HDPE is usually not see-through and has a more crinkly feel (less soft than LDPE).

Don’t mix these plastic bags in with your LDPE or LLDPE. Keep them separate. The reason for this is that the different types of plastics undergo recycling processing separately, and not all in together.

  • Check if the MRF will accept film plastic and which types.
    It may turn out that ALL SOFT PLASTICS whether HDPE, LDPE or LLDPE can be placed together. In this case, you would set up a giant clear plastic bag into which all of this soft or ‘film’ plastic can be placed.
  •  Arrange separate segregation onsite and collection by a plastic recycler.
    Shopping bags and bin liners are probably your biggest LDPE soft plastics at events
  • Promote the use of alternatives. 
    If you have to use film plastic in the event, consider alternatives. These could be re-usable pallet wraps, use of boxes and containers, or plastic-alternatives. https://www.plastiprint.com/eco-friendly-products

Which plastic is that?

All plastics are not conveniently labelled. As a general rule, HDPE, LDPE, PP and Polystyrene will float, and PET will sink. Plastic bags are particularly tricky to identify. The softer glossy type of plastic bags are LDPE. (They’ll stretch out if you pull them.) The crackly noisy type of bags that most supermarkets use, are HDPE. But another type of crackly plastic is PP, and that’s the type of bag that a men’s shirt would be packaged in, or packet of cookies or crisps. The short-cut identifier for PP bags is if it’s crackly sounding but doesn’t stretch, rather it just splits, then it’s PP!

 Polypropylene (PP)

Containers, chip/cookie/choc packets, straws, rope, woven bags, bottle caps, butter tubs, corrugated signage board

Polypropylene is another commonly found plastics – wherever there’s a need for a bag, bottle, container or box, you are likely to find PP. It can be soft and pliable, or rigid. Some yoghurt containers and bottles such as for sauce or syrups, bottle caps and straws are made from PP. It has a high melting point so is used for containers that will take hot liquid.

Recyclability: PP plastics have traditionally not been accepted by municipal recycling programmes, but this is changing. Check if your MRF can take PP. 

Recycled into: PP can be recycled into all sorts of other plastic products from cables to brooms, bike racks, rakes, pallets and trays. 

Caps On!! The most common message that has gone out there is to take off bottle caps as they ‘can’t’ be recycled. The reality is that PP is recyclable, but until recently, the technology or ability of workers has not existed at MRFs for them to be able to either take the bottle caps off or separate them out. What happens now, at those facilities that accept PP bottle caps left on bottles, is that the bottles and caps are ground down to flakes together, and then separated out through the washing process, as PP floats and PET sinks. So check if you can leave caps on and promote that to your attendees!

  • Check if the MRF will accept polypropylene and which ‘shape’.
    Your MRF may not even accept PP as part of its mixed recycling. Certainly, items such as straws and small packets will not be separated from the mixed recycling at the MRF on the conveyors due to its small size.
  • Avoid all single-use PP possible.
    If you ban single-use plastic bottles for beverages, then you eliminate the challenge of what to do with the PP lids. Couple that with not allowing plastic straws and there are two problem PP plastics that you’ve avoided. Single0use plastic tubs and packets such as for snacks and condiments could also be PP. So not allowing those as part of your catering service is key.
  • Arrange separate segregation onsite and collection by a plastic recycler.
    If you have a large volume, contact a plastics recycler or dealer directly. Arrange to collect this material onsite separately.Purchase from suppliers that offer take-back.
    ​If you are using PP based signage boards such as ‘corflute’, (corrugated plastic board), use suppliers that have closed-loop systems and offer a take-back service to ensure the materials feed the manufacturing process. Corex have the 100% recycled board ‘Encore‘ which is made from recovered board. https://aspire.csiro.au/sites/default/files/corex_approved_2016_metro.pd
  • Ban all polystyrene from food and beverage service.
  • Request all food traders and caterers to source produce from suppliers that do not use polystyrene boxes.
    If they must use them, don’t think you’re doing the right thing by asking caterers to take their polystyrene boxes away with them as you will probably just be delaying (very shortly) its journey to the landfill. It would be better set up a dedicated polystyrene collection point so you can be sure that they are actually recycled.
  • Do not permit polystyrene in any set, props or decore.                                                          
    This would include as stuffing in bean bags or cushions, and to form part of installations such as blocks and large letters. God forbid, don’t let it be used as fake snow!

 Polystyrene

Yoghurt pots, trays, boxes, packaging, cups, coffee cup lids

Polystyrene can be made into rigid products such as disposable trays and containers or ‘expanded’ into a foam for products such as food serviceware. This expanded polystyrene is often referred to as Styrofoam, or just foam. At an event I did in South America, the organisers there didn’t know that ‘foam’ was actually plastic!

