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The Different Plastics: What They Are and Why They Are Harmful

Plastic is all around us. It’s in everything including packaging, clothing, and electronics. The strength and versatility of the material is what makes it so convenient in scientific innovations, as well as our everyday lives. But it is these properties that make it so potent.

In day-to-day life, and especially with little feet running around, we understand that sometimes completely ruling plastic out of your life isn’t an option, but it is still important to make sure you’re disposing of it responsibly. 

At Bee Clean Soaps, we don’t want you to end up throwing plastic needlessly in your general bin because you’re struggling to figure out which types are recyclable. So we thought we’d put together this short guide on what the different plastics are, why they are harmful and what you can do to get rid of them safely. 

What is plastic?

Plastic is a synthetic material made up of polymers – a chain of small molecules known as monomers, bonded together to form a large molecule. It is made by burning fossil fuels to create a chemical reaction known as polymerisation.

How to identify plastic

The resin identification code appears on the majority of single-use household plastics. It appears as a triangle of 3 arrows, with a number from 1-7 in the centre. 

These numbers help both the consumer and recycling plants identify what type of plastic the item is made from, and whether or not it is recyclable.

What do the plastic symbols mean?

PET (polyethylene terephthalate)

RECYCLABLE 


PET is one of the most widely recycled plastics because of its soft structure. 


This can be put in your regular recycling bin at home. 

PET is most commonly used to make single-use plastic drinks bottles.

It is usually treated and washed before being broken down into its raw materials. These can then be reused to make food packaging, blended fabrics etc.

HDPE (high density polyethylene)

RECYCLABLE

HDPE can be recycled but you should check with your local authority to make sure it is recycled in your area. 

It is a common misconception that plastic bags are non-recyclable, when they can be easily recycled. 

HDPE has a very strong structure, making it the perfect material for containing chemicals. This is why it is used to make detergent and vanity product bottles. It is also used to make plastic bags as its strength allows a thin structure to be stretched without easily breaking.

HDPE has huge environmental significance as its production produces masses of water pollution, harmful gases such as carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, and is largely sent to landfill by households. 

PV C (polyvinyl chloride)

NOT WIDELY RECYCLED 

PVC is accepted by very few specialist recycling plants, and therefore most of it ends up in landfill. It can, however, be mechanically recycled.

Try contacting your local recycling centre to see if they refer PVC to a certified PVC recycler. 

PVC is mixed with a range of additives including lubricants, heat stabilisers and chlorine during production. This makes it incredibly versatile, and is used to make hose pipes, guttering, and electrical cables. It is considered to be the most toxic plastic.

PVC creates dioxins during the manufacturing process. These are toxic chemicals that are not only destructive to the environment, but also to human and animal health.

LDPE (low density polyethylene)

NOT WIDELY RECYCLED 

Not all councils recycle LDPE but there are companies who will collect this plastic from businesses in bulk and take them to a suitable recycling facility.

LDPE disintegrates at a quicker rate than HDPE but is still harmful. This plastic can be recycled depending on the character of the plastic. For example, stretchy materials are more difficult to recycle than rigid materials. 

Because LDPE is used to make plastic films, if it ends up in landfill then it can easily be carried by the wind, which is one of the reasons it so commonly ends up in our oceans. Despite it degrading quicker than HDPE, this makes it a huge threat to wildlife.

PP (polypropylene)

NOT WIDELY RECYCLED

PP is recyclable, but not by all councils. Local guidelines will indicate whether or not this will be accepted by your council’s recycling programme. PP can be recycled into car parts and storage boxes.

PP is a hard wearing plastic and due to its compatibility with colourants, it tends to be used for bottle caps, straws, and food containers. It can also be manufactured into fibres meaning it is used in the fashion industry and can be found in carpets.

Because PP is very often coloured, the recycling process involves shredding and separating by colour. It can be a complex process, but it is an easy material to break down and turn into other products.

PS/PS-E (polystyrene/ expanded polystyrene)

NOT WIDELY RECYCLED

Polystyrene is famously tough to recycle, and unsafe disposal of this type of plastic leads to chemicals leaking into the environment. Because councils do not recycle this material, the vast majority of it ends up in landfill.

Polystyrene is probably most commonly recognised in its expanded state as foamy nuggets that are used as a packaging material. But polystyrene that hasn’t been expanded is used to make plastic cutlery, video, and CD cases.

It is also used in the production of electronic devices such as microwaves, fridges, and televisions as well as car parts and medical equipment.  

What makes plastic so harmful?

Plastic is mainly made by burning fossil fuels that release harmful gases into the environment like carbon dioxide. The increase of carbon dioxide within our atmosphere contributes to Earth’s rising temperatures, a phenomenon that is having a detrimental impact on our natural ecosystem.

Additionally, plastic is not biodegradable. This means that it cannot be broken down by microorganisms. Instead, it gradually breaks into smaller pieces known as microplastics that poison our planet.

This is not a fast process. It is estimated that the natural degradation time of a plastic bottle is 450 years. With an estimated 55% of household plastic in the UK being sent to landfill, it is difficult to imagine the sheer volume of plastic waste that 56 million Brits are producing.

But it is not too late to become more mindful about the materials that end up in our homes. By choosing to consume less plastic, and by choosing to correctly dispose of that which we do consume, we can make a difference. 

Here at Bee Clean Soaps, we aim to help you live a more sustainable and eco-friendly life by selling our natural soap bars, shaving soap and lotion bars in plastic-free packaging. 

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