This is a short guide outlining what plastic can be recycled into, and the potential re-use and repurposing applications of recycled plastic.
The links in the sources list provide more information on the recycling of different types of plastic and plastic products.
Summary – What Can Plastic Be Recycled Into, Or Reused/Repurposed For?
Different types of plastics, and different plastic products, can be recycled and repurposed for different uses and applications
Not only does the type of plastic, or the type of plastic product matter for repurposing, but, a city’s recycling facilities can determine how plastics and which plastics can be recycled too (because different cities have different recycling technology with different capabilities)
Some plastics have much lower recycling rates than others – #1 and #2 plastics tend to be recycled the most worldwide – so, we may see them repurposed the most.
It’s also worth noting – just because plastic can be recycled or repurposed into something else, it doesn’t mean the recycling of plastic is the best option.
What The Different Plastic Types & Plastic Products Can Be Recycled Into (& Reused/Repurposed For)
PETE/PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate) – can be repurposed to make textiles, carpets, pillow stuffing, life jackets, storage containers, clothing, boat sails, auto parts, sleeping bags, shoes, luggage, winter coats
HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene) – can be repurposed to make plastic crates, lumber, fencing
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride) – can be repurposed to make flooring, mobile home skirting
LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene) – can be repurposed to make garbage cans, lumber
PP (Polypropylene) – can be repurposed to make ice scrapers, rakes, battery cables
PS (Polystyrene or Styrofoam) – can be repurposed to make insulation, license plate frames, rulers
Miscellaneous Plastics (polycarbonate, polyctide, acrylic, acrylonitrile butadiene, styrene, fiberglass, and nylon) – can be repurposed to make plastic lumber (which is often used in outdoor decks, molding, and park benches
PET (polyethylene terephthalate) – can be turned into food-contact-approved recycled PET (RPET). RPET can be used for polyester fibres, and to create fabrics for clothing. RPET can be used for new containers, or bottles, jars, and trays. Other applications include strapping tape, injection-moulded engineering components and building materials
HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – can be recycled into new HDPE pipe, but can also be downcycled into plastic timber, tables, roadside curbs, benches, truck cargo liners, trash receptacles, stationery (e.g. rulers) and other durable plastic products
PS (polystyrene) – most PS products are not recycled due to the lack of incentive to invest in the compactors and logistical systems required. Expanded polystyrene (EPS) scrap can easily be added to products such as EPS insulation sheets and other EPS materials for construction applications. When it is not used to make more EPS, foam scrap can be turned into clothes hangers, park benches, flower pots, toys, rulers, stapler bodies, seedling containers, picture frames, and architectural molding from recycled PS. Recycled EPS is also used in many metal casting operations
Other Plastics – white plastic polystyrene foam peanuts used as packing material are often accepted by shipping stores for reuse. Agricultural plastics have been successfully recycled into much larger products for industrial applications such as plastic composite railroad ties. Road surfaces are also now being made from recycled plastics.
PET (#1 Plastic) – can become fiberfill for winter coats, sleeping bags, and life jackets. It can also be used to make beanbags, rope, car bumpers, tennis ball felt, combs, sails for boats, furniture and, of course, other plastic bottles
HDPE (#2 Plastic) – can become toys, piping, truck bed liners, and rope.
PVC (#3 Plastic) – can be ground up and reused to make vinyl flooring, window frames, or piping
LDPE (#4 Plastic) – can become thin, flexible plastics like wrapping films, grocery bags, sandwich bags, and a variety of soft packaging materials
PS (#6 Plastic) – the non foam PS can be reprocessed into many items, including rigid insulation
#7 Plastic – can be difficult to recycle
Polystyrene (e.g. meat packing) – recycled into CD cases, office accessories
Low-Density Polyethylene (e.g. plastic shopping bags) – recycled into plastic lumber and compost bins
Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) (e.g. plastic bottles) – recycled into stuffing for pillows, carpet backing, and even certain types of sweatshirts
High-Density Polyethylene (e.g. shampoo bottles) – recycled into other bottles, plastic lumber
Polypropylene (e.g. most bottle tops) – recycled into ice scrapers, industrial packing cases
Polyvinyl Chloride – recycled into insulation for cables and drain pipes
Milk Jugs & Other Plastic Containers … can become new bottles and containers, plastic lumber, picnic tables, lawn furniture, playground equipment, recycling bins and more.
Plastic Bags & Wraps … can become plastic lumber that is used to make park benches, backyard decks and fences – even playground equipment. They also can be recycled into new plastic bags – and then recycled again
Plastic Bottles … can become t-shirts, sweaters, fleece jackets, insulation for jackets and sleeping bags, carpeting and more bottles.
Bottle Caps … can become batteries for your car, garden rakes, storage containers, reusable shopping bags, yarn, ropes, brooms … and more bottle caps
Foam Packaging … can become plastic products such as insulation, picture frames, building products for your home … and more foam packaging
The most commonly recycled plastics are #1 (soda bottles) and # 2 (milk jugs, laundry detergent bottles)
#1 Plastics (plastic bottles) can become carpet, backpacks, polar fleece, sleeping bags and ski jacket insulation
#2 Plastics (plastic milk and juice bottles, and plastic detergent bottles) can become plastic lumber (like decking, docks, etc.), play sets, new bottles, buckets, containers, frisbees, and stadium seats
Products that are commonly made from recycled plastic include:
refuse sacks and carrier bags
underground drainage systems for homes and national infrastructure
flower pots, seed trays, watering cans and water butts
wheel arch liners and bumpers on cars
damp proof membranes, guttering and window profiles used in construction
reusable crates and pallets
wheel bins and food caddies
composters and wormeries
drinks bottles and food trays
polyester fabric for clothing.
Recycled plastic bottles:
A small number actually become plastic bottles again.
More often, they’re used to make car parts, clothing, shows, pens and more.
There are a number of articles explaining what plastics (such as recovered ocean plastics) can become after recycling at https://www.plasticsmakeitpossible.com/plastics-recycling/what-happens-to-recycled-plastics/
… But, Consider The Recycling Rate Of Plastic
The above sounds great – plastics can be recycled and repurposed to make other items.
But, the reality is that the recycling rate of plastic isn’t very high (at least with current plastics and current recycling technology).
Forbes.com: “[the reality is] many plastics simply cannot be effectively recycled. Even the most recyclable plastic, PET – or polyethylene terephthalate – is only recycled at a rate of 20-30%, with the rest typically going to incinerators or landfills”.
Ecologycenter.org: “The plastics industry rarely uses recycled plastics in the vast majority of their products, unlike the glass and metal industries”
Learn.eartheasy.com has some figures on the recycling rates of different plastics in the US:
Plastic #1 (PET) – about 25% of PET bottles in the US today are recycled
Plastic #2 (HDPE) – only about 30-35% of HDPE plastic used in America gets recycled each year
Plastic #3 (PVC) – less than 1% of PVC material is recycled.
Plastic #4 (LDPE) – Products made using LDPE plastic are reusable, but not always recyclable
Plastic #5 (PP) – Polypropylene is recyclable through some curbside recycling programs, but only about 3% of PP products are currently being recycled in the US
Plastic #6 (PS) – Recycling is not widely available for polystyrene products. Most curbside collection services will not accept polystyrene, which is why this material accounts for about 35% of US landfill material
Plastic #7 (Other – BPA, Polycarbonate, LEXAN) – #7 plastics are not for reuse, unless they have the PLA compostable coding