Polystyrene is light, with it mainly being air. This enables it to escape from waste receptacles and even landfill, in windy conditions. In its packaging form, it is bulky, and when it does make it to landfill, it takes up lots of space and does not break down. It’s also brittle and breaks down into tiny pieces very easily making it difficult to clean up. It floats and is a major component of marine debris, also being ingested by marine life and birds. It almost never breaks down as it is resistant to degradation through sunlight.

We hope no polystyrene is arrives to your event site, however you need to be prepared if it does. 

Expanded polystyrene items would include:
• ‘Styrofoam’ burger clams, chip cartons, cups
• Bean bag balls
• Fruit and vegetable boxes
• Trays
• Floating buoys and other such items
• Packing, especially for IT equipment.

Polystyrene (high impact) can be:
• Yoghurt pots
• Fruit and meat trays
• Coffee cups

Recyclability: Polystyrene is generally not accepted by municipal recycling services. Some commercial services may accept this material. The industry has take-back programmes so search for one in your country.

Expanded Polystyrene Australia has a database of collection services. The most commonly recycled polystyrene products are foam produce boxes and so collection services are often found at produce markets. (www.epsa.org.au)

Recycled into: Polystyrene can be recycled into insulation, egg cartons, rulers, and foam packing.

 Other (Polycarbonate)

Hard cups, reusable bottles and containers.

All ‘other’ plastics come under the symbol number 7, including polycarbonate. This is the type of plastic that is almost unbreakable and is a ‘glass replacement’. Those beer cups you drink from after 11 pm at the rowdy pub? Polycarbonate. Champagne flutes in your picnic set? Polycarbonate. Water cooler refill containers? Polycarbonate. Also, sunglass plastic and headlight covers are polycarbonate. Basically, where you want the strength of glass without the shatter potential, polycarbonate’s your option!

You may have heard of BPA (Bisphenol A) and BPA-free plastics? Polycarbonate is BPA-full – it is the plastic that contains BPA. The main controversy centres around the use of polycarbonate in baby’s bottles. However, the effects of BPA are hotly debated. Although events won’t be serving warmed up beverages in baby’s bottles, this is an issue to watch if it applies to you personally. Government health departments have information on the ingestion of BPA and the internet is full of information.

Examples include reusable cups and bottles, and the big 20 gallon water dispenser bottles.

Recyclability: Polycarbonate is recyclable, however, it is not something that will go in your commingled recycling service. At a municipal level, polycarbonate will either be incinerated or landfilled. Single stream collection is necessary for polycarbonate if you have significant volume and want it recycled. Finding someone to recycle it will also be the next challenge.

Recycled into: ‘Recycle’ grade polycarbonate to be used to make more polycarbonate things.

At events: Polycarbonate is built to last, and so it is likely at an event you will have minimal volumes. The most likely place you will see polycarbonate is in reusable cups. And as they are designed for re-use, it is unlikely that you will be disposing of them. 

  • Identify if there will be polycarbonate-based waste and identify where it can be recycled.

The problem is people think it is actually plastic – bad for us with our ambition to avoid single-use plastics – but apart from that, people will probably put them in the recycling bins, potentially then contaminating the recycling.

 Other (PLA – polylactic acid)

Cups, food containers, lids.

Made from cornstarch this material resembles plastic – in that it is clear. It is often promoted as being compostable – however, very few composting facilities take it.

Read more about PLA in the resource on food and beverage serviceware choices.

 Other (Nylon)

Cable ties, rope, textiles

There are many ‘other’ types of plastic that will make their way to an event site. Typically also, these items are in unusual shapes or small sizes which for automated MRFs is a problem to identify and successfully separate for onward recycling.

At events, cable ties will probably be the most common nylon item onsite. While nylon is recyclable, it is very likely these cannot be placed in the recycling bin.

You may also have nylon waste in the form of rope or textiles.

  • Identify if there will be nylon-waste, and identify if it can be recycled.
  • Design-out single-use nylon if no recycling or other end-of-life can be found that other than landfill.

 Other (Mixed Materials)

Food pouches, Tetrapak, juice and milk cartons, paper cups

Food pouches These are made from a mix of plastics and aluminium. More.

Tetrapak These boxes are also made from a mixture of materials – cardboard, aluminium and plastic lining. More.

Milk and Juice Cartons These are primarily cardboard, but also come with a plastic liner. More.

Paper Cups  Yes, paper beverage and coffee cups are very often cardboard with a plastic liner.